Weighted blankets stimulate the proprioceptive system through the use of deep touch pressure.
Many children with Autism, ADHD, PDD and other learning & communication difficulties have problems with sensory processing and sensory integration.
This manifests itself in poor attention , concentration and an inability to complete tasks in the classroom. Outside of the classroom it is characterised by an inability to sit still for any length of time or settle down in bed at nightime.
Deep Touch Pressure works on the principle of applying weight or pressure to provide proprioceptive input which calms and modulates the central nervous system which aids the processing of sensory information (Grandin 1992, McClure & Holtz-Yotz 1991). This calming and organising has the effect of making the child feel more grounded and lowers the state of arousal. This in turn reduces self stimulatory behaviours (such as spinning, hand flapping and rocking) and allows better focus, concentration and attention.
Dr Temple Grandin describes Deep Touch Pressure as follows :
“Deep Touch Pressure is the type of surface pressure that is exerted in most types of form touching , holding. stroking,petting of animals or swaddling.In contrast,light touch pressure is a more superficial stimulation of the skin such as tickling ,very light touch or moving hairs on the skin.”(Gradin 1992).
This can be demonstated by stroking a cat -they much prefer a strong deep stroke that a light tickle -a cat will positively purr when stroked firmly.
Dr Grandin goes onto say that”Occupational Therapists have observed that a very light touch alerts the nervous system ,but deep pressure is relaxing and calming”.
Autistic children, particularly those with Sensory Integration Disorder, will often seek out deep pressure sensations which make them feel more secure, relaxed and able to focus and concentrate better.
For example some children like to wear tight clothing (which gives proprioceptive feedback) or sleep under several duvets and/or coats for extra weight. In a recent study on deep touch pressure by Blairs, Slater and Hare, a mother reported that as a child her autistic son would wear a tight cost that he had grown out of when leaving the home. Going outside of the home would be an anxious time for him and he clearly found tight fit and proprioceptive feedback he got from wearing the coat reduced his levels of anxiety and would wear it regardless of the weather.
Other children will like to carry around heavy objects such as backpacks in order to gain proprioceptive feedback as this can often make the feel more grounded and secure.
Dr Temple Grandin, developed a “squeeze machine” (see below) to help her overcome her own sensory problems. (Grandin 1992).The machine applied deep touch pressure to a large area of the body and gave the “feeling of being surrounded and contained by the embrace of the deep touch pressure squeeze.” Dr Grandin found that the machine had a relaxing effect that calmed down her “nervous system” reducing anxiety and making her “less aggressive and less tense.”
Deep Touch Pressure at nightime.
Some children with autism and ADHD do not sleep well, often taking a long time to go to sleep and then waking throughout the night. As a parent this can be immensely frustrating not to mention exhausting.
There is much anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that applying deep touch pressure at nightime helps to children to get to sleep and stay in bed at night.
Many children with ASD seek deep pressure when going to bed by asking to be wrapped up tightly -ie tucked in really tightly or wrapped up in a sleeping bag. Other children like to sleep under several duvets and/or coats for additional weight and pressure.
The use of a weighted blanket at bed time provides a safe and effective solution for many parents and their children. I have spoken to many parents who have not enjoyed a full nights sleep for several years, but on introduction of a weighted blanket have seen dramatic and immediate results. Imagine their relief and joy at finally getting a decent nights sleep!
Many now use a weighted blanket as part of their child’s bedtime routine. The vast majority of these parents have found weighted blankets to be effective and improve their child’s sleeping, both in terms of getting to sleep more quickly and easily and remaining asleep throughout the night.
The study by Blairs, Slater and Hare mentioned earlier looked into the effects of deep touch pressure on an autistic man (“The clinical application of deep touch pressure with a man with autism presenting with severe anxiety and challenging behaviour” – Sharon Blairs, Susan Slater and Dougal Julian Hare as published in the British Journal of Learning Disabilities 2007).
The subject of the study was an autistic man who often became anxious and physically aggressive and as a result was prescribed “physically restraint and medications over an extended period of time (17 hours). The man’s mother reported that he was “only really happy” when tucked up tightly in bed at night. A program was therefore developed that involved the man lying on a mattress in a quiet room and being “tucked in” tightly under two sheets. No weight was applied, but the tightness of the sheets provided the deep touch pressure which the man seemed to find relaxing. The treatment was effective in “reducing the incidences of (the autistic man’s) anxiety related challenging behaviour, resulting in a reduction in the use of physical restraint and medication.”
Classroom use of weighted blankets
Weighted blankets can be used in other contexts such as a school classroom. They are particularly useful for use in a quiet corner of the classroom or sensory room.
Other sizes of blankets are available which are smaller than those designed for bedtime use. Often referred to as “Midi” blankets these can be used whilst sat (watching tv, reading etc) in the car or as a comfort in the classroom if a child becomes overexciting or upset. I have seen such blankets in use in Autism Bases within mainstream schools, where a child with ASD finds the mainstream classroom too much they are taken to a quiet area (often a separate sensory room) where they can sit quietly wrapped in a weighted blanket. This helps to calm them and allows them to focus and relax them.