Over the past few decades, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), has become a well-known brain-based disorder. Commonly referred to simply as “autism”, the disorder is diagnosed in 1 in 59 children in the U.S. Autism affects individuals across all racial and socioeconomic demographics, but is more commonly diagnosed in boys than in girls. As autism awareness has increased, so have the therapy-based techniques proven to help the millions of individuals on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a unique disorder with symptoms and characteristics plotted on a spectrum to communicate severity.
Most commonly, autism causes difficulty with communication and social interactions, and it is also characterized by repetitive thoughts and actions.
A wide range of occupational therapies and behavioral interventions are available for individuals on different parts of the spectrum. Some of the most obvious and significant manifestations of ASD are sensory related and stem from overstimulated nervous systems.
For example, weighted blankets are a great tool for soothing the nervous system (as described in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering (PDF)) and providing tactile sensory input along with Deep Touch Pressure Therapy that individuals with autism may need to feel calm and secure.
The body has eight sensory systems, including the proprioceptive system and the tactile sensory system. The proprioceptive system receives and processes information from muscles and joints; the tactile sensory system interprets messages taken in by touch.
For individuals on the autism spectrum, the body’s nervous system struggles to properly process the information received by these sensory systems. This can result in a sensory overload that causes extreme stress and anxiety, with the mind feeling overwhelmed by the senses it cannot adequately process.
Deep Touch Pressure is a technique in which firm, yet gentle, pressure is applied to the skin or joints, providing proprioceptive input to the body. Firm hugs, cuddling, compression clothing and weighted blankets all use DTP to comfort and calm the nervous system.
For kids and adults with autism, weighted blankets can be a great way to soothe and comfort overwhelmed nervous systems, especially at night when anxiety can translate into insomnia. Weighted blankets have been prescribed by occupational therapists for decades to benefit those on the autism spectrum.
Deep Touch Pressure from a weighted blanket can help relax muscles, increase circulation, reduce self-stimulatory behaviors, improve focus, and improve sleep.
A weighted blanket is just a blanket with weights in it. They usually consist of several square pockets filled with weights such as poly-pellets, glass beads, or even rice. The squares are sewn together like a quilt. This quilting technique is what helps distribute the weight evenly over the body.
Weighted blankets can be made in any size, since the person using the blanket will determine what is the correct length and weight. Manufacturers will specifically list the dimensions and weight of blankets for sale and some offer suggested dimensions based on the height or weight of the consumer.
Weighted blankets are effective tools for managing characteristics of autism and ADHD because of something called Deep Touch Pressure, a therapy technique that calms the nervous system.
Weighted blankets can range from 5 to 50 pounds. For kids on the spectrum, it is important to find a blanket that is heavy enough to provide adequate DTP, yet light enough for them to move it around easily on their own.
Generally, a weighted blanket for children and young teens should be approximately 10% of their body weight, plus one to two pounds. For instance, a child who weighs 65 pounds should use a weighted blanket that is 11 or 12 pounds.
Check out this In-Depth Guide about How to Choose the Right Weighted Blanket.
Because of their density, weighted blankets can also get quite hot at night. Consider choosing a weighted blanket made from breathable cotton blends as opposed to polyester, which will hold in heat.
Of course, because most individuals with autism have sensory issues, the fabric of the blanket will need to align with their sensory preference.
If someone is uncomfortable because of how the blanket feels, they will be much less responsive to the tactile sensory input the weighted blanket offers. Popular fabric choices include cotton, velvet, and satin.
While weighted blankets can be a great option for applying Deep Touch Pressure at night, some individuals need its calming effects during the day, as well.
Weighted vests are heavy garments that can be worn over clothing to calm the senses with tactile sensory input throughout the day.
Weighted vests are also commonly prescribed by occupational therapists and can also be purchased independently from a variety of online retailers.
Weighted vests should only weigh 5 to 10% of a child’s body weight and only need to be worn during 20 to 40 minute intervals.These garments should not be worn all the time because of the strain it can cause the skeletal system.
Consult a doctor or occupational therapist to plan a vest-wearing schedule that will not put too much strain on young, developing bodies.
Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed brain disorders among children in the U.S.
ADHD is a neurobehavioral disorder characterized by an inability to focus, impulsive movements, and hyperactivity.
These symptoms can be especially problematic in a school setting, hindering learning and the ability to complete schoolwork. Although commonly diagnosed in children, adults can suffer from ADHD, as well.
Work performance and obligations are often negatively impacted by the effects of ADHD with the disorder going undiagnosed. ADHD can only be diagnosed by a doctor. Treatment may or may not include medication, therapy, or a combination of both.
ADHD is also triggered by sensory processing problems. The brain is overstimulated by its environment, causing inattentiveness and hyperactivity.
Remember, output blocks input. Often, individuals will respond with hyperactivity to an environment (output) because their brains cannot process the input from their sensory systems (input).
Of course, hyperactivity can also hinder healthy sleep patterns. individuals with ADHD not only have trouble falling asleep, but they awake often throughout the night, have anxiety when it is time to sleep, and can even experience breathing problems when trying to sleep.
Many parents, as well as adults with ADHD, turn to medication to manage their hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and insomnia. However, many prescription medications offered for ADHD are controlled substances that can be habit-forming and have negative side effects.
While medication can effectively manage some symptoms of ADHD, some parents maintain valid reservations about medicating their child’s growing brain. More than ever, individuals are seeking natural ways to combat the hyperactivity and insomnia that plague many with ADHD.
Weighted blankets are a highly effective, all natural way to calm the nervous system, the brain, and the body through the science of Deep Touch Pressure.
Most children on the autism spectrum have symptoms of ADHD — difficulty settling down, social awkwardness, the ability to focus only on things that interest them, and impulsivity. ADHD itself, however, is not part of the autism spectrum.
Deep Touch Pressure can greatly benefit individuals with ADHD, making weighted blankets a good option to consider.
A weighted blanket uses DTP as a tactile sensory compressor to calm an individual. Weighted blankets help regulate breathing and heart rates, as well as produce serotonin - a chemical often lacking in those with ADHD. Many individuals with ADHD also struggle with insomnia.
Weighted blankets can stimulate the production of serotonin, which also products melatonin - the sleep hormone. Not only do weighted blankets calm the senses through DTP, they can also be a great way to reduce insomnia.
For additional treatment of ADHD symptoms, consider other times to implement the science behind weighted blankets, rather than just at bedtime.
Try wrapping up in a weighted blanket while reading to help focus on the content, or draping a weighted blanket over the lap during homework time.
During long car rides, which can be extremely difficult for those with impulse and hyperactivity issues, try covering with a weighted blanket to compress the sensory symptoms and relax.
When transitioning from high energy activities to quiet activities, cover with a weighted blanket to calm the mind and redirect focus.
Also, using a weighted blanket 20 minutes before bedtime can help the body transition into sleep and reduce the amount of time tossing and turning.
As kids use weighted blankets on a regular basis to focus or relax naturally, they will begin to anticipate when they need a weighted blanket on their own and independently manage their ADHD.
Some people use weighted blankets as a natural tool to help them avoid medication. Others use them along with other treatments to enhance its positive effects and regulate healthy sleep patterns.
Either way, weighted blankets are a great resource to help individuals with ADHD calm their mind and body during times that require quiet focus, as well as at bedtime.