Essential oils are oils taken from plants and distilled into a highly concentrated form. These oils may be taken from the leaves, flowers or blossoms, roots, or stems of a plant.

Essential oils only started to become popular in the United States recently, but they’ve been used in other countries for thousands of years. Some studies have shown that various essential oils may have physical, emotional, and psychological healing properties for numerous symptoms or conditions.

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), can cause difficulty with communication and issues with social and behavioral development. The spectrum includes Asperger’s syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD is present in 1 out of every 59 children. The CDC also notes ASD is four times more common in boys than girls. Signs of ASD appear in early childhood.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved the use of essential oils to treat autism or any of its symptoms. The FDA also doesn’t regulate or monitor essential oils or supplements like they do for drugs.

Despite this, many alternative medicine practitioners use essential oils to treat various conditions, including the symptoms of autism.

There hasn’t been enough research done by the medical community to fully understand whether essential oils can be used to treat autism. Be sure to talk to your doctor before using any form of essential oils, and only use them as directed. They can have some side effects, especially if used or applied incorrectly.

Some people theorize essential oils can help treat the behavioral and social symptoms exhibited in people with ASD, especially when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy. Many of the essential oils mentioned for use for ASD symptoms have a calming or relaxing effect. This may help those with ASD to modify some behaviors.

A 2012 study found that the aroma of some essential oils affects behavior through the endocrine system or the central nervous system. This effect may work when the properties of the oil travel through the mucous lining of the nose into the bloodstream. However, more studies are needed to fully understand this effect.

Oils can be applied through several means. This includes direct placement onto the skin or diffusing the oils to create a fragrance (aromatherapy). If applied to the skin, dilute the essential oil with a carrier oil. Sweet almond oil or vegetable oil are good options.

Don’t take essential oils by mouth. Many are toxic when digested.

Here are 11 essential oils that may help treat some symptoms of autism.

Vetiver

Vetiver oil is said to have a calming effect. Vetiver and other oils that promote calm and relaxation may be able to help with the sensory-processing issues that many with ASD experience.

Cedarwood

Cedarwood is believed to improve the oxygenation of brain cells. It’s also said to have a calming effect.

Lavender

Lavender has been used for hundreds of years to reduce anxiety. One study found that lavender aroma can affect our emotions. The aroma of lavender may reduce anxiety and help calm people in a stressful situation. Some theorize it can have the same effect on ASD symptoms.

Orange

In the same study, researchers also used orange essential oil. It too could reduce anxiety and create a calm feeling in people experiencing stress. Some people believe it may be able to have the same effect on people with autism by helping them better manage communicational or relational barriers. More research is needed.

If you do decide to use orange essential oil topically, don’t go in the sun without applying sunscreen first. Citrus oils can make your skin sensitive to the sun.

Sandalwood

Sandalwood oil may have medicinal properties that help with inflammation and possibly even some cancers. Some proponents believe it can also help relax, calm, and improve mental clarity in people with autism, but more research is needed.

Frankincense

Some believe frankincense may be able to help children on the autism spectrum focus better, but research is needed to support this claim. Proponents also believe frankincense may help reduce negative emotions or negative reactions to some social situations that are common in those with ASD.

Peppermint

Peppermint oil is believed to have a soothing effect. Some people claim it can help relax and calm the restlessness many people with autism can experience. For people with sensitive skin, dilute this essential oil even more by adding more carrier oil or less essential oil.

Bergamot

Bergamot oil is believed to create a feeling of joy and to improve blood circulation. Some people theorize it may be a particularly good essential oil to treat ASD symptoms.

Rosemary

One study found that rosemary oil aroma may improve cognition and concentration.

Ylang-ylang and chamomile

Some people living with ASD experience stress and anxiety, especially in social situations. Some use ylang-ylang and chamomile oils to alleviate these. This is because both essential oils are believed to promote calm and reduce anxiety.

Essential oils may be used in bath water, with massage, topically on your skin, or by using a diffuser. The aromatic forms of essential oils are what’s believed to have the best effect on ASD. To do this, diffuse the oil into the air and gradually breathe it in.

You don’t have to use an actual diffuser to get the same results. A few drops placed near — but not on — your nose can have the same effect.

The oil may first need to be mixed with a carrier oil. It’s important to note that essential oils may cause painful skin inflammation if directly applied through massage or in a bath. This irritation may be increased for children. Use caution, or avoid applying essential oils on your child’s skin.

While many of the ingredients in essential oils have been approved by the FDA, they do carry some side effects. Most side effects currently known for essential oils are mild, and more testing needs to be done to fully understand the full effects. Some side effects of essential oils may include:

  • allergic reaction when used on the skin
  • sensitivity to the sun
  • similar effects as estrogen (female sex hormone) and androgen (male sex hormone)

Essential oils aren’t a cure for ASD. They may only help with some symptoms for some people. Essential oils should be used in conjunction with other medical treatments and therapies prescribed by your doctor. Be sure to check in with your doctor before using essential oils to treat ASD. They can monitor you to make sure you stay healthy.

In addition to the potential benefits for people with ASD, essential oils may also benefit people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The oils are used in much the same way for ADHD. They’re also used to help with behavioral therapies because of their calming and relaxing effects.

There hasn’t been enough medical and scientific research performed to determine the effectiveness of essential oils to treat the symptoms of ASD. Discuss treatment with your doctor before trying essential oils to treat any symptom of ASD.