Working with Shiatsu and Autistic Children at Holbrook Centre for Autism 2004

How I started

When I started working here I was both excited and apprehensive. I had a little experience of Autism and Autistic children.

“What if they wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to make any contact with.”

My first day was to visit all the classes and meet all the children with a view to identifying those with whom I could best work. This was really difficult to do and I soon became overwhelmed by having to make this choice. I decided to listen to the teachers and find out what they would like and take their recommendations and accept their choice, respecting their skill and knowledge. As it worked out I started working with a group of children all very different from each other and covering the age range of the school. 8-18, 1 child from 5 of the classes and 3 from class 2.

How I work

When I started some of the sessions would be in the class but now I have a room set aside away from the classroom. This separation has helped in building clear boundaries and allowing the session to be different from the normal school activity. The sessions are booked for 30 minutes, which is good length of time for me to work, connect and hold the attention of those I see. During the session there is always a member of staff present, whose role (apart from the ethical and legal requirements of working with children) is ideally a very passive one. This allows the child and myself to build our own relationship, where we can establish our own rules and ways of working together. I base this on respect and an understanding that for whatever reason the child is where they need to be at this moment in time, both emotionally spiritually and physically.

I set objectives working with both the teachers and children for each block of sessions (half a term). I keep 2 sets of records of every session 1 for my own use and 1 more general for the school and I use a feedback form to help assess my work

What I do

Before the sessions I will go though my notes and look at what kind of work we have been doing and if there are any areas I feel need working with and check-in to the objectives I have set.

I will usually collect the child from the classroom with a member of staff. The children will often lead the way to the room and when we get there they take their shoes off. On the way up I might ask the member of staff generally how the child has been, I do ask the child during the session but communication is not always very easy or clear. The door is left unlocked and I work on the principle that they want to be there. It is very important that they choose to have the session and I take the fact that they are happy to go as showing yes

I work on a futon (a mat) on the floor using a variety of techniques rocking, tapping, stretching, holding and listening, using the palms of my hands, fingers and thumbs elbows and knees. Some of the sessions may be 20 minutes of rough and tumble and play where I am constantly looking and listening for ways to engage the child, asking questions, what is ok , does this feel safe, what emotion is being activated, how far can we go. The sessions vary in style from being very physically active to being very still.

Things I have noticed

I have worked with and got to know very different children.

Through working I am finding that there are different stages to the work;

  1. Trust and building a relationship between the child and myself have been the 2 major areas of focus. With some, this happened quickly with in a couple of sessions, while for others this is ongoing. After we have made a safe environment and are more comfortable with each other we can move on.
  2. Is finding a way of connecting with the child on deeper level not just on the physical surface, working with their spirit and allowing them to be listened to.

This is where I feel I am at the moment with most of the children

The general energy of the children tends to go upward but not always. The fist day I worked I went home with my arms black and blue from having been pinched, this gave me a quick lesson to be learnt on physical boundaries. The other example happened on two occasions when I was working too closely energetically and as the child I was working with became more into their head, I stayed close and literally followed him. I realised my mistake on going home and feeling both exhausted and agitated and extremely restless I was unable to get to sleep that night.. I am now very aware of keeping my own boundaries clear and myself firmly grounded while working. I do this by stepping back both physically and emotionally, giving space and breathing out, all very simple techniques but very effective. By constantly being aware of this during the session the sense of calm in the room becomes stronger. This has also helped me I keeping my focus and has helped in me feeling less tired at the end of the day.

Progress with the children can be seen sometimes as continuous, where sessions can follow on from one to another and develop as I find better ways of addressing and working with their needs.( As with A. where the progress has moved steadily forwards from only being able to work for only a couple of minutes on her feet to have a full session of interaction and being able to work the whole body)


Generally changes can be seen in the children in their relationship to me, and their willingness to work with me. Some of the children show they look forward to the sessions. Some will now quite happily lie on the mat and “ask me” to work with them, (by lying with their head toward me making clear eye contact), whereas before they might have been bouncing and flapping around the room.

I feel that the sessions are effective for all in the immediate term (during the session) where there are positive responses, good interaction, laughter, good eye contact, being engaged with and for some, periods of complete calm and stillness. For some the positive responses are carried through after the session for a period of minutes to up the rest of the day and longer, occasionally bringing out an emotional release usually tearful after, and for some the benefits are restricted to the time of the session itself


Being very physical and working with humour , support and reassurance (as fear is often expressed) has been very effective way of engaging most of the children.

2 things that I have brought to the children are:

  1. Firstly, Shiatsu itself and working both physically and energetically with them, giving space and listening (skills I am continually learning and developing).
  2. And secondly, something more out of my control, being male. A factor which should not be undervalued, as many of the children have different relationships with men to that of woman who often make up the majority of carees, support and staff.
    Autistic children have many needs and I would like to have some contact with the parents and look to find ways of supporting them as I feel this will ultimately benefit the child, this support would also benefit the teachers, assistants and careers

This environment is a really exciting and rewarding area to be involved in and works because of the big commitment by the school to explore new ways and approaches of working with Autistic children. Shiatsu has a lot to offer the children in the way it engages them, working with respect for the person and without judgement. I feel there is the possibility of reaching the child on a very fundamental level and this is where I am focusing my attention at the moment.

About the author:

Article written by Frank Forman MRSS

Author: Frank Forman MRSS
Copyright © 2023 Frank Forman MRSS. All rights reserved

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