Sensory Modulation for Children with Autism

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Sensory Modulation for Children with Autism

Self-Regulation Treatment Strategies: The Weighted Blanket

By: Jeffery L Cohn, OTR/L

 

Sensory issues plague children with an Autism diagnosis, as well as children with related disorders. These issues are typically one of the many lifelong struggles that parents of children with autism, and the children themselves, must learn to manage throughout the developmental life of each child.

Occupational Therapists are often involved with children with an autism diagnosis from early childhood, beginning at ages 3 to 6, where the OT’s top concern is the integration of sensory systems, also known as sensory integration. Once a child reaches the age of 7 years, the area of focus becomes sensory modulation. Broadly speaking, the goal of sensory modulation is to help the child, and those working with the child, to understand what type of sensory stimulation is required to stay on task and focus on daily routine.

Sensory modulation helps the child understand and recognize the types of sensory inputs that are over-stimulating, which helps children with autism avoid meltdowns and disengagement in their daily routines. The goal is that, as they grow older, they will be able to recognize what they need and have items ready and available for self-regulation.

A sensory modulation treatment that I often recommend to parents is the weighted blanket. Like all treatment methods, the weighted blanket is not a cure-all and should be introduced into your child’s repertoire slowly, with caution, and as part of a broader behavioral treatment plan. However, used correctly, a weighted blanket can help your child self-regulate to avoid anxiety, meltdowns, and other maladaptive responses.

Introducing the Weighted Blanket

Weighted blankets are used for therapeutic purposes, such as promoting more restful sleep, decreasing anxiety, and creating feelings of calm and security. Use of a weighted blanket is usually recommended by the child’s Occupational Therapist, especially for children who struggle with anxiety, meltdowns, and obsessive behaviors.

How Weighted Blankets Work

The idea of using weighted blankets comes from a study that focused on the effects of deep pressure touch stimulation on children with sensory integration disorders, which are common in children with autism.The deep pressure from the weighted blanket causes the body to produce serotonin and endorphins, which are chemicals our bodies use to feel relaxed, and which are often under-produced by children with autism and related disorders.

In addition, the combination of darkness plus weight triggers the pineal gland to convert serotonin into melatonin, our natural sleep-inducing hormone. This is particularly helpful for children with autism, since they tend to sleep less than other children and are often very restless in their sleep. Overall, the effect of using a weighted blanket is similar to the effect of swaddling a baby or small child: it calms and reassures your child.

How to Choose a Weighted Blanket

When choosing a weighted blanket, keep the following in mind:

Weight

It is extremely important to choose the correct weight for your child in order for the weighted blanket to be both safe and effective. The weight of the blanket should be 1/10th the child’s weight plus one additional pound.

Filler Material

Blankets are often weighted with fillers such as river stone, rice, sand, or plastic pellets. It is better to stick to a blanket weighted solely with non-toxic plastic pellets. Even though blankets weighted with rice or stone may be cheaper upfront, they do not wash as well and may cause a health hazards if they begin to mold from washing.

Style

There are hundreds of different styles of weighted blankets sold in occupational therapy supply stores as well as online. When introducing the idea of a weighted blanket, remember that your child may welcome the blanket and be more comfortable if their blanket is a print of a familiar character or a theme your child likes.

Complementary Products

Many children with autism find success using weighted lap pads or vests along with weighted blankets.These weighted lap pads and vests employ the same concept as the weighted blankets, applying stimulating pressure that provides comfort and relaxation. Many children take the weighted lap pads to school as they are effective in decreasing the child’s need to constantly move around.

Precautions to Take With Weighted Blankets

As with any therapy device, you should be careful with weighted blankets and work gradually toward integrating them into your child’s routine. Here are a few precautions to take to make sure that your child remains safe—and gets the most out of your investment.

Pretest the Blanket During the Day

Always make sure you are using the right amount of weight for your child and make sure you test the blanket on your child during the daytime to see the reaction. Some children are more sensitive than others, and you know your child best. Therefore, you will want to monitor your child to make sure they are using the blanket correctly and that they can handle the weight.

Monitor Your Child’s Reaction Over Time

When possible, try to keep track of how your child is responding to the blanket to see if it’s working. Are you noticing better quality sleep? Less anxiety and fewer meltdowns during the day? Weighted blankets may not work for every child but most see some improvement in the area of sleep and decrease of anxiety throughout the day with the use of these blankets and lap pads.

Teach Your Child to Care for the Blanket

The blankets can be expensive depending on the size and weight requirements for your child’s needs. Teach your child to be gentle with the blanket and not to chew on the blanket or pull any loose strings that can cause the blanket to come apart.

Have additional questions about the use of weighted blankets or other treatment methods? The dedicated team at Springbrook is here to help you. Call us at 864.834.8013 for 24/7 confidential help and referrals.