Weighted Blankets for Autism: Reducing Anxiety and Providing a Good Night’s Sleep
Is it a struggle for your child with autism to relax and fall asleep? A therapeutic weighted blanket, also known as a sensory blanket, may be what your child needs to help reduce anxiety. Weighted blankets can help bring a sense of calm. Learn how anxiety and sleep dysregulation can affect children with autism. Find out the consequences of sleep deprivation, and guidelines for weighted blankets.
Sensory processing disorders and autism
Many children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with sensory issues including sensory processing disorder (SPD). Chantal Sicile-Kira, “The Autism Advocate,” describes SPD as “a neurological disorder that causes difficulties with processing information in all five senses.” This includes vision, auditory, touch, olfaction, and taste, and sense of movement (vestibular system). Those with SPD can receive sensory information but can not process it in a typical way.
Sicile-Kira compared SPD with blindness or deafness but stressed the difference. She states: “Unlike blindness or deafness, sensory information is received by people with SPD; the difference is that information is processed by the brain in an unusual way that causes distress, discomfort, and confusion.” (Sicile-Kira, 2010)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not list sensory processing disorder as a diagnostic criterion for autism. Psychologists say that it’s rare that a child with autism does not experience sensory processing issues to some extent. According to a study published in Pediatric Research, “over 96 percent of children with ASD report hyper and hypo-sensitivities in multiple domains.” These behavioral differences can endure through adulthood (Marco, Hinkley, Hill, & Nagarajan, 2011). Like autism, sensory processing disorder is experienced on a spectrum and will affect each person uniquely.
How anxiety and sleep dysregulation affects children with autism
The Indiana University Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) states that 40 percent of children with autism have one or more comorbid diagnosed anxiety disorder. (Merrill) IRCA reports that the prevalence of specific anxiety disorders is:
Specific Phobia: 30 percent
- “People with specific phobias, or strong irrational fear reactions, work hard to avoid common places, situations, or objects even though they know there’s no threat or danger. The fear may not make any sense, but they feel powerless to stop it.” (ADAA)
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: 17 percent
- “A common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over” (National Institute for Mental Health, 2016)
Social Anxiety Disorder/Agoraphobia: 17 percent
- “Social phobia (also called social anxiety) is a type of anxiety problem. Extreme feelings of shyness and self-consciousness build into a powerful fear. As a result, a person feels uncomfortable participating in everyday social situations.” (Lyness, 2013)
- “Agoraphobia is an intense fear and anxiety of being in places where it is hard to escape, or where help might not be available. Agoraphobia usually involves fear of crowds, bridges, or of being outside alone.” (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: 15 percent
- “Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is when a person has persistent and excessive worry about many different things.” (ADAA)
Separation Anxiety Disorder: 9 percent
- “The essential feature of separation anxiety disorder is excessive anxiety about separation. A child with separation anxiety has difficulty being away from home or from a primary caregiver (in cases of children and teens). This anxiety is beyond the expected behavior for the individual’s developmental level. The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, lasting at least 4 weeks in children and adolescents and 6 months or more in adults (Bressert, 2017).”
Panic Disorder: 2 percent
- “Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack.” (ADAA)
Anxiety disorders can lead to sleep deprivation and dysregulation. This can start a cycle of imbalance in children and adults. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “At some point, it’s hard to tell whether you’re having trouble sleeping because you’re anxious, or you’re anxious because you can’t sleep. The answer may be both. It’s a two-way street: Stress and anxiety can cause sleeping problems, or worsen existing ones. But lack of sleep can also cause an anxiety disorder.”
Kim West, LCSW-C, identifies 11 consequences of sleep deprivation specific to children:
- Overly emotional (explosive temper tantrums, easily hurt feelings, no patience)
- Difficulty waking up in the morning
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing during play
- Taking long, or excessive naps
- Defiant or contrary behavior
- Difficulty falling asleep (overtired)
- Falling asleep as soon as they hit the pillow (sleep should take about 20 minutes for a healthy sleeper)
- Increased appetite
- Accident prone, or clumsy
- Excessive talking (more questions than normal or frenzied conversation) (West, 2016)
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Parents might wonder what to do when their child gets stuck in the cycle of anxiety causing sleep dysregulation and vice versa. Holistic options are often more favorable over medication for many families.
Weighted blankets are great for both children and adults on the autism spectrum. These special blankets can aid in anxiety reduction and help achieve a better night’s sleep.
Weighted blankets as a tool for better sleep and anxiety reduction
What is a sensory blanket? A weighted blanket, or sensory blanket, provides deep-touch therapy or deep-pressure stimulation. It comes in different shapes and sizes.
Clinical studies suggest this sensation caused by weighted blankets for autism are like being held or hugged, releasing serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate sleep and moods. Springbrook Behavioral Health compares deep-pressure therapy to other vestibular activities such as yoga, swimming, and raking leaves.
Applied Behavioral Analysis EDU describes the biological processes that take place when a person wears a weighted blanket:
When you apply deep pressure to the body, the body switches from running its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system. This is the so-called switch from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’…Unfortunately, kids with autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders spend a lot of time stuck in the sympathetic nervous system. Even when they do calm down, it takes very little to retrigger this system…As deep pressure is applied to the body, the parasympathetic nervous system comes online, calming your child and bringing a sense of well-being.” (ABA EDU)
Weighted blankets for autism can be particularly helpful for children during times of heightened anxiety, before bedtime, or when they are overwhelmed. Some children also enjoy using their blanket as a source of comfort while watching TV or lounging. They are especially effective when creating a sensory space for your child with autism.
Applied Behavioral Analysis EDU describes these positive effects of deep-pressure stimulation:
- A general sense of calm that can last up to a few hours after therapy
- Decreased overall anxiety when practiced regularly
- Increased happiness
- Improved social interactions
- Increased communicativeness
- Better sleep
- Improved focus
- Lowered incidence of seizures
- Lowered hypersensitivity to touch
- Improved ability to tolerate the school environment
- Decrease in self-injury
Best weighted blankets for adults and adolescents
A weighted blanket helps children and adults because of its deep pressure. This pressure is calming to most people with SPD. Biologically, the adult and adolescent body will have the same release of endorphins children feel.
As autism, anxiety, and sensory processing disorders need management throughout an individual’s lifetime, many adults and adolescents find comfort in having a variety of tools available to them. Most of the same retailers who sell weighted blankets for children have an adult line with different fabrics, weights, and patterns. All retailers linked below also sell blankets appropriate for adults and adolescents.
Selecting a weighted blanket for your child
Parents shopping for autism weighted blankets must take into consideration the child’s weight, height, bed size, and color preferences.
Mosaic Weighted Blankets, a trusted weighted blanket supplier, offered the following guidelines for different weighted blanket uses and users:
- The blanket should weigh 10 percent of the child’s body weight plus one or two pounds
- The blanket should cover the user’s feet, legs, and abdomen
- Small children should be able to remove the blanket without assistance
Their website features a chart that can help you determine the best weighted blanket for autism. It is especially important for young children not to have a blanket that is too heavy. Some young children might not need a full-sized blanket and might benefit from a weighted comfort blanket. If you are still unsure of the best blanket weight for your child, a therapist or doctor should be able to advise you on what will work best for your child. An increasing number of therapists keep weighted blankets in their offices that a child can try before your purchase.
There are many different types of weighted blankets made in a variety of materials including cotton, antimicrobial fabrics, mink, chenille, fleece, cooling fabrics, and waterproof fabrics. Quilted weighted blankets are also available. Some companies make a weighted heated blanket for those who benefit from heat therapy. Depending on your child’s sensory preferences, a therapeutic weighted blanket can often be made out of custom fabrics as with The Magic Blanket. The filling of weighted blankets is as diverse as the fabrics with which they can be made. The most common fillings are polypropylene pellets or glass beads.
Where to buy a weighted blanket
As pressure blankets for autism increase in popularity, more retailers claim to have the best anxiety blankets.
As mentioned above, Mosaic Weighted Blankets is a popular option. They have a large variety of blankets and wraps to choose from. They also allow customized blankets. You can pick the material, size, and weight more than many other retailers. Are you feeling adventurous? Try their DIY family kit!
Mosaic Weighted Blankets carry weighted blankets at the $100 price point.
The Magic Blanket, another popular retailer, has many fabric options and also accepts custom orders. Their website houses an extensive review section and answers frequently asked questions. They offer military, and law enforcement discounts and their blankets tend to range from $70 to $120 depending on the fabric.
Weighted Comforts, run by a mother and son team, make weighted blankets in partnership with Sew for Hope. Their blankets come in neutral tones and quilted or Coolmax fabrics. Their blankets are heavier and suited for older children, adolescents, and adults. Their prices range from $195 to $299 depending on the fabric.
CapeAble Sensory Products is an award-winning company started by two mothers, Marna Pacheco, and Susan Hickok. Both have special needs daughters and are the source of their inspiration. Today, CapeAble Sensory Products offers autism weighted blankets, weighted wearables, and sensory enrichment tools at a variety of price points. Their products promote deep pressure touch stimulation that connects the central nervous system with the brain more effectively.
If you prefer to purchase through Amazon, be sure the retailer you chose uses a certified and safe filling. You should also check the appropriate weight for your child. Popular and well-reviewed brands available on Amazon include Platinum Health and YnM.
As always, if you have questions about the most appropriate blanket for your child, seek the advice of an occupational therapist, pediatrician, or psychologist.
Sicile-Kira, C. (2010, March 02). What is Sensory Processing Disorder and How Is It Related to Autism? Retrieved 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-autism-advocate/201003/what-is-sensory-processing-disorder-and-how-is-it-related-autism
Marco, E. J., Hinkley, L. B. N., Hill, S. S., & Nagarajan, S. S. (2011). Sensory Processing in Autism: A Review of Neurophysiologic Findings. Pediatric Research, 69(5 Pt 2), 48R–54R. http://doi.org/10.1203/PDR.0b013e3182130c54
Merrill, A. (n.d.). Indiana University Bloomington. Retrieved 2018, from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/anxiety-and-autism-spectrum-disorders
How Does Anxiety Affect Sleep? (n.d.). Retrieved January, 2018, from https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems-list/how-does-anxiety-affect-sleep
West, K. (2016, November 11). 11 Negative Effects of Childhood Sleep Deprivation. Retrieved January, 2018, from https://sleeplady.com/toddler-sleep-problems/11-negative-effects-of-childhood-sleep-deprivation/
Sensory Processing activities for children with Autism. (2017, February 07). Retrieved January, 2018, from https://springbrookautismbehavioral.com/portfolio-item/using-deep-pressure-stimulation-to-improve-sensory-processing/
- (2016, January). Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Retrieved January, 2018, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
Lyness, D. (Ed.). (2013, May). Social Phobia. Retrieved January, 2018, from https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/social-phobia.html
- (2017, December 21). Agoraphobia. Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000923.htm
- (n.d.). Specific Phobias. Retrieved January, 2018, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/specific-phobias#
Bressert, S., Ph.D. (2017, August 24). Separation Anxiety Disorder Symptoms. Retrieved January, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/separation-anxiety-disorder-symptoms/
- (n.d.). What is Deep Pressure Stimulation? Retrieved January 26, 2018, from https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/what-is-deep-pressure-stimulation/