An Expert’s Opinion: How Weighted Blankets Can Help Kids With Autism
Autistic children often struggle with sleep, stress, anxiety, and a short attention span. We spoke to seasoned occupational therapist, Bernadine Hershey, to get her take on how a weighted blanket can help lighten the load these kiddos carry.
For autistic kids, weighted blankets are a natural, non-medicinal, and easy-to-use relaxation tool that can also help them get a little more shut-eye. Weighted blankets – sometimes also called stress blankets, weighted sensory blankets or autism blankets – are widely used by parents and therapists to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Curious if these benefits of a kids weighted blanket really are that far-reaching, we asked an autism expert. Bernadine Hershey is an occupational therapist at the Schreiber Center for Pediatric Development with 30 years of experience in treating autism. Let’s briefly look at what autism is, and then get to what Bernadine had to say about how a weighted blanket for kids can ease ASD-related issues.
What is autism spectrum disorder?
Autism is a complex condition. Here are a few key points to help understand this multifaceted disorder:
- Autistic people have a developmental disability that makes it hard to express themselves in ways other people typically communicate, and to grasp the thoughts and intentions of others accurately.
- How autism presents differs from person to person. Some autistic people are gifted in the way they think and learn, while others face enormous everyday life difficulties. As author and autism self-advocate Dr. Stephen Shore explains this aptly: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
- Autism spectrum disorder is a blanket term for various mental disorders – like Asperger’s and Pervasive Development Disorder – characterized by hindered social interaction and communication difficulties.
- Beyond these overarching psychiatric challenges, those on the autism spectrum also have accompanying physical conditions that typically include epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues, and sleep problems.
The historical link between autism and weighted blankets
Autism and weighted blankets are historically weaved together. Animal behaviorist and autism spokesperson, Dr. Temple Grandin, played an integral role in exploring the applications and advantages of deep touch pressure (DTP), and DTP explains how weighted blankets work.
Building on Dr. Grandin’s work, weighted objects became mainstream tools used in occupational therapy practices to soothe autism-related anxiety.
An expert OT’s take on weighted blankets and autism
We spoke to Bernadine Hershey, an occupational therapist with three decades of experience working with autistic children. Bernadine is a longstanding faculty member at the nationally recognized Schreiber Center for Pediatric Development in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Schreiber Center serves more than 4000 children every year by providing occupational, physical, and speech therapy.
Ninety percent of Bernadine’s patients have autism spectrum or sensory processing disorder. As an expert in applying therapeutic treatments to help children with these disabilities, we asked her how she uses weighted blankets as a therapeutic tool.
1. What is the most common challenge autistic children face during therapy?
Stress and anxiety are the most challenging concerns for the children on my caseload. Before we can even begin to conquer other challenges, like motor planning issues, food issues, etc., our common goal is to first work through the primary challenge of anxiety and stress.
2. Do you often use weighted objects during therapy sessions?
Yes, I have been using weighted blankets, clothing, toys, and balls as a part of my therapeutic practices for the last 30 years, in different ways.
3. Can you explain some of these ways you use weighted blankets or clothing?
With children, I often use weighted blankets, or clothing, to facilitate calmness (settling down) and sitting tolerance (being able to sit still), so that their attention span can be increased, and they’re able to focus and learn better.
In long term care and rehab, I’ve also used weighted objects to help facilitate calmness in patients with brain injury agitation and dementia.
4. Do you think weighted blankets can help treat any of the symptoms that children with autism or sensory processing disorder tend to have?
Yes, I love using weighted equipment! I’ll illustrate how weighted blankets can help children by sharing, with permission, just one example from my previous cases.
A few years ago, I treated five-year-old twins, both autistic, who had significant difficulty sleeping. I sent home a weighted blanket for them to try, and it was a resounding success. Soon each had their own weighted blanket, and the mother reported that the twins not only slept better, but their daytime behaviors improved too – especially their attention span and eating habits.
5. What is the primary benefit of using weighted blankets or objects during your occupational therapy sessions?
Calming a patient so that learning can take place. If a child’s stress or anxiety can diminish for even five minutes, that builds trust and confidence. Once we’ve laid this therapeutic foundation, often with the help of a weighted blanket or object, we can start working on more difficult things.
How does a weighted blanket help autism?
Based on Bernadine’s expert insights, here are three ways our weighted blanket for kids with autism – the Nappling – can help ease ASD-related sleep struggles, anxiety, and improve attention span.
Autistic children typically have trouble sleeping. A 2019 study shows autistic preschoolers are twice as likely to have sleep problems than children without ASD. Supporting Bernadine’s illustration of how weighted blankets are a natural solution to a sleepless situation, Autism Speaks (the largest autism advocacy organization in the US) also recommends sleeping under weight, as a way to improve sleep in children with autism.
The Nappling applies 8 pounds of evenly distributed weight over a child’s body to bring about better sleep.
Similar to Bernadine’s explanation of soothing anxiety before addressing other ASD-related problems, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America underpins the importance “to recognize and treat anxiety in ASD, since it has a great impact on the course and the core aspects of the disorder, exacerbating social withdrawal as well as repetitive behaviors. Moreover, early recognition and treatment may convey a better prognosis for these patients.”
The Nappling is suitable for children aged four and up, making it a safe and accessible tool for treating anxiety in young children with ASD.
Improving attention span
Studies support Bernadine’s reports of how weighted blankets for kids can help improve attention span. Little minds get more restorative rest from sleeping under weight; combined with weighted objects gently covering their bodies during the day, it sets your kiddo up for better focus and, ultimately, learning.
To conclude, let’s answer two often-asked weighted blanket questions.
How do you put a weighted blanket on an autistic child?
When using a weighted blanket for autistic children (or adults) for the first time, gradually ease in this new feeling, over a few days. Gently drape the blanket over your child’s lower limbs and slowly pull it up to cover the upper-body. Be sure to introduce resting under weight when your child is calm.
Can a weighted blanket be too heavy?
The recommended weighted blanket weight is roughly 10% of your body weight, but going a few pounds heavier is often recommended. Comfort is key: keep a close eye for any signs of discomfort when your child uses our 8lb Nappling for the first time.
(PS, parents, the Nappling is 100% machine washable – because we know when it comes to kids and their kit, simple cleaning methods are best. Tumble dry the Nappling on low heat.)
• The Nappling, our weighted blanket for kids, is an 8 lb organic cotton blanket that can help kiddos calm down, and rest up.
• In this post, we share seasoned occupational therapist Bernadine Hershey’s expert opinion on how weighted blankets help autistic children sleep better and feel calmer.
• We also briefly define autism spectrum disorder and the historical link between weighted blankets and ASD.
Did you know?
Auticon, a technology company that solely employs autistic people, is showing society not only the success that comes from a neurodiverse workforce but what can be achieved when we do away with autism stereotypes.