In our article,What You Need to Know about Sensory Issues & Autism, we outlined the statistics and connections between sensory processing disorder and autism spectrum disorder. The STAR institute estimates, based on their research, that 75% of children with autism have “significant symptoms of sensory processing disorder.”
For people with autism, the sensory processing dysfunction can manifest in language delays or deficits, fine and gross motor delays, strong sensory interests, sensory aversions, an inability to interact with people and objects, an inability to stay within an interaction, repetitive sensory stereotypies (stimming), and much more.
If you have a child with autism, his/her occupational therapist may have recommended a weighted vest to help with hyperactivity, focus, and/or self-stimulatory behaviors.
If you are unfamiliar with the basics of what a weighted vest is, it’s not overly complicated! A weighted vest is just that: a vest-like garment that is worn over clothing, with some additional weight either sewn into pockets or embedded in the fabric lining.
A weighted vest provides deep touch pressure (DTP) or proprioceptive which has a calming, organizing effect on the child and occupational therapists often recommend the wearables as part of a comprehensive sensory diet to help children with autism who have sensory processing disorder or self-regulation difficulties. For more information on weighted vests, and different weighted vest options, check out our article here.
While weighted vests are a common recommendation by occupational therapists, the research behind these sensory tools is inconsistent depending on the targeted outcome.
A 2001 study published inAmerican Journal of Occupational Therapy by Nancy L. VandenBerg, found that on-task behavior increased by 18-25% in all four subjects when a weighted vest was worn for tabletop fine motor tasks. Additionally, 3 of 4 subjects asked to wear the weighted vest beyond the testing periods.
Similar positive outcomes were noted in the 2001 study published in theAmerican Journal of Occupational Therapy by Doreen Fertel-Daly, Gary Bedell, Jim Hinojosa that looked at the positive effects of weighted vests on attention to task and decreasing self-stimulatory behaviors in preschoolers with Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
Theresearch behind deep touch pressure is supportive for promoting physiological regulation (respiration rate, heart rate, blood pressure) andreducing anxiety. Since the design and purpose of weighted vests and compression vests target the proprioceptive system by increasing the amount of input, it is logical to make the connection that the positive findings of DTP research would also be the case in product-specific research.
Unfortunately, the research on the effectiveness of weighted vests has been inconsistent through the years and additional research is necessary to build consensus. More research is needed to better understand and measure the observable changes with these products - from sensory, behavioral, attention, and social-emotional perspectives. However, subjective data from parents, therapists, and children is overwhelming positive and warrants an individualized approach to exploring weighted vests as sensory tools for your own tool box.
So, what is the takeaway as a parent when looking at conflicting research behind a recommended treatment approach?
Know what you want to see change with your child. What is the intended purpose of the weighted vest - focus, attention, body awareness, staying seated? If you know what to look at, you’ll be better able to speak toyour child’s response to a weighted vest. If you’re a parent of a child with autism, you know well that not every tool, strategy, or approach works the same for every child. A weighted vest is no different!
Here are some of the benefits that have been reported by weighted vest wearers, therapists, and parents:
The theory behind weighted vests is to provide the child with sustained deep pressure input to his/her muscles and joints (proprioception) as this type of sensory input is known to be calming and organizing.
Keep these considerations in mind:
Weighted vests are designed to be worn on top of a child’s clothing. That being said, it’s important to consider the material/texture of the vest as well as some of the properties of the fabric:
Weighted vests can be a helpful sensory strategy for children with autism when used appropriately and in-line with specific student needs. As with any sensory strategy or tool, be sure to consult your child’s occupational therapist for an individualized approach to making it all work as part of your child’s comprehensive sensory diet. There’s a lot to consider when selecting the right weighted vest for your child so please let us know if you have any questions or feedback!
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