For children with a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), even the simplest task can trigger a sensory overload. The lights are too bright. The shirt material too itchy and a crowded place is overwhelming.
Their senses are in control of every thought, and their brain simply cannot cope.
Although there is no cure for SPD, there are ways to ease your child’s symptoms. For years, occupational therapists have recognized the therapeutic power of weighted blankets.
WHAT IS SPD?
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that exists when sensory signals don’t get organised into appropriate responses. People with SPD find it difficult to process sensory information (e.g. sound, touch and movement) from the world around them. This means that they may feel sensory input more or less intensely than other people. SPD can therefore impact on a person’s ability to interact in different environments and perform daily activities.
Whether your child is a sensory seeker or avoider, the root of the problem is the same. There is a malfunction in one of their senses. This causes the nervous system to send an abnormal number of neural signals to the brain. This interferes with other cerebral processes, creating an excess in brain activity. As a result, the brain becomes overwhelmed.
The brain tries to calm everything down by causing unwanted sensory behaviors. For example, the tactile system lets us know when something is too hot, or when we are in pain. If someone has a tactile dysfunction, they are unable to tolerate physical touch. They may avoid certain food or not like to get their hands dirty.
Components of dysfunction of sensory integration:
Sensory Modulation Disorder is a problem with turning sensory messages into controlled behaviours that match the nature and intensity of the sensory information.Common symptoms include:
- Withdrawing from light and unexpected touch
- Gagging and refusal to eat textured foods
- Dislike of teeth-brushing, hair washing, or nail cutting
- Avoidance of messy textures such as dirt or lotion
- Strong preferences to certain types of clothing, including textures and fit
- Oversensitivity to sounds or visual stimuli
Sensory-Based Motor Disorder is a problem with stabilising, moving or planning a series of movements in response to sensory demands.Symptoms may include:
- Trouble performing activities of daily living
- Accident-prone and clumsiness
- Resists new activities
- Poor playing skills
- Poor fine motor coordination
- Poor articulation
Postural-Ocular Disorder: Children with postural-ocular disorder have problems controlling or stabilizing the body during movements or at rest. Muscles may be hypo or hypertonic and joints may be unstable. Poor usage of vision and oculomotor control. Symptoms may include:
- Poor posture control or strength
- Poor equilibrium and balance
- Difficulty isolating head-eye movements
- Poor tracking of visual stimuli
- Avoidance of upper extremity weight bearing
- Discomfort climbing or fear of heights
- Tires easily
- Challenges establishing dominant hand (right or left handedness)
Sensory Discrimination Disorder is a problem with sensing similarities and differences between sensations.Symptoms may include:
- Difficulty manipulating an object when out of sight
- Difficulties following directions
- Challenges distinguishing between similar sounds
- Problems finding an image in a cluttered background
- Uses too much or too little force
- Poor balance
- Poor sense of movement speed
To combat these symptoms, occupational therapists (OT) use Sensory Integration Therapy. Sensory integration is an attempt to change the way the brain reacts to sound, light, touch, and movement.
After the OT’s initial assessment, he or she will plan what is called a “sensory diet.” Although it’s called a diet, a sensory diet has nothing to do with food. It is a personalized list of play activities that fulfill the craving for sensory input.
SPD AND WEIGHTED BLANKETS
Weighted blankets provide proprioceptive (is the process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces, by utilizing stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body) sensory input which calms the body’s natural “fight or flight” response. This provides your child with the tools they need to self-soothe before or during a meltdown.
Designed to weigh 10 to 15% of your child’s body weight, weighted blankets use the same effects of swaddling a baby or a hug from a loved one. The extra weight puts pressure on the nervous system which immediately calms the mind and body. The scientific term for this effect is called Deep Pressure Therapy.
Weighted blankets are usually filled with non-toxic plastic poly pellets, similar to Beanie Babies. Best of all, the blankets are soft, comfortable and come in a variety of colors and designs.
But how does something as simple as a weighted blanket have such a profound effect on your child’s SPD symptoms?
HOW DO WEIGHTED BLANKETS WORK?
Deep Pressure Therapy puts pressure on the body’s sensory receptors. This has a calming effect on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
As a division of the nervous system, the ANS controls unconscious actions, such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. This system can be further broken down into two sections.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the body’s “fight or flight” response. It releases hormones which increase blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing. Try to remember the last time you were nervous. Maybe it was before I test or a meeting at work. How did you feel? Your heart was probably pounding. Your palms may have been sweaty, and it may have been hard to think about the task at hand.
That was your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) at work.
The second section of the ANS is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This section is the exact opposite of the SNS and is dominant during peaceful, quiet times. The PSNS calms the body down by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
Now try to remember how you feel when you’re taking a bath, or even before you go to sleep. Your breathing is slower. Your thoughts stop racing, and you feel calmer and at peace.
That is your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS).
When you’re in a state of stress, your body is constantly in a “fight or flight” response, meaning your SNS is dominant. This can make it impossible to calm down and can greatly affect your thinking, concentration, and sleep.
When Deep Pressure Therapy is applied to the body, the Autonomic Nervous System becomes balanced. The body’s “fight or flight” response decreases, while the calming PSNS is activated.
This opposite movement within the Autonomic Nervous System not only calms the body down, but helps regulate emotions.
BENEFITS OF WEIGHTED BLANKETS FOR SPD CHILDREN
Whether used at therapy, school, or at home, weighted blankets have been proven to soothe SPD symptoms. Therapeutic benefits include:
Deep Pressure Therapy has a positive effect on the hormone levels. Researchers found that compressing the body’s sensory receptors actually increases “happy” serotonin levels by 28% percent. They also found that the stress hormone, cortisol, decreased by 31%.
NATURAL SLEEP AID
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers found that sleep time increased during weighted blanket use. Participants also found it easier to fall asleep, and woke up more refreshed in the morning.
The body’s internal clock is controlled by a hormone called melatonin. Weighted blankets increase melatonin production, making it easier to fall asleep at night.
INCREASED SPATIAL AWARENESS
When your child lays under the weighted blanket, the fabric puts pressure on their sensory receptors. This proprioceptive input benefits your child by allowing them to feel their body’s movements. They can sense when their arm is outstretched or when their knee is bent. This sensory information gives your child a better understanding of their body’s location.
Children with SPD have a hard time filtering and organizing sensory input. This overflow of information puts stress on the nervous system, causing sensory meltdowns. Sensory input, like cuddling and Deep Pressure Therapy, calms the body’s “fight or flight” response. Weighted blankets make your child feel safe, soothing their overly stimulated senses.
WHEN CAN YOU USE A WEIGHTED BLANKET?
Weighted blankets can be used in a variety of situations, including:
- Transitioning from high to low energy activities (coming home from school and after recess)
- Calming down before bed
- During long car rides
- In the classroom or while doing homework
- After a sensory meltdown