Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble processing or acting on information that comes in through the natural senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch).
Extensive research on Deep Pressure Touch (DPT) therapy in humans has proven that sensory input from a weighted blanket can induce a ‘calming’ effect in people with SPD. This can help them feel less overwhelmed with all that’s happening around them and promote better sleep.
Thus far, scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the direct cause of SPD. However, extensive research is being carried out to explore the link between genetic and neurological factors using non-invasive procedures.
SPD can adversely affect the psychological, educational and social development of a person from infancy right up to adulthood.
Contrary to popular thought, SPD doesn’t just affect children and teenagers. Many adults in North America are currently living with undiagnosed symptoms of the condition.
Having a comforting tool with some weight – like a weighted blanket can help prevent people from feeling overwhelmed with all that’s going on around them.
What are the symptoms of SPD?
Indications of a Sensory processing disorder can vary considerably from person to person.
SPD symptoms generally fall into two broad classes although most people experience a mixture of both symptoms that considerably affect normal daily function:
A person with SPD may feel extreme discomfort from regular, everyday happenings and activities around them. This means that their sensory faculties are much keener than those of regular people.
Regular sounds like music playing, people chatting, the flutter of birds, etc. can cause them to grope their ears in anguish.
A person with SPD might find it difficult to cope in a social gathering because everything can seem so loud.
SPD makes people very sensitive to light. Sunlight coming in through the windows on a bright morning can be unbearable.
Blue light like that of cellphone and laptop screens might be irritating at certain times of the day.
Their sense of touch is also heightened as well – people with SPD might experience great discomfort from the feel of clothes on their skin.
Physical contact with others can make them feel tense and uncomfortable so they might avoid hugging, shaking hands etc. even with family.
People living with SPD can have trouble sensing the temperature of their immediate environment. For example, a warm bath might feel extremely hot, very cold weather can feel normal.
Many regular people who don’t understand the symptoms may think people with SPD are overreacting. But that’s because they don’t understand what it’s like to live with the condition.
For fear of being misunderstood, many people with SPD tend to withdraw from socializing.
Hypersensitivity might severely affect the schooling of a person with SPD, so they might progress much slower with coursework than peers.
If an employer is not aware that an employee is living with the condition, it could lead to misunderstandings at the office.
The exact opposite of hyperactivity, a person with hyposensitivity symptoms have more difficulty responding to external stimulus than regular people.
For example, they could get wounded and not realize it, since they don’t feel any pain from it. Inclement weather might even feel comfortable for some people.
- Difficulty paying attention to what a person is saying (not to be confused with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder)
- Finding it hard to wake up from sleep
- Walking, falling asleep, eating and talking slower than regular people
- Feel no pain even after an injury
- Having trouble knowing the position of their limbs in space (poor proprioception)
People who exhibit these symptoms will often crave sensory-stimulating activities because they make them feel somewhat calmer.
They might feel the need to make contact with people and things even when it’s not appropriate. This makes regular people misunderstand them even more.
Like in the hypersensitivity symptoms, the result is that they tend to withdraw themselves from social activities. The most important need for people living with SPD is to be understood.
How a weighted blanket can help
One of the most sustainable ways of overcoming the effects of SPD is by using a weighted blanket. The heavier blanket puts more pressure on the body to alleviate the symptoms.
Weighted blankets gained more popularity than ever in the last decade. With the advent of the internet, more people began to hear about how it helped to relax people with special needs and psychological trauma.
However, Occupational therapists (OTs) had been prescribing it exclusively for years as an alternative to drug-based or psychotherapy treatment.
Nowadays, even regular people use weighted blankets to improve their quality of sleep, overcome anxiety and curb depression.
Why weighted blankets?
Many people are averse to using drugs to treat illnesses. Prolonged use of medication can have negative implications for health because every medicine has a toxicity factor. Also, there is always a risk for adverse drug reaction. (although most cases are far-between).
In the specific case of Sensory Processing Disorder, one of the best (and most frequently prescribed) methods of treatment is physical therapy.
There are two main types of therapy treatment for SPD, Sensory integration therapy and Sensory processing therapy.
Weighted blankets can be used as part of a sensory integration therapy, so we’ll cover only that aspect in this article.
Weighted blankets & sensory integration therapy
Sensory integration therapy is a set of repetitive exercises aimed at rehabilitating the sensory faculties of a person living with SPD.
These set of activities are collectively known as a ‘Sensory Diet’ (it has nothing to do with food).
Weighted blankets can be used as part of a sensory diet routine to help the person relax after completing a physical therapy session.
How weighted blankets work
Weighted blankets are not your typical sleeping blankets. They work by pressing down on the body – commonly known as ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing.’
The extra weight comes from added polymer pellets or glass beads in individual ‘pockets’ of the material that helps to distribute weight evenly over the body.
Benefits of using a weighted blanket for SPD
The benefits of using weighted blankets are extensive, more so for people with special needs. People on the autism spectrum can use these heavier blankets to feel more relaxed and even sleep better.
People with SPD could greatly benefit from the ‘soothing’ effect of DPT on the body. The sensory input from a weighted blanket can reduce cortisol levels – The body’s main stress-induced hormone.
Nighttime Serotonin and Endorphin (body chemicals that induce a feeling of relaxation and contentment) levels are boosted. This promotes a more calm and relaxed state for longer and deeper sleep.
People living with SPD
Living with the condition is quite challenging for many people. Even doing regular daily tasks can be tricky.
Sensory Processing Disorder usually begins at a young age but could persist into adulthood.
Many experts consider children to be the most prominent demographic of people living with SPD, although there are many undiagnosed cases among adolescents and adults.
Children living with SPD
Extensive studies by OTs and medical researchers have shown that 1 in 20 to 1 in 6 children living in North America experience SPD symptoms during their formative years.
Coping with daily life
Children who show hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity or a mix of both symptoms may find it difficult to cope with regular daily activities like:
- Sleeping through the night
- Having a bath
- Wearing clothes
- Paying attention in class
- The scent of food in a cafeteria
- Playing with other children
- Falling asleep at night, etc.
Socializing with other children their age might be challenging because regular activities may simply be too overwhelming for them.
For example, the sound made by another child tapping a classroom desk might seem too loud (hypersensitivity to sound) or the air conditioning in the class might feel extremely cold all of a sudden (thermo-regulatory issues).
Many children with SPD prefer to be left alone. Anxiety and emotional meltdown are common, because being at a tender age; they can’t precisely describe how they are feeling to a classmate or an adult.
Weighted blankets for children with SPD
The sensory input from a weighted blanket can help children with SPD to feel relaxed and less overwhelmed by activities happening all around them.
Weighted blankets can also aid them in having a better quality of sleep.
Choosing a weighted blanket for a child
The recommended weight of a blanket for a child is around 10% of total body weight although the individual preferences of the child are an important buying factor.
I advise using the child’s ideal body weight to choose a suitable length and width of the blanket that the child won’t outgrow in a short period.
How to use the blanket
Children can wrap the blanket around their body when they feel troubled. The blanket will ‘weigh’ down on their bodies to provide the right amount of sensory input to stay comported.
Weighted blankets are not meant to be used as a cover or duvet for the child’s bed. The most effective way to use a weighted blanket for children is:
- Laying it across the child’s lap or trunk
- Wrapping it around the shoulders
- Spreading it over the legs
- Covering the entire body for sleeping
Teenagers & adolescents
Teens and adolescents are likely to suffer depression if the SPD symptoms are not well managed. Adolescence is a transitive phase of a person’s life that is challenging for even regular people.
Weighted blankets are a viable alternative to drugs and psychotherapy treatment that might not yield any tangible improvement.
Teens and adolescents who have a hard time falling and staying asleep due to the overwhelming symptoms of SPD can feel more ‘at ease’ sleeping with a weighted blanket.
Adults living with SPD use various coping mechanisms to help them get through the day. They experience the same symptoms as children, teens, and adolescents living with the condition.
Adults might be able to cope with people around them by communicating how they are feeling. However, that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming, and people may simply not understand how they’re feeling.
Weighted blankets can help adults manage sensory overload throughout the day and feel more relaxed to sleep through the night.
How to choose a weighted blanket for a person with SPD
People with special needs like those living with SPD and others on the Autism spectrum could use some extra weight to help them relax and feel calm.
However, to get the full benefits of using one, the age, sex and size of the user must all be considered.
Weighted blankets range from 5lbs. to 25lbs. on the average. The suitable weight of blanket will depend on the body dimensions of the intended user.
The best way to choose a weighted blanket to suit a child or adult is by using their ideal body weight.
A weighted blanket should cover at least 95% of the entire body, or it’s too small. There are small, medium and large sized options for every size of the user.
The two most important measures to consider when buying a weighted blanket are the length and width. Bed dimensions can be used to get an idea of the right size to swaddle the person completely.
Bear in mind that a weighted blanket is not meant to be a duvet or cover for the bed, but a wraparound tool for a person with SPD.
A person living with SPD typically has severe touch (tactile) sensitivities. They can feel uncomfortable at the slightest touch.
Since they are oversensitive to touch, children with SPD won’t like getting hugged, even by family. People who live with them must find other creative ways to show affection.
To choose a weighted blanket for a person with SPD, you must carefully select the fabrics. It’s always a good idea to ask the person what they feel more comfortable with before buying.
Fortunately, weighted blankets come in a wide variety of fabrics with varying levels of tactile input. Softer blankets could be more bearable for people with SPD.
There are a wide variety of fabrics to choose from including:
- Cotton (100% Cotton and Cotton blends for added breathability and comfort)
- Minky fabric
- Rayon-Cotton blend
Pro Tip: Always go for the softer fabrics when buying a weighted blanket for a person with SPD.
If the person has heat sensitivities or living in a warmer climate, look for more breathable fabrics to prevent their bodies from overheating.
Weighted blankets can provide the right amount of sensory input to help people with sensory processing issues feel less overwhelmed with all that’s happening around them.
However, the person must be involved in making a selection so they could find a blanket they feel most comfortable using.
Finding the right weight, size and texture of the fabric are critical for choosing a blanket that provides all the comfort they can get.