Over the past 6 years in my role of developing Snug Vest, a Deep Pressure Therapy tool, I have researched sensory integration and Deep Pressure Therapy extensively, and have spoken with numerous doctors, Occupational Therapists (OTs), sensory integration health practitioners, and neuro-developmental specialists. Previous to this, I worked in classrooms directly with children on the spectrum for several years. I would love to share my knowledge with you on dysfunctions of the sensory system, and how Deep Pressure Therapy is a safe and effective therapy that can help to regulate the sensory system when it is dysregulated to help your child feel calm. Before discussing how Deep Pressure Therapy works – a type of Sensory Integration Therapy, I will explain how the sensory system gets ‘out of sync’, and later provide some hands-on techniques that can be implemented in the home right away to (hopefully) get your child feeling calm and focused!
Part One: Understanding the Sensory System – and why your kiddos do the things they do as a result of their sensory environments
We must understand that our development is impacted by our sensory systems. Many children with autism have a hard time processing their senses. With some senses, our kiddos may be overly-sensitive (hyper-sensitive), and in other senses, our kiddos may be under-sensitive (hypo-sensitive). In other words, a sensory seeker versus sensory avoider. “We are all sensory beings with our own sensory preferences that motivate our choices in life.” – Megan Eastwood, OT.
We all are taught in school we have 5 senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. (Also referred to as the visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, and olfactory senses.) What most of us are not taught, is all about our vestibular sense (balance), and our proprioceptive sense (body / special awareness). When children have challenges with their vestibular and proprioceptive sense, they may be posed as “clumsy” and can appear that they are crashing into things, tripping, or not walking straight.
Sensory modulation is the ability to regulate arousal levels to adapt to environmental demand in order to optimize learning and performance. What does that mean? Imagine you are in a classroom, and throughout the day, a series of sensory events happen over time such as a loud school bell ringing. Everyone will react differently to each sensory event. Because some kids with autism’s sensory systems cannot process and integrate the sensory information being thrown at them, their sensory systems cannot regulate their arousal level to stay in the “just right zone” – the optimal level of arousal. They may be under-responsive to a particular sensory event, or they may be over-responsive to that specific sensory event. If a child becomes too over-aroused and overwhelmed, they will experience ‘sensory overload’ leading to ‘sensory shutdown’ thus resulting in meltdowns, tantrums, panic attacks, self-injury, and other various unwanted behaviors.
There are ways we can we adapt our child’s environments to be more sensory friendly in order to keep our child’s sensory system in the optimal level of arousal. There are also various therapies, techniques, and tools that can be used to help keep them in that golden zone – one being Deep Pressure Therapy.
Part Two: Discover how to regulate your child’s sensory system when it is overwhelmed by using Deep Pressure Therapy
What is Deep Pressure Therapy?
The application of pressure on the body, also known as Deep Pressure Therapy, helps to calm, organize and regulate the sensory system. That’s why firm hugs and holds are calming and relaxing! Pressure can be used to help regulate the sensory system when it is over-whelmed and over-aroused from environmental input and sensory overload. Pressure can also be used as a preventative tool to keep the sensory system in an optimal, “just right” zone to help mitigate over-responsiveness.
When pressure is applied to the torso, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system which slows heart rate, relaxes our muscles, and gets us out of our ‘fight or flight’ mode, resulting in lowered anxiety and calming effects. Research studies have shown a reduction of cortisol and adrenalin which are stress indicators, and an increase in oxytocin.
“Physiologically we are looking at turning off the stress response. Pressure turns off many of the experiences in the autonomic nervous system that cause anxiety and simultaneously provide serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is our chemistry of balance to make us feel modulated and organized, and helps the brain find its state of homeostasis. When those things are happening, you have a much better chance of coping with the environment that you are in.” – Kim Barthel, Occupational Therapist and Neurobiologist.
How do I know Deep Pressure is Right for my Child?
“When you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism”. Because every kiddo with autism is so different from one another, Deep Pressure affects each individual differently. Like all other therapies, it’s trial and error, and reactions can vary greatly. “The physiological phenomenon happens while you are experiencing the pressure and the carry-over is variable depending on the person, which is the part that is so difficult to predict. How much pressure do we use? For how long? Many of the protocols do not meet the needs of the individual person because each person’s sense of what they determine as helpful is very unique to them.” – Kim Barthel, Occupational Therapist and Neurobiologist.
What can Deep Pressure do?
It has been reported that Deep Pressure can help with the following:
– increase focus and attention (leading to learning acceleration & improved grades)
– decrease severity & frequency of tantrums & meltdowns
– improve social & communication skills
– reduce anxiety / induce a calming effect
– reduce hypersensitivity & tactile defensiveness
– reduce self-injury
– reduce repetitive body movements (stimming)
– improve balance & spacial awareness (knowing where your body is in space)
How to Provide Deep Pressure Therapy?
If your child has an Occupational Therapist (OT), it is a great idea that you consult with their OT. Deep Pressure should never be forced, should be used under supervision, and pressure should not be placed directly on the stomach or chest. Gauge things on your child’s reactions – you know your child the best!
Some Techniques you can Implement at Home Right Away
You can roll your child up in a large matt, blanket, or carpet to provide them with pressure. I like to call this the ‘burrito roll’! Always be sure that your child’s head and arms are out of the roll for safety. Provide your child pressure with calming hugs, holds and swaddles. Some like squeezes on different body parts – head, legs, hands, etc. Be sure to use the flat part of your hand. Your child can also receive Deep Pressure input by lying in bean-bag chairs, hammocks, and placing weighted items on their lap when sitting. Other various tools can also be used such as weighted vests and blankets (vest with weights inside), compression garments (tight stretchy neoprene clothing), and Snug Vest (which uses air to provide adjustable pressure controlled by the wearer.)
I hope that this post has helped provide you a further understanding of the sensory system and how Deep Pressure works. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out at anytime: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s to a bright future on the path to a healthy, safe, and holistic recovery! May hope remain in you every step of the way.
Lisa Fraser is the Founder and President of Snug Vest. Lisa worked with special needs children for 8 years and is passionate about developing products that make a difference in people’s lives. While taking a user-centered and collaborative approach to business & design, she describes her work as made with love and is dedicated to improving the quality of life for many.
1. Sensory Overload (still from “Sensory Overload: Interacting with Autism Project”) https://vimeo.com/52193530
2. Deep Pressure Therapy: Johnny seeking pressure (3runningincircles.com)