Benefits and Uses of Weighted Vest for Autism
What is a weighted vest?
A weighted vest is a garment worn over clothing with extra weight added within the vest. This is done either by using heavy fabric or filling the vest’s pockets with weighted objects such as steel bars or sandbags. It is designed to add between five to ten percent of a person’s body weight.
How does a weighted vest help children with autism?
In some cases, therapists recommend weighted vests to children with autism to provide deep touch pressure to help them relax and focus during a classroom activity. Supporters of this practice believe the added pressure to the child’s muscles helps reduce anxiety and allows him/her to be more attentive.
There is no solid evidence that it helps reduce stereotypy or stimming in a child with autism, but therapists have noted a decrease in this behavior when a weighted vest is worn. This is supported by a study that showed that children with autism who wore weighted vests had an 18 to25 percent increase in on-task completion of fine motor activities (VandenBerg, 2001).
In this study, members of the school faculty observed improved behavior in kids wearing the weighted vests. One teacher noted that the student wearing the vest seemed to be “slowing down more and stopping to think” instead of running around aimlessly in the playground.
In conflicting research, four out of seven similar studies of children with autism wearing these vests concluded that weighted vests did not have any positive nor negative effects on the subjects (Stephenson & Carter, 2009).
Outside the field of research, teachers and therapists using weighted vests on children with autism is already a common and accepted practice.
Perhaps the most important source of information is the child himself. In the VandenBerg study, children who wore the vests wanted to wear them even after their tasks were done. One child reported that the vest “made him feel good.”
Another child who wore the vest during his occupational therapy session looked for it in his succeeding session. When asked why he wanted to wear it again, he said, “I like wearing the vest. It’s comfortable.”
What are weighted vests used for?
In fitness and exercise, a weighted vest is used to increase the intensity of a specific physical activity. To achieve this, a person can walk, work out, bike, carry out chores while wearing the weighted vest.
For adults and kids with autism, a weighted vest is said to be a sensory instrument to help increase focus, concentration, and self-regulation.
Weighted vests provide proprioceptive input using deep pressure which sends signals to the brain which, as a result, helps a person feel calm and increase focus.
Benefits of Weighted Vest for Autism
Although it might not apply to all kids with autism, a weighted vest is said to provide the following benefits:
- Create calmness
- Increase focus and concentration
- Decrease stimming
- Reduce anxiety
- Provide better body awareness
- Encourage self-regulation
Due to the absence of scientific evidence that weighted vests work, it’s important to observe a child with autism while wearing one—especially if the child has limited communication skills. If a child is uncomfortable or no improvement is seen, then it’s best not to use it.
It is also worth mentioning that wearing a weighted vest may not work unless it is supported by other methods provided by an occupational therapist.
Uses of Weighted vest for autism
There is no harm in trying a weighted vest on a child with autism. However, there are some tips to ensure the safety and comfort of the child while wearing this kind of vest.
How heavy should it be?
The weighted vest should be between 5 to 10 percent of the body weight. If the child weighs 50 pounds, then the vest should weigh not more than 5 pounds. This is based on the weight allowances used for backpacks as there are no studies done yet to impose a standard body weight limit.
How often should it be worn?
There are no clear rules on how long a weighted vest can be worn. It is best to consult with the child’s therapist to plan a “wearing schedule” that the child will get accustomed to without much difficulty.
Some therapists don’t recommend wearing it for more than an hour at a time, while others allow for it to be worn during an entire school day.
Another factor to consider is if the child doesn’t mind wearing it for a long time, or if he/she can only wear it for a few minutes at a time.
If the vest is used to calm an upset child, then it may be removed when the child has calmed down.
Do the material and design matter?
The cloth/material of a weighted vest is important because it will affect a child’s sensitivity level. If a child with autism has certain textures that he/she doesn’t like, then it would not help to make the child wear a weighted vest with the said unwelcome texture.
The design is also important, as this will encourage a child to wear the vest. Picking something with a picture of his/her favorite cartoon character, for instance, helps to get the child into the habit of putting on the vest.
Other makers of weighted vests make the product look like regular vests, like a jacket, to avoid social stigma.
Weighted Vest for adults with autism
The use and benefits of weighted vests for children are the same for adults. However, certain adjustments can be made, so it fits the person’s age and preference.
For instance, therapists recommend up to 12 percent of the person’s body weight instead of 5 to 10 percent.
Adults with autism may wear weighted vests to counter anxiety, stress, or impulsive behavior.
Temple Grandin, in her book Emergence: Labeled Autistic, described her own experience with autism and how deep pressure helped her overcome severe anxiety and stress (Grandin & Scariano, 1986).
Types of Weighted Vest for Autism
There are two types of weighted vests that are currently marketed to people with autism: Compression vests and Deep Pressure Vests.
While both vests are built differently, they still provide deep pressure that is needed to help the wearer feel calm, focus, or reduce stereotypical behavior.
Parents and caregivers can purchase weighted vests from different online sellers like Fun and Function, and Harkla or they can create their own DIY vests.
Weighted compression vest
A weighted compression vest is the “best of both worlds” because it has the added weight within the vest, but at the same time provides the tightness needed for sensory input.
Deep Pressure Vest
A deep pressure vest like the Squease vest provides equal snugness throughout the torso and claims to provide better stability to children with autism. Most deep pressure vests don’t have the bulky weights that are common in weighted vests.
Why your therapist will recommend a weighted vest for your child with autism
It would be up to a child’s therapist to determine whether a weighted vest would be helpful in achieving occupational tasks.
Despite lack of science-based evidence of its effectiveness at this time, school-based therapists continue to use weighted vests to help students with autism and other learning disabilities cope with their daily classroom tasks (Maslow & Olson, 1999). Vests are worn with the help of teachers (overseen by therapists) to record its effects and ensure safety and comfort for the child.
Weighted vests can also be an option if a parent does not want medication to suppress stimming and other unusual behaviors that may be part of the child’s autism.
Sensory Integration Therapy for Autism
Wearing weighted vests and other weighted objects (like weighted blankets) is part of a practice called sensory integration therapy. This approach aims to help children who have difficulty processing multiple sensory inputs at the same time.
A child who is unable to process various sensory inputs properly may resort to stereotypical behaviors like repeated gestures (stimming) or become clumsy, unresponsive, or overly upset.
Some ways that sensory integration is implemented are:
- Sensory and motor activities (swinging, massage, hopscotch)
- Accommodations and adaptions (wearing noise-canceling headphones, weighted vests, etc.)
- Sensory diet programs (daily routines set by the therapist)
- Environment modifications (dim lights, white noise machines, etc.)
- Education (educating parents, caregivers, family members)
Stereotypical behaviors are repetitive body movements or moving of objects. This behavior is often seen in people with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Stereotypy is more common in autism and can be felt in all senses. Some examples would be hand flapping, body rocking, repeating vocal sounds, smelling objects, etc.
Wearing weighted vests have been proven to lessen stereotypical behavior in children with autism, although it is not a guarantee that it will work for all children with autism.
A kind of stereotypical behavior in children with autism is stimming, also known as self-stimulation. It is one way for a child with autism to deal with under-stimulation or over-stimulation.
In a classroom setting, stimming might be a hindrance for the child to complete a desktop activity. For this reason, a school therapist can apply sensory integration techniques such as having the child wear a weighted vest in the aim of lessening the stims and increasing focus.
Children with autism are prone to emotional episodes, tantrums, and meltdowns, and this can be a distraction if it happens inside a classroom.
Therapists and caregivers claim that weighted vests can help calm a distressed child. This is based on the theory that the deep pressure provided by the vest creates a physical reaction that “reduces excitability and decreases arousal” (Blanche & Schaaf, 2001).
When not to use weighted vests
While weighted vests appear to be common practice with therapists in a school setting, other organizations are wary about its use.
The Oxford Health NHS Foundation, for one, has stated that it “does not endorse nor advocate the use of weighted or compressive products.”
Additionally, they want to make parents and caregivers aware of the dangers it might pose to children with other health issues.
Weighted products like weighted blankets and vests are not to be used if a child has:
- respiratory problems
- cardiac/heart problems
- serious hypotonia
- skin allergies
- circulatory problems
- physical impediment when a child can not remove the weighted product on his/her own
The future of weighted vests
With the exception of a few institutions, most experts and therapists are optimistic that weighted vests can truly benefit children who struggle with autistic traits.
There is substantial evidence that weighted vests can affect behavior with its deep pressure, as seen in real-life scenarios and testimonies. It is a step closer to finding a simple solution to a complicated problem.
As more research and studies are done, it is expected that sensory integration techniques will prove to be a valid method for meeting the challenges faced by children with autism in their daily lives.
Kim Barloso is a freelance writer and editor based in the Philippines. She works from home while taking care of two kids, one of whom has autism.
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