How can weighted blankets help people with autism?
Therapists often recommend that people with autism use weighted blankets for sleep and relaxation.
But what is a weighted blanket? And how does it help?
What is a weighted blanket?
A weighted blanket is exactly what it says: a blanket that is filled with beads or pellets to make it heavier than an ordinary blanket.
Many people on the autism spectrum find this extra weight comforting. This is because weighted blankets cause Deep Pressure Touch on your body. And Deep Pressure Touch causes physical changes in your body that calm anxiety and help you sleep.
It simply feels like a hug.
So, let’s look more closely at how Deep Pressure Touch works.
How does a weighted blanket work?
The Deep Pressure Touch caused by a weighted blanket is a firm but gentle pressure. It acts on the two parts of your central nervous system to calm and soothe you.
The first part of your body’s central nervous system is called the sympathetic nervous system. This is the “fight or flight” response. Your sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your body whenever you are stressed, anxious or facing a dangerous situation.
You will feel extremely tired, perpetually highly anxious, stressed and overwhelmed if your sympathetic nervous system is in control of your body for long time periods.
Deep Pressure Touch switches off the sympathetic nervous system and removes those feelings of agitation, fear, stress or anxiety.
The second part of your body’s central nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system. When it is in charge, it calms both your mind and your body. It works to slow your heart rate, your breathing and relaxes your muscles.
This brings feelings of peace and calm.
Then, the parasympathetic system also releases endorphins. These are the “feel good” homones that exercise triggers.
Lastly, the parasympathetic system releases neurotransmitters that also lift the mood. These include serotonin. Serotonin helps you sleep. It also regulates memory, appetite, digestion, mood and social behaviour.
How does a weighted blanket help people with autism?
Therapists endorse using weighted blankets to help people with autism because they:
- Help you sleep better;
- Make you feel less anxious;
- May reduce the frequency and length of meltdown episodes;
- Can improve transition time between activities; and
- Give sensory input.
Let’s unpack each of these in turn.
Weighted blankets help you sleep better
The Deep Pressure Touch provided by weighted blankets help people with autism sleep better in three ways.
- The calming effect makes you feel less anxious. And so, it is easier to go to sleep and stay asleep.
- Serotonin helps people fall asleep. So, as the Deep Pressure Touch causes the central nervous system to release serotonin, you will feel sleepy.
- One clinical study found that sleeping under a heavy mattress triggered the body to release cortisol – the anti-stress hormone.
In addition, many people on the autism spectrum report feeling as if they are “floating” in bed. A weighted blanket helps you feel more grounded. And that can help you relax and sleep.
So, to summarise. You will sleep better under a weighted blanket because you feel sleepy, less anxious and less stressed.
Weighted blankets make you feel less anxious
Many people with autism can spend time feeling overwhelmed by too much sensory input in the form of light, sound and touch. The calming effect of Deep Pressure Touch helps relieve this high – and constant – sense of anxiety.
Weighted blankets may help meltdown episodes
A number of our customers – both parents and teachers – may noticed that weighted blankets seem to help with managing meltdowns in two ways.
Firstly, some parents have found that if they encourage their child to sit or lie under a weighted blanket as they notice the signs of an impending meltdown that said meltdown is either shorter and less extreme than usual. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.
Secondly, some of our customers say that placing a weighted blanket over a child having a meltdown can shorten the episode.
Once again, this is likely due to the combined effects of what the Deep Pressure Touch triggers. But there is an interesting theory that many people with autism have low levels of serotonin in their brain. And this might aggravate some autism traits. So, the Deep Pressure Touch-related release of serotonin may also have the beneficial effect of relieving social anxiety. You can read more in this article.
Weighted blankets can improve transition time between activities
Some of our customers who are teachers have told us that they find using weighted blankets helps children with autism manage the change from one activity to another better. It seems that the comforting action of Deep Pressure Touch gives them mental space to stop doing one thing and start doing a different activity.
Weighted blankets give sensory input
Many people with autism also have sensory sensitivities. Weighted blankets can help them deal with their feelings of being overwhelmed by providing Deep Pressure Touch’s sensory input.
But don’t take our word for it. Here are some of our customers’ reviews telling how Calming Moments’ weighted blankets helped in their personal autism situation. And you can find more on our Facebook reviews page here.