10 Benefits of Weighted Vests for children with Autism
originally written for and published on Harkla.co
Sensory Processing & Autism
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.
What is a Weighted Vest?
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.
Researching Weighted Vests
While weighted vests are common recommendations by occupational therapists, the research behind these sensory tools is inconsistent depending on the targeted outcome.
A 2001 study published in American 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 the American 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.
The research behind deep touch pressure is supportive for promoting physiological regulation (respiration rate, heart rate, blood pressure) and reducing 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.
Weighted Vests for Your Child with Autism
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 to your 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:
10 Benefits of Weighted Vests
Increased seated time on-task
Decrease self-stimulatory behaviors
Promote calm and organization
Assist with self-regulation
Reduced frequency of sensory overload
Improved body awareness
Increases therapeutic carryover of sensory diet activities
How to Best Use a Weighted Vest
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:
Generating a weighted vest wearing schedule should be done in consultation with your child’s OT. Unfortunately, the research is inconsistent in giving a clear guideline for wearing schedules, however, it is recommended to initially introduce the weighted vest during a preferred activity. If the child should wear the weighted vest for the 20-40 minute activity, be sure to remove the vest for the same time period to allow the nervous system to reset. Some parents and educators feel that the compression vests are helpful during especially stressful times (i.e. school assemblies, doctor’s appointments). Should your child require additional, more consistent input throughout the day, consider adding a tight-fitting undershirt (lycra-based).
Set up your child’s weighted vest so that it is 5-10% of their body weight. So, if your child is 40 lbs, the vest weight would be 2-4 lbs. This is important as you do not want to overstrain their bodies with more weight than what is safe. The weight should be evenly distributed as much as possible.
Identify a simple way to measure the effectiveness of the weighted vest. This can be done with the help of your child’s Occupational Therapist or teacher. Keep in mind what you identified as the “why” behind choosing a weighted vest. By developing a progress monitoring tool that is specific to your child, you will know what works and what doesn’t!
How to Choose the Right Weighted Vest
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:
Some weighted vests have a lycra component that is form-fitting and offers active hugging or compression in addition to having weighted pockets. This may be helpful for children who seek out deep pressure and prefer tight-fitting clothes.
The fabric of the weighted vest is just as important to consider as the wearing schedule and weight factors! What does your child naturally gravitate towards when choosing his/her clothes? If they avoid denim or corduroy at all costs, don’t expect a weighted vest made of those materials to be welcomed! Choose fabrics that are preferred and suited to the activity level of your child.
Consider how often your child will be changing in/out of the vest and the easiest way to do that: snaps, zippers, velcro? Rear-closing for adult-only fastening or front-closing for independence?