Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, MD, FFARCSI

As new research comes up with novel therapies for autism, the weighted blanket is the latest one doing the rounds. Many swear by the benefits of using a weighted blanket for people with autism. So what exactly is a weighted blanket and how does it help a person suffering from autism? You might have heard that weight blankets are being used widely by people who suffer from anxiety. Not many, however, are aware that weight blankets are now also being prescribed as a therapeutic measure for those suffering from autism. In children, particularly, the use of weighted blankets have been found to be beneficial in the case of autism.

The reasoning behind the success of weighted blankets in autism is because of the fact that people suffering from autism usually have a sensory processing dysfunction. For such people, a light touch can be alarming and overstimulating. The deep pressure that is provided by these weighted blankets works as it provides a calming and organizing effect. People suffering from autism have difficulty in sensory regulation and modulation. This manifests as an oversensitivity to sensory stimulation. The weight blankets offer deep touch pressure to the body, thus helping the individual calm down.

What is a Weighted Blanket?

A weighted blanket is made to be around seven to twelve percent of your body weight so that the added weight can help you relax. A weighted blanket relaxes the nervous system by stimulating the feeling that you being held or hugged. The theory is similar to that of swaddling a baby. In swaddling, the firm and snug hug of the weighted blanket wrapped around a sleeping baby helps the baby relax enough to fall asleep. This very sensation is mimicked by a weighted blanket and is also the foundation for weighted blanket theory.

Benefits of a Weighted Blanket

People of all ages can benefit from weighted blanket therapy. These are absolutely safe and have no side effects, unlike medications. It is an effective and non-drug therapy for anyone who wants a solution for sleep and relaxation. Weighted blankets work by providing an input signal to the deep pressure touch receptors that are located throughout the body. For many people, deep pressure touch is needed to help the body relax. Weighted blankets make you feel:

  • Secure
  • Grounded
  • Safe

Weighted blankets help in supplementing the treatment for sensory disorder in the following ways:

  • Weighted therapy helps increase the levels of melatonin and serotonin overnight thus helping sensory disorders
  • The increase in levels of melatonin and serotonin overnight also helps sleep disorders
  • Many children suffering from ADHD use these blankets to calm down after school or to fall asleep.
  • Patients with Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorder also use these blankets to feel relaxed and calm down.
  • Weighted blankets help with Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) and with fidgeting legs due to menopause or chemotherapy treatment as well.
  • In the elderly, weighted blankets are known to help reduce a host of symptoms. It helps those having Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.
  • The swaddling or deep pressure touch simulation that happens when you wrap up in a weighted blanket helps you feel better and also eases the mind allowing complete relaxation.
  • It also decreases cortisol levels, thus decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure as well.
  • The weight of the blanket minimizes body movement to render a deeper REM sleep cycle.

Benefits of Weighted Blanket for Autism

Benefits of Weighted Blanket for Autism

Individuals affected by autism generally have trouble communicating, they lack social skills, and also show slower cognitive development. They tend to engage in repetitive actions of behavior. Even children as young as 18 months old can display symptoms of autism. Anybody suffering from autism and their families face many challenges every day. As modern-day medical science has advanced, there have been several therapies that have been designed to help people with autism, and particularly children. The weighted blanket can be a huge help to both adults and children having autism.

Weight blankets are used frequently by occupational therapists in the autism community to help comfort or calm down a restless or stressed individual. These blankets are of course also used to help with sleep disorders and anxiety issues that are common in people having autism spectrum disorder. Occupational therapists prefer to prescribe a weighted blanket to their patients, as compared to regular blankets. The scientific basis behind weighted blankets is, however, few and lacking.

There is a lack of research studies performed on the direct use of weighted blankets as a calming tool or a sleeping aid for children. Many therapists cite a study conducted in 1999 which looked into the benefits of deep pressure stimulation using a 'hug machine'. The machine belonged to Temple Grandin, who is an adult living with autism and an active advocate for the autism community. The study found that indeed deep pressure stimulation was beneficial to people with autism. Many other recent studies have also proven the same fact. However, the fact that weighted blankets actually provide deep pressure stimulation is yet to be proven by any study.

Rather than showing any direct correlation, most studies just skirt around the fact that the weighted blanket provides a similar kind of pressure that the 'hug machine' provided in the 1999 study. These studies simply assume that more weight automatically means more pressure.

One of the largest studies that were specific to the use of weighted blankets in autism sufferers, was conducted on 67 autistic children between the ages of 5 to 16 years old. The children in the study who had severe sleep disorder did not show any significant improvement in the following criteria: total sleep time, the frequency of waking, or the time taken to fall asleep. Nevertheless, both the participants and their families opted for using a weighted blanket rather than a regular one.

Another study conducted only on adults showed a significant reduction (63 percent) in stress levels. Over 75 percent of these participants opted to choose the weighted blanket for feeling calm. The study also monitored vital signs and the symptoms of distress. The only conclusion from this study was that weighted blankets were safe to use.

In fact, in Canada, there was a death in 2008 that was attributed to the improper use of a weighted blanket on an autistic child. Following this, the Autism Society of Canada issued a warning on the use of weighted blankets. Proper guidelines were put in place to ensure the safe use of weighted blankets as sleeping aids and stress relievers.

However, subjectively, all the participants (both adults and children) in these various studies said that they felt safer and calmer when using a weighted blanket.

Determining the Correct Blanket Weight & Size

Choosing the correct size of the weighted blanket is based on each individual's need and of course body weight. There are some generalized guidelines that help you determine which size is correct for your use. Most therapists and manufacturers of weighted blankets recommend that the blanket should be at least ten percent of the individual's body weight. However, research into this subject has shown that the number should be closer to 20 percent. Even people who have used these blankets agree that the number should be closer to 20 percent. Most blanket manufacturers have also released guidelines for the safe use and proper sizing of these blankets. You can also consult your therapist to understand which size would be correct for you.

In the case of children, many parents might worry that their kids will soon outgrow the blanket and they will have to purchase a new one every year. This might prompt them to buy in bigger sizes than required. However, this is not encouraged and it has been observed that children continue to use the same blanket for several years, even in the case of them gaining more than ten pounds.

If you are buying a weighted blanket for an adult, then you can choose to ignore the 10 percent body weight rule. Safety studies have shown that adults can safely handle up to a 30 pounds blanket without experiencing any negative impact on their heart rate, pulse rate, or blood circulation, regardless of what is the body weight of the adult. However, do keep in mind that 30 pounds can be quite a heavy blanket and not every person will feel comfortable with such a heavy weight on them. Many adults are also comfortable with a 15 pounds blanket.

A factor to keep in mind before you order a weighted blanket is also the actual size of the blanket. If you order a small blanket, then the weight will fall directly on your body. But, if you order a very large blanket, then the weight will instead rest on the portions of the blanket that falls on the bed, and not directly on your body. Though the weight will still impact your body as it holds the blanket in place, it may pull down on you. The blanket should not hang over the edge of the bed too much as the force will again cause the blanket to be pulled down. So keep these things in mind before you make your purchase.

To Choose or Not to Choose

While weighted blankets are becoming very popular lately, one has to consider that just like any therapy or medication, deep pressure stimulation may also not work for everyone. However, as a therapy that has no side effects and danger, weighted blankets can definitely provide a feeling of security, calm and comfort that often eludes people with autism. An inexpensive weighted blanket will also offer quite a bit of saving when you compare it to other therapies and medications for autism. Weighted blankets are many times even eligible for reimbursement under some insurance plans. Thus, at the end of the day, weighted blankets can be a great help in caring for a child or adult with autism.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD,FFARCSI

Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: July 31, 2018

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

We'll help you live each day to the healthiest