Does a Weighted Blanket Help with Autism?
Constant fidgeting. Trouble focusing. ADHD. Repetitive motions and obsessions. Extreme sensitivity to light, temperature, and noise, Emotional outbursts. Anxiety. Insomnia. Self-injury. Intense and even violent temper tantrums.
Most every parent of an autistic child has struggled to find ways to soothe the symptoms and manage the behaviors that come with them being on the spectrum. And if you’re one of them you’re not alone. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported that close to 1 in 54 children living in the United States is diagnosed with having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with boys being four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.
The stress of coping with many of these symptoms and behaviors can take an enormous toll on the affected child, parents, as well as brothers or sisters in the home. So, it’s not surprising that parents are always on the lookout for treatments, techniques, and therapies that can lessen the severity of the symptoms.
Conventional therapies form the foundation for the treatment of autism.
Chances are, if you’re the parent of a child with autism, you’re using or at least are aware of the most common ways to help your child calm down, focus, and move beyond limitations so they can achieve their full potential. Some of the most common ones include:
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that uses positive reinforcement to maximize language and communication skills, improve focus and social interactions, and decrease problem behaviors.
Floor Time is a technique that is used as an alternative or add on to ABA where the parent gets down on the floor with the child to play and help them expand their “circles of communication.
Occupational Therapy (OT) that helps kids work on cognitive, physical, social, and motor skills.
Beware of biology-based autism therapies.
Alternative treatments for ASD tend to focus on the physiology of the child, rather than behavior. According to one study, 74 percent of families have used unconventional and sometimes invasive treatments that aren’t backed by conclusive scientific evidence.
According to Jessica Scherr, PhD a psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Development Center, some alternative have been shown to be either inconclusive or ineffective for the treatment of ASD include:
• Dietary Supplements (magnesium & B6, dimethylglycine, amino acids, omega 3 fatty acids)
• Gluten-Free and Casein-Free (GFCF) Diet
• Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT)
What if the problem – and part of the solution - was a whole lot simpler?
Most everybody has experienced the irritability, lack of focus, and exhaustion that a bad night’s sleep or insomnia can cause. Likewise, we’ve all seen the positive effects that a deep, restful night’s sleep has on our mood, emotions, and general sense of well-being.
Although percentages vary from study to study, they say that between 26% and 32% of typically developing children have trouble sleeping. That percentage is even higher – 53% to 78% -- for kids on the spectrum.
A bad night’s sleep can aggravate negative autistic behaviors during the day.
Researchers believe that bedtime tantrums, waking up in the middle of the night and the inability to fall back to sleep may increase the intensity of ASD symptoms the following day.
And no wonder. Sleep affects mood, enables learning, and helps turn daytime experiences into long term memories. Lack of deep, uninterrupted sleep can cause a wide variety of problems – especially in children on the spectrum.
"Look at how we feel when we do not get a good night's sleep," says Dr. Beth Malow, Director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Division and the Vanderbilt Sleep Research Core. "Children with ASD are going to have a harder time with attention, ability to focus, ability to stay calm in emotional situations-- all of these things could be affected."
The fact is, research has found that autistic children who have sleep issues have trouble with specific skills. One study found that autistic children whose sleep was interrupted and woke up in the middle of the night had more speech problems than those who slept soundly. It also showed that kids who didn’t get enough sleep experienced decreased motor skills that made activities like eating, brushing their teeth, or combing their hair more difficult. Most concerning of all, sleepless autistic children were also more hyperactive, aggressive, and exhibited more repetitive behavior.
Why do autistic children have trouble getting to – and staying—asleep?
It can be as simple as too much caffeine, playing video games, or over stimulation of being on social media before bedtime. Common medical conditions that autistic children suffer from including seizures, gastrointestinal issues, or irregular breathing can also obviously cause problems falling and staying asleep. Side effects of prescription stimulants used to treat autism can also be a cause and may need to be taken well before bedtime so they have time to wear off..
Research done in Italy found that 25% of ASD children in the study had trouble sleeping since they were born which led them to hypothesize that the problem might be biological. That study and others suggested that it might be related to the production a hormone called melatonin that regulates biological rhythms.
These biological or “circadian” rhythms control the release of the hormone depending on the amount of sunlight we’re exposed to. Less melatonin is produced during the day. More is produced at night which drops body temperature and brings on drowsiness. These researchers believe that autism may disrupt the circadian rhythm pathways which lead to sleep issues as well as heighted sensitivity to light and temperature.
How a weighted blanket can help your autistic child get a good night’s sleep.
While the causes of sleep disorders in children with autism are still being studied, research has shown that addressing them can help improve behavior during the day.
There are a number of behavioral and environmental strategies that can be used to calm a child and help them fall asleep quickly and stay asleep all night long. And you have probably tried most of them.
But sometimes, despite your best efforts, kids sometimes get stuck in a cycle of anxiety that causes sleep problems and may benefit from the effects of a cool weighted blanket.
What makes weighted blankets for autism effective?
The benefits of weighted blanket for autism first came into the public eye through the work of animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin. While spending time on a family member’s farm she found that the cattle became calmer when they walked through a narrow chute that pressed on their sides. As someone on the spectrum, she felt the same calming benefits of that deep pressure touch. She eventually developed a “hug box” for humans that later evolved into things like “thunder shirts” for dogs and weighted vests and blankets for humans suffering from anxiety.
Sometimes called anxiety blankets, autism weighted blankets cause the release of serotonin and dopamine. These two neurotransmitters act on the brain to regulate mood and promote sleep and can make agitated children feel more calm, peaceful, and relaxed.
Weighted blankets for kids are especially beneficial for children on the autism spectrum as they physically press down on the child’s restless arms and legs. After using a 10 lb weighted blanket for younger children or a 15 lb weighted blanket for older ones, many parents reported that their child was less fidgety at bedtime and began routinely sleeping through the nights. They felt more comfortable, calm, and woke up happier and more focused. Others say after sleeping under a heavy weighted blanket their child’s grades improved, their attitude was better, and they seemed more relaxed.
Washable weighted blankets for kids have also helped soothe autistic children with sensory processing disorder during the day with many parents saying they use it outside the bedroom and bring it along on trips away from home.
Find out what kind of blanket and how much weight would be best.
As with any therapeutic treatment, it’s best to always talk to your child’s doctor and get their approval before using an autism weighted blanket. They’ll give you input on whether a 10 lb weighted blanket, 15 lb weighted blanket, or even a 20 lb weighted blanket would be right for your child.
Another consideration for a cool weighted blanket for kids with autism is what kind of the fabric covering to choose. Naturally you’ll want to choose a washable weighted blanket, but you’ll also want to consider what the blanket’s cover feels like.
When choosing a heavy blanket for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you might need to choose a fabric that is “sensory-friendly”. Some children can’t tolerate clothing or other fabrics that come in contact with their skin if they are in any way scratchy or stiff. Soft fabrics such as fleece, pre-washed denim, silky “minky” material or other flexible natural or artificial fibers could serve as some of the best choices. And don’t forget about seams and labels on your weighted blanket for kids. Make sure they are as smooth as possible with no rough edges.
Some autistic children have other mental or physical challenges in addition to autism. Again, talk to your child’s doctor, but in general if your child is a toddler or younger, has trouble moving without assistance, or is physically or mentally disabled, a cool weighted blanket isn’t recommended.
Once your doctor gives the okay, you can look forward to tucking your autistic child under the covers of a heavy blanket that will almost instantly relax them and help them enjoy night after night of uninterrupted sleep – and days that are less stressful and more productive.