Deep Touch Pressure: Do Weighted Blankets Actually Work?--Sensory and Autism Basics
Have you ever heard of the Hug Machine or Squeeze Machine? This was a crazy, genius, and amazing contraption that Temple Grandin used to give herself tight hugs or, more technically, deep touch pressure. This machine was later used to help cows calm down before going to slaughter, but that’s a different story.
Deep touch pressure is a common term among those of us who are involved in communities surrounding sensory processing disorder, autism, anxiety, tactile defensiveness, or any other sensory challenges. Frequently used by occupational therapists and parents, deep touch pressure is notoriously successful at helping reduce feelings of anxiousness and induce feelings of calm.
If you haven’t seen Clare Danes portray Temple Grandin in the bio pic, stop what you’re doing and go find it at your library. It is amazing!
This clip shows how Temple Grandin discovered the benefits of deep touch pressure, which would later lead to her invention of the Hug Machine.
So, what is deep touch pressure exactly and what are the best ways to give it to your child? By the end of this post, you’ll know exactly what deep touch pressure is, how it can help your child, and what you can do to implement it into your child’s routine.
Deep Touch Pressure vs. Light Touch Pressure
The best way to understand deep touch pressure is to explain its counterpart, light touch pressure. Whenever we feel someone brush by us in the grocery store or sense the wind on our skin, we’re experiencing light touch pressure. As the name implies, this type of pressure is light and can range from being barely noticeable to registering as something gentle.
This light touch tells the sympathetic nervous system to jump into gear. Commonly known as the “fight or flight” system, the sympathetic nervous system tells our brains to prepare for action.
It’s basically a fire alarm that tells us to look for smoke and leave the building.
When we feel light touch pressure, we become more aware of the world. Think of a zebra that feels a rustling in the grass.
While this response is great for survival, we don’t live in the African savanna and don’t need to worry about hungry lions. For the most part, our sympathetic nervous systems have adapted to our modern world
For those of us without sensory challenges, light touch pressure isn’t a big deal. We may giggle from the feeling of being tickled or look to the side to see who just tapped us on the shoulder. Once we figure out where the light touch came from, our body re-calibrates, and we continue with our day.
When sensory challenges are at play, a light touch from a friend can cause overload and unbearable anxiety that can last a longtime. One small tickle can tell the body to go into full “fight or flight” mode, often causing meltdowns or anxiety attacks that take a while to come down from.
It’s like being a zebra who is always sensing a lion.
Due to this uncomfortable reaction, many individuals with sensory issues often try to avoid touch. It’s common to see children shy away from holding hands, playing with sand, being outdoors, or moving around in chaotic environments in which people are bumping against each other. The problem is that the world is an unpredictable place and even the most controlled environments pose risks of light touch of some sort. In essence, there’s always a lion in the bushes.
Counter to light touch pressure, deep touch pressure has a calming effect on the body. Examples of getting deep touch pressure include getting tight hugs, wearing compression clothing, or being squeezed between mats or pillows. This compression triggers activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Commonly known as the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system tells our brains and bodies that we’re safe and that there’s no reason to be scared.
When we get deep touch pressure, our brains tell our bodies that it’s ok to relax. In essence, deep touch pressure turns off the part of the brain that causes anxiety and overwhelm.
For those of us without sensory challenges, we find deep touch pressure to be relaxing, but it’s not a necessary part of the day. We’ll go get massages or tight hugs and realize how nice to feels but, until recently, we weren’t often making it a part of our daily routines.
Deep touch pressure is taking off though. In fact, the popularity of deep touch pressure is growing. Now, more than ever, we’re seeing people buy weighted blankets for everyday use, regardless of any apparent sensory issues. People are realizing just how relaxing deep touch pressure can be!
Aside from those of who enjoy the relaxing aspects of deep touch pressure every once in a while, for those with sensory challenges, deep touch pressure is often an essential component of calming the body down every single day. After a prolonged period of “fight or flight,” deep touch pressure can help the body re-regulate and re-balance by activating a period of “rest and digest.”
Not only is deep touch pressure important for helping the body re-balance following a meltdown, it can also help prevent one. Engaging in deep touch pressure activities throughout the day can go a long way in helping the body achieve a “rest and digest” state and stay there.
Compression is Key
As the name implies, compression is an important aspect of deep touch pressure. Here at The Sensory Toolbox, I’m a big believer in compiling a variety of resources and techniques that you can turn to at a moment’s notice depending on what you need at the time. To learn more about building your own sensory toolbox for your child, check out my free sensory toolbox guide.
When your child is overwhelmed or anxious, try introducing some compression activities that provide the benefits of deep touch pressure. Here are some examples of compression activities that you can try:
There are an endless number of examples of compression activities, so get creative and see what your child prefers.
Aside from the benefits of reducing anxiety, deep touch pressure has some fascinating benefits to those with sensory challenges. Through her use of the Squeeze Machine, Temple Grandin found that regular exposure to deep touch pressure resulted in desensitization to light touch overtime.
Basically, after a period of time using deep touch pressure, tolerance to touch increases. This finding suggests that, in addition to compression’s immediate ability to help decrease acute anxiety, it can also be beneficial to decreasing tactile defensiveness overtime.
Findings such as these suggest that continued exposure to deep touch pressure helps the body more easily reach a “rest and digest” state and prolong the time it takes to get aggravated and amped up into a “fight or flight” state.
How to Incorporate Deep Touch Pressure into Your Routine
If you work with an occupational therapist, it’s likely that deep touch pressure is already a part of your child’s therapy sessions. If your OT hasn’t talked with you about the benefits of compression, ask about how it is being used in therapy and can be used at home.
Be aware that a lot of occupational therapy revolves around play. Play is one of the best ways to get your child on board with therapy and receive the benefits of treatment in the context of fun.
If you ever observe one of your child’s occupational therapy sessions, you may be surprised by how much it resembles normal play. The benefit of occupational therapy being disguised as play is that your child’s OT is likely very creative and can give you a lot of ideas about incorporating compression into your current routine. Watch your child’s therapy sessions carefully to pick up some ideas and then ask your OT directly.
Aside from using your OT as a resource, try to make deep touch pressure a natural part of what you’re already doing. Maybe you can have your child use a weighted lap pad whenever you’re driving in the car or watch a favorite movie while being “squished” under the couch cushions. Take the things you already do in your day and think about how you can add compression to them.
Easing into Deep Touch Pressure and Compression
Your child will likely need time to get used to compression and deep touch pressure. Especially for children with extreme tactile defensiveness, deep touch pressure can be overwhelming at first. While deep touch pressure has a calming effect, the novelty of it can be stressful the first couple of times. Until your child is familiar with deep touch pressure, introduce compression activities for short durations and in natural ways.
If you aren’t sure, ask your child’s occupational therapist. And, if you’re wondering who these amazing occupational therapist people are, check out my post about the important factors for finding an OT of your own.
For example, start by giving your child a few extra strong hugs every day. Then, progress to weighted stuffed animals or lap pads. From there, try introducing compression clothing.
Be keen to your child’s natural progression and don’t try to rush it. It is much easier to develop a slow tolerance to deep touch pressure over a long period of time then to do damage control from introducing deep touch pressure too quickly.
Deep touch pressure has many potential benefits to children with autism, anxiety, and SPD. Once you find some compressive activities that your child likes, you can add them to your sensory toolbox so that you can harness the calming effects of deep touch pressure on a regular basis.
So, Do Weighted Blankets Actually Work?
In short, yes. Weighted blankets are a popular way to provide deep touch pressure. The weight of the blanket allows the body to relax and activate its parasympathetic nervous system. While weighted blankets have skyrocketed in popularity, they are only one tool for effectively administering deep touch pressure. So, which tool is my favorite?
The Sleep Sleeve
During my work with kids, I learned that weighted blankets just weren’t cutting it. Weighted blankets were too hot, too heavy, lacked breathability, and couldn’t be adjusted to accommodate a child’s unique compression needs.
Not only were weighted blankets failing from a compression aspect, they were also failing to address the very important factor of proprioceptive input. Proprioceptive input is what we get when we push, pull, swing, or do any kind of heavy work. This type of input can be very relaxing for kids, as it serves as a way of telling the body of where it is in space. Weighted blankets don’t offer any proprioceptive input—when you push on them, they just lay there like, well, heavy weighted blankets.
With all of this in mind, I created the Sleep Sleeve, a weighted blanket alternative that addresses all of the flaws of weighted blankets, while also including an ability for kids to get the necessary proprioceptive input they need.
The Sleep Sleeve is made of a Spandex blend that is also commonly used in morph suits. As morph suits are designed to be worn over your mouth, clearly the Sleep Sleeve is much more breathable than a weighted blanket. This breathable material also makes it a lot less heavy than a weighted blanket—kids get the compression without the heaviness and heat.
But, wait, let’s not forget about the proprioceptive input. Due to the Sleep Sleeve’s Spandex blend material, it’s compressive, while also being stretchy. Think about the way that a bathing suit stretches out when you pull on it but falls back into place when you let go. This neat quality of the fabric allows kids to kick and thrash around in the Sleep Sleeve and get any proprioceptive input they may need. Not only can the Sleep Sleeve be used throughout the day for moments when kids need proprioceptive input, if kids wake up agitated in the middle of night, a bit of kicking and pushing within the Sleep Sleeve can help them calm down quickly and go back to sleep.
Overall, the Sleep Sleeve provides a more safe and effective way for kids to receive deep touch pressure while they sleep. This means more nights of restful sleep for both you and your child. To learn more and order your own, click the link below.
Will Deep Touch Pressure Work for my Child?
Like everything, some therapeutic techniques work for some kids and some don’t. While deep touch pressure is very popular and proves to benefit a lot of people, it’s not perfect for everyone. Be sure to touch base with your child’s occupational therapist to make sure that you’re introducing deep touch pressure in the right way.
Another thing to keep in mind is that many kids go through an adjustment period when first starting out with deep touch pressure. At first, your child may only be able to tolerate a short hug but will progress to being able to use a Sleep Sleeve down the road. It can be a long and slow process, but your child will gradually come to crave and enjoy deep touch pressure.