10 min · Autism
February 1, 2021

Deep Pressure Therapy for Autism

Deep pressure or deep touch pressure is a form of tactile sensory input. This input is most often delivered through firm holding, cuddling, hugging, firm stroking, and squeezing.

However, before we get into too much detail about deep touch pressure, we need to understand our body’s sensory system and why deep touch pressure emerged in the first place.

Neurologically, sensory processing is how we feel. Through processing sensory input, we make sense of the world around us. In everything we do, we are receiving sensory messages from both our bodies and the surrounding world.

Sensory systems provide vital information that we use on a daily basis to achieve things. We process these sensory data not realizing them in general. Every area of our lives is affected by sensory processing.

Sensory integration is the process the central nervous system goes through where our brain receives sensory information from our body’s eight senses, processes this data, and responds in line with it.

Our body receives information through the following eight sensory systems:

  • Visual (sight)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Auditory (sound)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Vestibular (movement)
  • Gustatory (taste)
  • Proprioceptive (input from muscles and joints)
  • Interoception (internal sensors for physiological conditions)

When the central nervous system has difficulty while processing these sensory data, the body may respond in atypical manner. These atypical manners can be observed in the individual’s struggles in language, social, emotional, or motor skills.

Individuals with certain conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder(SPD), depression, and Alzheimer’s may experience sensory overload. This is partly caused by them having difficulty to inhibit or filter non-essential sensory information like background noise.

Anna Jean Ayres , Ph.D., a pioneering occupational therapist, and neuroscientist, likened the Sensory Processing Disorder to a neurological ” traffic jam ”. According to Dr. Ayres, an individual with SPD finds it difficult to process the information received through the senses.

This sensory processing difficulties, meaning the traffic jam in the brain, prevents parts of the said brain from receiving information that is necessary to correctly interpret sensory information. Individuals with SPD also struggle to act upon this information. This, in turn, creates challenging moments during mundane everyday tasks.

deep pressure therapy

ASD and SPD

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder often have sensory processing difficulties in their lives. One of the core symptoms of autism is specified to be hyper- or hypoactivity to sensory input. People with autism can also have unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment, like being indifferent to pain or oversensitivity to specific textures and smells.

Sensory processing disorder can hinder an autistic person’s ability to function comfortably in day to day life. They may struggle with being in a room with bright lights, wearing clothes made out of certain materials (like a wool sweater), or respond inappropriately to pain.

All of these can interfere with the ability to attend classes in a typical classroom or socialize with other students. Avoiding these sensory inputs is not always the most ideal coping mechanism. Although a child with autism can get an education in a classroom that is quiet or doesn’t have bright lights, these conditions are difficult to maintain in the long run.

The ideal thing to do is to provide a treatment or therapy of sorts so that the autistic child can interact successfully in a typical setting.

One of the eight sensory areas that sensory processing disorder impacts are proprioception . Proprioception is a person’s ability to sense how our muscle movements will change our position and lets us know where we are.

Individuals with autism who also have sensory issues in terms of propriception may need physical contact, which can make them crash into walls or surfaces or like being bear-hugged. They may have difficulty sleeping, be physically restless, or clumsy.

Here, deep touch therapy comes into the picture. In addition to other treatments for proprioceptive difficulties, deep touch therapy can have a calming effect and reduce anxiety, while improving the person’s sense of body awareness.

What is Deep Pressure Therapy?

In 1992, Dr. Temple Grandin who is a high-functioning autistic wrote a paper about her ”squeeze machine”. When she hit puberty, she felt anxiety and nervousness. She states in her paper that she felt like she was in a constant state of ”stage fright”.

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She was later retrospectively diagnosed with panic attacks according to DSM-III-R criteria. When she turned 18, she constructed a machine she called ”squeeze machine”. This was to help her calm down the anxiety and panic attacks.

She realized that using the machine for 15 minutes would reduce her anxiety for a period of time. When she used it twice a day, the effect was maximized.

This device essentially delivered a deep touch pressure that helped her learn to tolerate touching. In turn, her anxiety and nervousness were reduced. Clinical studies showed that this deep touch pressure was found to be beneficial for both children with autism and sensory processing disorder.

This squeeze machine was one of the first scientifically evaluated techniques for applying deep touch therapy. Through this, many individuals with autism found relief and a sense of calm.

As we mentioned before, deep touch pressure (DTP) is a form of tactile sensory information. This firm tactile sensory input provides proprioceptive input to the entire body. Proprioceptive input can be achieved through firm strokings, hugging, squeezing, compression, or swaddling.

Deep touch pressure has a calming effect when it is applied to the whole body. Its effects can be observed in both children and adults with autism.

Usually today, occupational therapists treat proprioceptive sensory processing disorder. However, their treatment methods still employ some of Grandin’s theories and techniques.

In these therapies, a variety of tools are utilized by the therapists, such as blankets, brushes, trampolines, or balls.

  • Using trampolines and having children with sensory issues jump up and down can give them sufficient tactile input to help them calm down
  • Weighted blankets or vests are used to provide relaxation and to reduce anxiety
  • Swings can help develop a better sense of the individual’s body in a particular space

Is Deep Touch Pressure Therapy Effective?

There have been various studies on the efficacy of deep touch therapy. A study on the immediate effects of deep pressure on young people with autism found that the therapy method is extremely helpful.

deep pressure at home

Another study conducted in 2016, however, suggested that the deep touch pressure interventions provide poor quality results in general and do not validate their current use for students with disabilities.

A 2001 study used weighted vests and found that all four students showed increased on-task behaviors by 18% to 25%. The study also found that three of these four students wanted to wear the vest outside the time of the study.

Another study conducted in 2008 with the vests revealed that 63% of the participants reported lower anxiety levels after use. In addition, 78% of them preferred the weighted blanket to calm themselves.

Similarly, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering found the physiological effects of Deep Touch Pressure, meaning the medical data such as blood pressure and heart rate, corresponded with the reported lower anxiety levels after use of weighted blanket use.

This study shows data that there is a change in nervous system activity following deep touch pressure use.

What is Deep Touch Pressure Therapy Used For?

Deep Touch Pressure Therapy is used to alleviate some of the symptoms that come with sensory processing difficulties. Deep pressure can help calm children with autism who experience hyper- or hypo-sensitivity.

Sensory processing difficulties come in many shapes and forms. As discussed in this article before, sensory processing issues cause high levels of anxiety in a person. Deep touch pressure therapy is used to help reduce arousal levels and anxiety.

Another purpose of deep touch pressure therapy is to support sensory modulation. This therapy triggers a calming reflex in the body when the individual is overwhelmed with the input received from the sensory systems.

Individuals with autism or sensory processing disorders have altered touch sensitivities. They can’t process the stimulation by eliminating the unnecessary sensory input. This causes them to be overloaded with sensory input, which in turn causes anxiety and panic.

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The application of Deep Pressure Therapy has proven to be an effective way to reduce stress in such cases.

Deep Pressure Therapy techniques release certain brain chemicals like dopamine and create a parasympathetic response in the body. This means the individual becomes calmer and relaxed. DPT also reduces the stress hormone known as cortisol.

DPT can be used to increase body awareness. For instance, using a swing can help better understand and get a sense of the child’s body in that space. Jumping up and down on trampolines can help provide sufficient tactile input for the child to calm down and reduce their anxiety.

How to Do Deep Pressure Therapy at Home

Deep Touch Pressure Therapy is generally carried out by occupational therapists. However, there are ways that you can implement DTP therapy at home.

Deep pressure therapy for autism is an option. But before getting started, it is important to do research and look into if this is a good option for you. DTP carries almost no risk and it is not expensive. There are many reports of improvement and benefits for people with autism or related sensory issues.

Ideally, an occupational therapist with sensory integration training and expertise in the field would be evaluating and treating your child. Although occupational therapy can be provided through schools free of charge to parents, not all of these therapists are trained in sensory integration and deep touch therapy.

If you are not able to find or afford an occupational therapist experienced in sensory integration, there are some Deep Touch Therapy methods you can introduce to your child’s routine at home.

What is Deep Touch Pressure Therapy Used For?

Here are some items for deep pressure therapy, as well as DTP products and activities you can try at home:

  • Weighted vests: When your child is doing their homework or having a meal, basically if they have a reason to be anxious during these times, have them wear a weighted vest.
  • Bear hugs: Tightly hug your child.
  • Weighted lap pads: Works similarly to weighted blankets. This mini blanket can be carried in your child’s backpack, making it easy to take it to school. They come in varying weights depending on the age and weight of the child.
  • Burrito: Just wrap your child firmly in a blanket, turning them into a burrito. Make sure that your child is comfortable and can breathe properly. The pressure from being wrapped around will have a calming effect.
  • Weighted blankets: You can purchase a weighted blanket and try it out at bedtime. You can also use them when your child seems particularly anxious. Weighted blankets are affordable DTP options that can be found on most online shops. You do not have to purchase a product specifically labeled ”therapeutic”.
  • Sandwich: Try to press your child between two soft pillows, applying appropriate pressure, making sure that they can breathe comfortably.
  • Bean bag chairs: Your child with autism can lay on their stomach or back for consistent pressure input on the majority of their body. Although it is a passive method in implementation, it can still be useful.
  • Hotdog roll: Lay your child at the end of an empty quilt cover and slowly roll them. You will be wrapping them up. Make sure that your child can breathe comfortably. You can also add a little bit of massage or even a squeeze if your child likes it.
  • Rough and tumble play
  • Massage: Deep touch pressure massage can be done with hands or with a pressure foam roller or spiky balls.
  • Deep vibration to the entire body
  • Climbing under the sofa cushions
  • Joint compressions

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Although many of these techniques can help, they may not work for everyone. Observe your child’s behavior prior to and after the use of deep touch pressure therapy methods. If you would like to know whether these work or not, carefully note how your child responds to the application.

For instance, observe your child’s morning routine when they have their breakfast sitting at a table. How often does it take them to finish their breakfast or whether or not they get anxious over a certain type of food? Then introduce a deep touch pressure therapy method, like a weighted lap pad. Are they eating more calmly now? Did it make any difference? Is the method problematic or is it helpful?

Children and adults with autism can both benefit from deep touch pressure therapy. More and more studies are being conducted on the topic, and every day new products emerge that offer portable solutions for the consumers needing deep touch pressure sensory tools.

It is important to remember that each person on the spectrum is different and will need or want different solutions. They will have their own personal preferences as to how to incorporate this sensory input into their everyday lives. Therefore, keep in mind that deep pressure therapy can be beneficial physiologically and emotionally, but the benefits and the methods should be well thought out and adjusted along the way in line with the child’s needs.

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This article is examined by Clinical Child Psychologist and Ph. D. Researcher Kevser Çakmak, and produced by Otsimo Editorial Team.

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