Autism and Weighted Blankets: Do They Help, and How Much?
The answer is that, yes, they do, and are quite helpful in several ways.
Over the last few years, weighted blankets have certainly come into their own. Research has shown them to be an effective at-home therapy device that can be used for a wide variety of conditions, They include anxiety, restless leg syndrome, fibromyalgia, and insomnia, among others. This has led many to ask whether weighted blankets are helpful for people with autism. The reason is that sleep disturbance is often cited as having a major impact on children with autism, as well as impacting their families.
The good news is that, yes, research has shown weighted blankets to be beneficial for children with autism. Studies show that many of the symptoms that affect autistic children are improved when using weighted blankets. This allows them to sleep better, with less waking during the night. There are several other helpful findings as well, which we'll look at more closely in this article. If you have a child or adult in your family that's on the autism spectrum and you're searching for solutions, please read on to find out more about weighted blankets.
Sleep Deprivation is a Real Problem for Autistic Children
It's well-known that many children suffering from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have what are referred to as sensory issues. One of them is sensory processing disorder or SPD. With this neurological (brain-related) disorder, the autistic child receives sensory information but perceives it in an atypical way, and thus reacts atypically.
If SPD occurs when the child is trying to sleep it can, as you might imagine, cause them quite a bit of difficulty. For example, it may be hard for them to control their emotions, which could prevent them from falling asleep. They may also receive sensory information from one of their 5 senses and perceive it in an atypical way. This can jar them awake suddenly at night and prevent them from getting their all-important REM sleep (deep sleep needed to heal and grow).
If you're the parent of a child with ASD you're probably also suffering. If your child can't get to sleep this can be very stressful, as well as if they awaken in the night fussing and screaming. This can also cause a vicious cycle, where your child doesn't get enough sleep and thus their symptoms get worse, which in turn prevents them from sleeping well.
Weighted Blankets Reduce Many of The Symptoms of ASD
There are many symptoms that children and adults with ASD suffer, no doubt. Weighted blankets have been shown to help with many of them. Not only do they help but, in time, their symptoms will lessen and they will be able to sleep more soundly for longer periods.
!00% transparency, there have been several studies with children who suffer from ASD and they've shown that weighted blankets didn't seem to improve their actual sleep. On the other hand, they did find that many of the children preferred to sleep with a weighted blanket. This was a benefit that the researchers weren't expecting and, because of it, they surmised that weighted blankets did indeed provide benefits for children with ASD.
What has been proven by many research studies is that weighted blankets can help with symptoms of different kinds, many of which are shared by children with ASD. Lets's take a look at the most common symptoms and how weighted blankets can help.
Children and adults with ASD can suffer greatly from increased anxiety. The pressure stimulation that a weighted blanket produces has been shown to produce a calming effect that can reduce anxiety significantly. Weighted blankets have also been shown to help reduce the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, for the same reasons. The weight that they place on the body is very soothing and comforting. This is helpful because oftentimes the symptoms of ASD and ADHD overlap.
Many children with ASD suffer from restlessness regularly, which can prevent them from falling asleep. The deep pressure that a weighted blanket produces can help relieve restlessness, thus helping children with ASD to calm down and fall asleep much more easily.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
We mentioned sensory processing disorder (SPD) above. This is when, due to a neurological 'glitch' if you will, a child with autism feels the sensations from their 5 senses differently. They still smell, taste, touch, hear, and see, but their brain perceives it as something other than the normal sensation, which can be very disconcerting. For example, a regular touch can be perceived as very hot or very cold, or a normal noise can be perceived as very loud.
The extra weight of a weighted blanket can reduce these atypical sensations and thus keep your child calmer when they're trying to get to sleep. They provide a sort of sensory blanket if you will, that calms down their perception of all the sensory input they're receiving.
Meltdowns and Sensory Overload
Sensory processing disorder can also lead to sensory overload and, unfortunately, the meltdowns that are commonplace with children who have ASD. As we mentioned above, weighted blankets can provide a sort of dampener for their senses, keeping them calmer and reducing the incidence of meltdown and sensory overload.
An Aversion to Hugging
One of the most interesting (and frustrating, truth be told) aspects of having a child who's on the autism spectrum is that many don't like to hug or be hugged. A research study in 1999, however, showed that deep pressure may have a calming effect on children with ASD. The study involved a semi-famous advocate for the autism community, a man by the name of Temple Grandin.
Mr. Grandin and several researchers conducted a study involving 12 children with ASD using a device that delivered lateral deep pressure. (Dubbed "Grandin's Hug Machine".) The resultant findings showed that the children who received the deep pressure had a "...significant reduction in anxiety." Also, they had a galvanic skin response (GSR) that decreased after the deep pressure from the device. The conclusion of the study, verbatim, was this: "These preliminary findings support the hypothesis that deep pressure may have a calming effect for persons with autism, especially those with high levels of arousal or anxiety."
Weighted blankets are an excellent way to provide this exact same deep pressure, at home, very easily and safely.
Irregular Melatonin Secretion
Studies have shown that children and adults with ASD have a problem with melatonin secretion. In fact, in one study, it was shown that the level of melatonin in their body was directly related to the level of deep sleep children with ASD were able to achieve. It was seen that ASD disrupts the melatonin pathways and receptors as well.
The problem is that melatonin is the hormone that is most closely involved with helping humans get to sleep and stay asleep. Melatonin is released by the pineal gland in the brain and promotes sleep. It is also synthesized by serotonin and, in children with ASD, scientists have found that serotonin levels are also abnormal.
The weight of a weighted blanket has been shown to trigger serotonin to form melatonin when it's being used. Studies have shown that melatonin levels increase when deep touch pressure, like the kind from weighted blankets, is provided to patients with sleep disorders.
Tips For Helping Children and Adults With Autism Sleep Better
Using a weighted blanket, as we've seen, can help reduce many of the symptoms that children and adults with ASD suffer. If you decide to purchase one, below are a couple of tips to help you. Also, we've added a few more that will help anyone with ASD to sleep better.
1- Weighted Blanket Aren't Recommended for Infants or children who weigh less than 30 pounds (about 14 kilos).
2- For Children, use a lighter weight weighted blanket.
Here is a list of body weights and blanket weights you can use to choose correctly:
- 40 to 90 lbs= 5 lbs weighted blanket
- 90 to 120 lbs= 10 lbs
- 110 to 140 lbs= 12 lbs
- 140 to 190 lbs= 15 lbs
- 190 to 240 lbs= 20 lbs
- 240 to 280 lbs= 25 lbs
- 280+ lbs= 30 lbs
3- Remove any extraneous noise, and use thick carpet to reduce noise even further.
Hearing can be a major cause of sensory processing disorder. It's best to reduce any noise as much as possible and eliminate anything that's especially abrasive, noise-wise.
4- Use black-out curtains to reduce the light in their room significantly.
A very dark room has also been shown to increase the amount of melatonin a person produces, which will help them sleep better.
5- Remove any smells (if possible) or introduce a calming smell using essential oils.
Smells can be a big trigger for some children and adults with ASD. Try to remove them if possible. If not, you can cover them up with a calming essential oil like sage or rose.
6- Remove any distractions like toys, pictures, etc.
The fewer distractions the better when it's time to go to sleep.
7- Remove any labels from the clothes they sleep in.
Those silly labels can be irritating for anyone but, for someone with ASD, they can be like torture. Remove them when you buy them, or purchase nightclothes without labels.
We hope that this article about autism and weight blankets was very helpful and gave you the answers you were looking for. As we've seen, they can be quite helpful and studies have shown that most people suffering from ASD, both adults, and children, do prefer them.