Weighted Blanket for Autism: Tending to a Fragile State of Mind

The CDC now estimates that 1 in every 68 children is born with some form of autism. They may struggle with communication or repeat certain behaviors. They may get upset when there is a change in routine, or have a hard time in social situations.

For the past several years, medical professionals have made great efforts to understand autism. Thanks to these efforts, we now know that autism is a spectrum disorder. This means that it affects each person differently, ranging from mild to severe symptoms.

Regardless of the severity of your child’s symptoms, it is very scary hearing your child’s diagnoses for the first time. How will this impact your child’s life? Your family’s life? What treatment plan should we follow? Where do we go from here?

Understanding Autism

Those diagnosed with autism face an infinite number of challenges on a daily basis. They may avoid physical contact, or are unable to speak in full sentences. They may not be aware of personal space and avoid eye contact. Children with ASD may have repetitive and or disruptive behavior. The list of symptoms goes on and on.

As a parent, it is important to understand that children with autism are incredible individuals. They are creative, talented, smart, and imaginative. Their brain just has a hard time filtering and organizing sensory input. The way they interpret their environment is completely different from the way you may interpret yours.

Finding The Right Treatment Plan

Autism is a spectrum disorder. Each individual is affected differently, meaning treatment is very specific to the individual. What works for one child may not work for another. This makes it difficult to outline an exact treatment plan that helps every autism patient.

Many doctors recommend consulting with an occupational therapist. Together, you can come up with a treatment plan that is specialized for your child. Your child’s occupational therapist may come up with a sensory diet or recommend therapeutic tools, such as a weighted blanket.

What Is a Weighted Blanket?

Designed to weigh 10% of your child’s body weight, weighted blankets evenly distribute weight across their body. This proprioceptive input is scientifically known as Deep Pressure Therapy (DTP).

Weighted blankets are usually made of a cotton material and filled with plastic poly pellets. The pellets are hypoallergenic and non-toxic, similar to Beanie Babies filling. There is usually stitching on the blanket, which secures the pellets in place. This prevents the pellets from sliding inside the blanket though out the night.

How Do Weighted Blankets Work?

Deep Pressure Therapy has a profound effect on a section of the nervous system called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS controls unconscious actions, such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. This system can be further broken down into two divisions. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response. When the body is under a perceived attack, the SNS releases hormones that increase blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing.

The second division of the ANS is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This division is the compliment to the SNS. It calms the body down by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.

Research shows that evenly distributing weight across the body compresses the nervous stem. This Deep Pressure Therapy actually reduces “fight or flight” activity, while increasing PSNS activity.

A woman by the name of Temple Grandin has been a huge advocate for Deep Pressure Therapy. Diagnosed with autism herself, she would crave deep pressure during her childhood years. As she grew older, Grandin began to realize how important this deep proprioceptive input was for her day to day life. She even went on to build her own “Hug Machine” to administer deep pressure to calm anxiety.

How Do Weighted Blankets Help Children with Autism?

These combined effects of Deep Pressure Therapy have a lasting impact on your child’s day to day life. Weighted blankets provide proprioceptive input, which improves spatial awareness. The added weight of the blanket allows your child to feel their movements. This gives them a better understanding of the location of their body.

The added weight of the blanket triggers the release of dopamine and serotonin hormones. Researchers found that serotonin increased by 28% and dopamine increased by 31%. These “happy hormones” have a direct and positive effect on mood and behavior.

Increased serotonin production elevates your child’s mood, calming anxiety before bed. Serotonin is also used in the production of melatonin. This hormone tells the body when it is time to go to sleep. When melatonin production is high, sleep is deeper and more restful.

Weighted blankets can also help calm down meltdowns. For children with autism, even the simplest task can trigger a sensory overload. Their senses are in control of every thought, and their brain simply cannot cope.

The calming effect of weighted blankets makes your child feel grounded. The organizational effect of the Deep Pressure Therapy makes them feel less overwhelmed. And the proprioceptive input from the blanket acts as a hug, making them feel safe.

If you have any questions about your child’s treatment plan, diagnosis, or weighted blankets, please comment below. We’d love to help!

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