For years, occupational therapists have been using weighted blankets as a therapeutic tool for children with autism.
Designed to weigh 10 to 15% of your child’s body weight, weighted blankets use the same effects of swaddling a baby or a hug from a loved one. The extra weight puts pressure on the nervous system which immediately calms the mind and body. The scientific term for this effect is called Deep Pressure Therapy.
Weighted blankets get their weighted from non-toxic plastic poly pellets, similar to Beanie Babies. Best of all, weighted blankets are soft, comfortable, and come in a variety of colors.
The CDC now estimates that 1 in every 68 children is born with some form of autism. They may struggle with communication, or repeating certain behaviors. They may get upset when there is a change in routine, or have a hard time in social situations.
For children with autism, filtering sensory input is challenging. This is because there is a malfunction in one of their senses. The nervous system sends an abnormal number of neural signals to the brain.
Because the brain has a hard time organizing sensory information, it does not receive the correct information from the senses. This makes your child’s brain and body feel unsafe, and survival mode kicks in. However, many children with autism lack the tools to soothe this “fight or flight” response on their own.
This is where a weighted blanket can be useful.
The added weighted of the blanket immediately calms the nervous system. This proprioceptive input also has an organizing effect on the brain. These combined effects provide your child with the tools they need to self-soothe before or during a meltdown.
So, a weighted blanket calms your child’s overwhelmed nervous system. But how does it work exactly?
Deep Pressure Therapy puts pressure on the body’s sensory receptors. This has a calming effect on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
As a division of the nervous system, the ANS controls unconscious actions, such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. This system can be further broken down into two sections.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the body’s “fight or flight” response. It releases hormones which increase blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing. Try to remember the last time you were nervous. Maybe it was before I test or a meeting at work. How did you feel? Your heart was probably pounding. Your palms may have been sweaty, and it may have been hard to think about the task at hand.
That was your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) at work.
The second section of the ANS is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This section is the exact opposite of the SNS and is dominant during peaceful, quiet times. The PSNS calms the body down by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
Now try to remember how you feel when you’re taking a bath, or even before you go to sleep. Your breathing is slower. Your thoughts stop racing, and you feel calmer and at peace.
That is your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS).
When you’re in a state of stress, your body is constantly in a “fight or flight” response, meaning your SNS is dominant. This can make it impossible to calm down and can greatly affect your thinking, concentration, and sleep.
When Deep Pressure Therapy is applied to the body, the Autonomic Nervous System becomes balanced. The body’s “fight or flight” response decreases, while the calming PSNS is activated.
This opposite movement within the Autonomic Nervous System not only calms the body down, but helps regulate emotions.
Whether used at therapy, school, or at home, weighted blankets have been proven to soothe symptoms of autism. Therapeutic benefits include:
An overwhelmed nervous system causes sensory meltdowns. Sensory input, like cuddling and Deep Pressure Therapy, calms the body’s “fight or flight” response. Weighted blankets make your child feel safe, soothing their overly stimulated senses.
Children with autism have a hard time transitioning from high to low energy activities. This is especially noticeable when they come home from school, need to start homework, or before bed time. The calming effect from the blanket gives your child the chance to settle down before starting a new activity.
For many children with autism, falling asleep at night can be a challenge.
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers found that sleep time increased during weighted blanket use. Participants also found it easier to fall asleep, and woke up more refreshed in the morning.
The body’s internal clock is controlled by a hormone called melatonin. Weighted blankets increase melatonin production, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
When your child lays under the weighted blanket, the fabric puts pressure on their sensory receptors. This proprioceptive input benefits your child by allowing them to feel their body’s movements. They can sense when their arm is outstretched or when their knee is bent. This sensory information gives your child a better understanding of their body’s location.
Weighted blankets also have a positive effect on the hormone levels. Researchers found that compressing the body’s sensory receptors actually increases “happy” serotonin levels by 28% percent. They also found that the stress hormone, cortisol, decreased by 31%.
Deep Pressure Therapy has an organizational effect on the brain. This effect reduces unwanted sensory seeking behaviors, such as fidgeting. Without these unwanted behaviors, your child is able to sit and focus in class.
Many times, children with autism cannot handle the physical touch of even a loved one. This lack of physical touch can causes many developmental problems. Weighted blankets imitate the feeling of a firm hug. This gives your child the feeling that they are safe and secure, while promoting brain development.
Weighted blankets are a great, natural supplement to an existing treatment plan for children with autism. If you think your child with benefit from a weighted blanket, please consult with your child’s OT.
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