Can using a weighted blanket for autism therapy be effective? Learn more about the potential benefits of weighted blankets for autistic children.
In this article:
- Weighted Blankets and Deep Pressure Therapy
- What Is Deep Pressure Therapy?
- How to Use Weighted Blankets During Occupational Therapy
- The Real Results of Using a Weighted Blanket in OT Sessions
- More Benefits of Using a Weighted Blanket for Autism
Using Weighted Blankets For Autism Therapy
Weighted Blankets and Deep Pressure Therapy
As an occupational therapist, you turn to different treatments to best help your patients cope with and work through symptoms that can often be debilitating. You’ve likely heard about deep pressure therapy (DPT), but you probably haven’t considering resorting to this technique in your practice.
Deep pressure therapy involves using weighted materials to help reduce patients’ symptoms. There are several ways to incorporate weighted materials in sensory integration treatment sessions, and you’re limited only by your creativity.
In this article, we’re going to explore what deep pressure therapy is, and how you can use weighted blankets to help your patients with autism benefit from this type of therapy.
What Is Deep Pressure Therapy?
Deep pressure therapy utilizes evenly-distributed weight as a means to soothe and relax the nervous system.
For someone with autism, the central nervous system can become overloaded by external stimuli, such as noise, light, and different textures. Deep pressure therapy can help to calm the system down, so stimuli can be processed more easily.
So, how does deep pressure therapy actually work?
The deep pressure triggers a release of serotonin and dopamine, naturally occurring neurotransmitters involved in happiness, impulse control, focus, and many other important processes.
This flood of neurotransmitters allows the parasympathetic system—the ‘rest and digest’ system—to take over the sympathetic system—‘fight or flight’—to help better process the environment and calm down.
How to Use Weighted Blankets During Occupational Therapy
For many, deep pressure stimulation is what’s needed to calm down enough to become aware of the present environment. Hugs and other interpersonal touches can be very beneficial and can promote bonding; however, people with autism may have a more difficult time connecting in that way.
People on the autism spectrum who also have sensory processing disorder may find certain textures uncomfortable. This makes some interpersonal touching hard to do.
How can you get the benefits of deep pressure therapy without having to personally give the pressure?
There are weighted materials out there to help you give your patients the benefits of deep pressure stimulation without having to directly touch them.
Weighted blankets offer a great workaround. You can incorporate the blanket in several ways, and you can experiment until you find a method that works best for your patient.
Here are a few suggestions for using the blanket during a session. You can try:
- Bundling like a burrito
- Draping across their lap
- Draping across their shoulders
- Covering their body, either front or back, while lying down
Your patients will likely respond differently to the pressure, and you might need to try a few options before you find the perfect match for an individual.
There are certain things you need to remember when using a weighted blanket for autistic children.
You need to slowly ease the child into using an occupational therapy weighted blanket. It’s suggested you start with a low weight (around 7-9% of the person’s body weight) for shorter sessions (20-30 minutes) and gradually increase the weight and session length until you find a good balance between the two that still provides therapeutic results.
Especially with children who have texture sensitivities, you want to choose the best weighted blanket that won’t trigger them. Our minky dot blankets at Sonno Zona provide a soft, soothing experience with raised fabric dots to provide extra stimulation.
The Real Results of Using a Weighted Blanket in OT Sessions
A holistic approach to sensory integration through occupational therapy can benefit patients with autism. When you address the sensory challenges that are a hallmark of autism, you can begin seeing many benefits.
Some of the benefits observed in children with autism and sensory issues include better sleep, reduced stress and anxiety, and even improved mental performance.
1. Decreased Stress
One study in 2009 showed that when participants were exposed to deep touch therapy, they experienced a reduction in stress and a 31% decrease in their cortisol levels.
Cortisol is the hormone released during times of stress and overstimulation, and it does more than just overwhelm people. Consistently high levels of cortisol have been linked to type 2 diabetes, decreased immunity, irritability, and high blood pressure, among other serious symptoms.
Aside from decreased cortisol levels, using a weighted blanket for autism also helped the patients maintain better dispositions.
The study also showed a 28% increase in serotonin and a 31% increase in dopamine, showing that deep touch pressure promotes a calming effect.
What is Serotonin? This is a chemical produced by the brain that relaxes the body.
What is Dopamine? This organic chemical transmits signals to and from brain cells. It is considered the “feel-good hormone.”
2. Increased Focus
A study in 2011 reviewed by the American Occupational Therapy Association showed that using weight in a therapeutic way helped participants with ADHD sit longer in their chairs and focus longer on tasks.
People with autism often have other diagnosed disorders that are comorbid, meaning the symptoms of each are present at the same time. A common comorbid disorder of autism is ADHD.
Using deep touch therapy, such as what you can offer your patients with a weighted blanket, may help reduce many of their symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity, which helps them regulate many of their other symptoms of autism.
3. Reduced Anxiety
Not only is using a weighted blanket for autism effective for children, studies have found that it can help with anxiety in adults as well.
A study in 2008 in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health tested the effectiveness of weighted blankets in adults using a 30-pound blanket. It was shown to reduce anxiety in 63% of the participants. It’s also worth noting that 78% of the participants preferred using a weighted blanket as a calming tool.
Anxiety is another symptom that often presents in people who also have autism. Using a weighted blanket during OT sessions can help reduce this anxiety, to open them up for more sensory therapies to manage other symptoms.
4. Improved Sleeping Patterns
In 2014, a study was published in the journal Pediatrics that showed, subjectively, participants with autism had improved sleeping patterns. The study found that using weighted blankets for kids with autism allowed them to get a good night’s sleep.
In the self-reported questionnaire, 48% of the children said they liked using the weighted blanket over the control blanket. Parents reported that their children had better sleep with the weighted blanket (51%) versus the control blanket (16%), and their children were calmer with the weighted blanket (35%) versus the control blanket (14%).
In another study published in 2015, researchers found a significant decrease in movement during sleep when participants used a weighted blanket, which promotes a more positive subjective sleeping experience. The study also found a significant increase in participants’ sleep time using a weighted blanket.
More Benefits of Using a Weighted Blanket for Autism
Other common benefits to using weighted blankets as a treatment method for patients with autism include:
- Reduced repetitive behaviors or “stimming”
- Increased communication
- Decreased touch hypersensitivity
- Increased body and spatial l awareness
As you can see, there are several benefits to incorporating a weighted blanket in a patient’s treatment plan. An added bonus is that there are several ways to use the blanket, so the treatment plan can change according to the patient’s needs, whether that’s where to place the blanket, the weight, the texture, or the length of treatment.
When you’re ready to invest in a weighted blanket for your occupational therapy practice, visit our shop at Sonno Zona to check out the different types and weights of blankets to see which would best support your patients’ needs.
Have you tried using a weighted blanket for autism? How did your patients react to weighted blanket therapy? Share your observations in the comments section below.
- How To Use Your Weighted Blanket: Therapeutic Versus Everyday Use
- Can A Weighted Blanket Help Relieve Your Chronic Symptoms?
- Weighted Blanket Review Video
Directly sourced articles/studies:
References that were not directly sourced in the article:
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 27, 2018, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.