Weighted Blankets for Kids: Help Regulate Emotional Responses in Autism Patients

As an occupational therapist, I often hear parents say, “our child goes from 0-100 in a matter of minutes.” And, “his reactions never seem to match the size of his problems.”

These children struggle to regulate or balance their emotions and arousal level. As an OT, I often work with kiddos who struggle with regulating their arousal level throughout the day. This problem is commonly seen in children diagnosed with autism, SPD, and ADHD.

The good news is, there are things that we can do to help these kiddos overpower these struggles! One of the tools widely used in the field of occupational therapy is a weighted blanket for kids. In its simplest description, a weighted blanket is exactly as it sounds. A blanket with some extra weight in it. This extra weight puts pressure on the body’s sensory receptors and provides a feeling similar to a warm hug.

In the OT world, we call this sensation Deep Pressure Therapy (DTP). DTP not only provides stimulation to our tactile system but our proprioceptive system as well.

Our proprioceptive system involves sensory receptors in our muscles and joints. They provide feedback to our brain informing where our body is in space and how much pressure is needed to complete given tasks.

To understand how the proprioceptive system works, close your eyes and stretch your arms out to the side. You can “feel” the position of your arms in relation to where your body is. Now try opening a new bottle of water. The proprioceptive system determines the amount of pressure needed to squeeze and twist the lid.

Our tactile system originates from sensory receptors in the skin. The primary function of this system is to protect us by providing information about the physical properties of an object. This can be the texture, size, or temperature.

The tactile system also helps us tell the difference between light and deep pressure. For example, we can discriminate the sensation of a feather lightly touching our skin from the pressure of someone poking our shoulder.

Children with sensory processing disorders often misinterpret sensory information. This causes them to have challenges with responding appropriately to sensory input. These children are usually in a constant “fight or flight” response as a biological response to this daily stress. They often experience increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

So, why does Deep Pressure Therapy have a calming and organizing effect on kiddos with sensory processing disorders?

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.

Researchers also found that Deep Pressure Therapy increased serotonin by 28% and dopamine by 31%. These “happy hormones” have a direct and positive effect on mood and behavior. Cortisol also decreased by 31%. When cortisol levels are high, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode.

Using a Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets provide Deep Pressure Therapy, which organizes the child’s sensory system. There are various ways that we can use weighted blankets within a clinic setting, including:

• Setting a weighted blanket for kids on your son or daughter’s lap during “circle time.” This is to help the child remain calm, keep their body still- without fidgeting, and stay with the group.

•  Lay a weighted blanket over a child during a sensory break in a swing, which allows a child’s sensory system to recoup and reorganize.

• Educate parents on using weighted blankets for children at home to help aid in sleep patterns and “calm down” times.

If you are interested in incorporating a weighted blanket into your child’s sensory diet, please consult with your child’s OT.

If you have any other questions, comment below and we’d be more than happy to help!

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