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A weighted blanket is a type of blanket equipped with evenly distributed weights. These weights make it heavier than a typical blanket and provide pressure and possibly a sense of security to the people who use them.
In the autism community, weighted blankets are often used by occupational therapists (OTs) to help calm or comfort restless or stressed individuals. They’re also used to help with the sleep and anxiety issues that are common in people with autism spectrum disorder.
OTs and their patients alike seem to generally prefer the use of weighted blankets to regular blankets. However, the science-based benefits — and more specifically, benefits for autistic children— are significantly less clear. Read on to learn more.
There is a lack of research into the direct use of weighted blankets as a calming tool or sleep aid in children. Most studies instead cite results of a 1999 study regarding the benefits of deep pressure stimulation using Temple Grandin’s “hug machine.” (Temple Grandin is an autistic adult and an important advocate for the autism community.)
The 1999 study, as well as more recent studies, found deep pressure stimulation to be beneficial to autistic people. However, no studies have shown that weighted blankets actually provide deep pressure stimulation. Instead they draw parallels between the sort of pressure the hug machine provided in the study and the fact that more weight must mean more pressure.
The largest autism/weighted blanket-specific study included 67 autistic children, ranging in age from 5 to 16 years old. Participants with severe sleep disorder showed no significant improvement in objective measurements of total sleep time, time to fall asleep, or frequency of waking.
Subjectively, however, both the participants and their parents preferred the weighted blanket to the normal blanket.
Though positive studies in children are lacking, one study in adults showed a 63 percent reduction in self-reported stress. Seventy-eight percent of participants preferred the weighted blanket for calming. Though this is subjective, the study also monitored vital signs and measured symptoms of distress. Researchers used this information to determine that the weighted blankets were safe.
A Canadian school-based fatality attributed to improper use of a weighted blanket on an autistic child in 2008 led the Autism Society of Canada to issue a warning about weighted blankets. The memo provided guidelines for the safe use of weighted blankets as both sleep aids and stress relievers.
Further studies are needed to provide a direct link between deep pressure stimulation studies and weighted blankets.
Weighted blankets have been used for decades in the OT field, and both OTs and participants in numerous studies prefer them.
Someone who prefers a specific blanket might be more relaxed using it. OT and parent testimonials indicate positive results, so there’s reason to believe that the blankets might be beneficial. Future studies might be designed to further investigate this.
When it comes to how much your weighted blanket should weigh, there are some general guidelines. “Most people recommend 10 percent of the person’s body weight, but research and experience has shown that number is closer to 20 percent,” says Kristi Langslet, OTR/L.
Most blanket manufacturers also have guidelines for safe use and proper sizing of the blankets.
Weighted blankets can be found online from multiple outlets. These include:
Research has found weighted blankets to be safe for adults, but so far nothing has been found to suggest they’re significantly therapeutic for autistic children. OTs, parents, and participants in studies show a clear preference for the weighted blankets versus their counterparts. You may find it worthwhile to try a weighted blanket and see if it eases symptoms of anxiety and sleeplessness.