For some autistic people, weighted blankets can provide sleep support or anxiety relief.
The warm pressure of a caring embrace is often calming and comforting. While some of the relief you feel may come from knowing you’re cared for, the physical act of being held can be rewarding on its own.
If you have autism and experience sensory overload, a weighted blanket may be a practical choice to provide constant, calming pressure through the night.
Weighted blankets look just like regular blankets. You can find them in many sizes, colors, and fabrics. Unlike standard blankets, though, a weighted blanket has a filler added that creates an equal weight distribution.
Common weighted blanket fillers include:
- plastic pellets
- glass beads
- ball bearings
Depending on the manufacturer, you can find weighted blankets starting around 3 pounds for children and up to 35 pounds for adults.
The weighted blanket’s therapeutic use for autism came about as a result of sensory integration theory. It suggests deep pressure has a calming effect on the nervous system for some people who are sensitive to touch.
Sensory differences are common in autism. You may crave touch or shy away from it. You may also experience sensitivities that involve your other senses and body awareness.
If you have touch sensitivity, irregular sensations can be agitating and unbearable. You might find firm, widespread contact more comfortable and even soothing.
Signs of touch sensitivity may include:
- withdrawing from touch
- refusing clothing or food with certain textures
- dislike of getting hands covered in something
- touching things only with the fingertips to keep contact minimal
- dislike of having skin or hair washed
Under sensory integration theory, using weighted blankets, toys, or vests may ease hypersensitivity to touch.
How you relate to your body with autism may also have something to do with the comfort of a weighted blanket, according to Rebecca Jackson, vice president of programs and outcomes and board certified cognitive specialist for Brain Balance in Cary, North Carolina.
“Individuals with autism often have dampened perception of their ability to sense and feel their own bodies,” she explains. “Each joint in our body has receptors sending constant messages to our brain providing input over position and movement.”
Jackson notes that being able to sense your body position and movements can be comforting and grounding and allow you greater control over your body and reactions.
It’s likely, but still under debate.
Despite their widespread usage, research behind weighted blankets and autism is limited and mixed. Much of the supportive evidence has only recently been published.
A 2020 systematic review of 8 weighted blanket studies found potential therapeutic benefits for anxiety reduction.
Authors noted there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest the blankets affected insomnia but explained research in the field was lacking.
Before this, the largest study investigating weighted blankets and autism occurred in 2014. It also found no significant sleep improvements, but participants preferred the weighted blankets to standard options.
These findings on sleep are contrary to those from a 2021 retrospective follow-up study of autistic children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In this research, weighted blankets did improve:
- ability to fall asleep
- sleep throughout the night
- relaxation during the day
- morning routine
- ease of waking up
Those findings showed a decreased time to fall asleep and an improved morning mood. Authors noted, however, their results weren’t significant enough to make a clinical recommendation.
Even more weighted blanket support comes from a study focused on adults hospitalized for mental health treatment. According to the research, using a weighted blanket was linked to a 60% reduction in anxiety.
Some manufacturers recommend your weighted blanket should be approximately 10% of your body weight as an adult. Your personal preference may be slightly more or less than that amount.
For children, the 10% recommendation isn’t always practical or safe. The average weighted blanket is between 3 and 12 pounds for children.
In some cases, using a weighted blanket in very young children may increase the chances of suffocation.
A healthcare professional can help you determine what’s suitable for your child’s needs.
You may not want to use a weighted blanket if you experience:
- respiratory disorders, like asthma
- obstructive sleep apnea
- low blood pressure
- type 2 diabetes
You can use the weighted blanket at night as you would your regular blanket. If you use additional standard blankets, they may increase the amount of pressure you feel.
You can buy weighted blankets online, or you can check with your local sleep clinic.
The National Autism Resources offers children’s weighted blanket options, as well as lap pads and easy-clean selections.
Living with hypersensitivity and anxiety as an autistic person can pose many challenges, even when sleeping.
Weighted blankets may offer an in-home way to improve your slumber by helping you feel relaxed and calm.
“Both motion and weight increase the signal response providing more input to the brain,” says Jackson. “The weighted blankets can provide this increased input and comfort.”
If you or someone you know is autistic and wants to try a weighted blanket, a healthcare professional can help you decide what options are suitable for you.