For adults and children with sensory processing disorder, everyday stimuli can be overwhelming and even a source of pain. When those around you don't seem to get bothered by routine noises, light and touch, it can be difficult to make others understand just how disruptive sensory processing disorder can be.
Fortunately, self-soothing tools like weighted blankets may help people with sensory processing disorder feel less anxious and more grounded. We explain how weighted blankets work and what research says about this popular calming tool.
What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?
In people with sensory processing disorder, the brain has difficulty receiving and processing information taken in via the senses. When the brain is functioning normally, it takes in external stimuli received through the five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound) and processes them accordingly. For example, if you hear a loud siren, you might wince or cover your ears. Or if someone nudges your arm to get your attention, you’ll likely turn around to see what they want. Bang your elbow? You might say “ouch” and yank your arm away from the source of the pain.
For adults and kids with a sensory processing disorder, however, there is a disconnect between external stimuli and the way the brain takes in and responds to information. The sound of a siren might be overwhelming or painful. As WebMD points out, “In some children, for example, the sound of a leaf blower outside the window may cause them to vomit or dive under the table.” Basic, routine touches — like the feel of clothing against the skin or a metal zipper touching the body — can be unbearable.
The Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder quotes psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. A. Jean Ayres, who compares sensory processing disorder to a neurological “traffic jam.” Information taken in through the senses gets jumbled and disorganized. As the Star Institute states, “Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other problems impact those who do not have effective treatment.”
Some people with sensory processing disorder are hypersensitive to stimuli, which means they feel or perceive sensory information more acutely than those without sensory processing disorder. But in other people, sensory processing disorder takes the form of hyposensitivity, which means they perceive sensory input less intensely. For example, they might fail to jerk their hand away from scalding water, or they might barely register banging their elbow against a table. Because they don’t experience stimuli as intensely, they might also crave extra sensory input like frequent hugs or loud noises.
It’s also worth pointing out that not everyone with sensory processing disorder experiences it the same way or with the same intensity. For some people, problematic stimuli are a bothersome but tolerable part of life. For others, sensory overload is a major challenge in just about every area.
The bottom line is that sensory processing disorder occurs on a spectrum. Some individuals may struggle with intense hypersensitivity that interferes with their learning and socialization, whereas others may find it easier to self-soothe.
Sensory Processing Disorder Meltdowns
In children who aren’t old enough to express their frustration, sensory processing order can sometimes lead to meltdowns. While most young children (regardless of whether they have sensory processing disorder) will throw a tantrum every now and then, meltdowns are different. When a child with sensory processing disorder has a meltdown, it’s his or her way of responding to sensory overload.
Even if you don’t have sensory processing disorder, there’s a chance you might have experienced what sensory overload feels like — or even what it feels like to be on the verge of a meltdown. If you have ever stood near the bass speakers at a concert, or you’ve had the misfortune to get seated near the DJ booth at a wedding reception, you might have experienced ringing ears, a headache or feelings of frustration due to the constant pummeling of your senses.
Or perhaps you’ve visited an amusement park on a sweltering day. Hours of exposure to loud noise and bright sunlight can leave you feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and cranky. For kids and adults with sensory processing disorder, these same feelings are often brought on by less intense stimuli that most of us can tolerate with no problem.
Although people without sensory processing disorder might not truly understand the challenges it poses, we can all relate to sensory overload. This understanding is an important tool when it comes to helping our loved ones with sensory processing disorder to learn how to self-soothe and use the calming tools available to them.
5 Popular Calming Tools for Sensory Processing Disorder
For children with sensory processing disorder, self-soothing can be a great way to manage sensory overload and prevent meltdowns. Self-soothing techniques are also important for adults who have sensory processing disorder. Here are five popular calming tools to consider.
Putty or Dough
Pediatric therapists often recommend resistive hand materials like putty or dough for children with sensory processing disorder. Not only is putty fun to squish and manipulative, it strengthens the muscles in the hands and helps kids self-soothe. You can use regular Play-Doh you can buy in the store. Many big box stores now also sell “thinking” putty designed to keep small hands and minds calm and occupied. This putty comes in a fun variety of colors and textures.
Do-it-yourself enthusiasts may also enjoy making putty at home. PBS has an easy-to-follow tutorial for making homemade silly putty. Best of all, the ingredients are simple and probably already on hand in your kitchen pantry. You’ll need white glue, concentrated liquid starch and some elbow grease. You can also add food coloring if you prefer colored putty.
Stress Ball (Squeeze Ball)
Stress balls or squeeze balls are small, squishy balls made to fit in the palm of your hand. You can find them just about everywhere, including online. Because they’re so small, stress balls are great for self-soothing on the go.
If you’re on a tight budget or you’re pressed for time, you can even make your own stress ball. The DIY version is also a great craft idea to keep little ones busy on a rainy day. All you need is a latex balloon (preferably a thick one) and a suitable filler. Ideas for filler include sand, flour, rice, baby powder and coffee grounds.
First, blow up the balloon and then release the air — this stretches it out and makes it easier to fill. Then, use a funnel to fill the balloon until it’s about the size of your palm. Finally, tie it off securely, and you’re done! Some parents like to make several stress balls with various fillers to give their child a range of different sensory items to squeeze.
Some occupational therapists may recommend trying essential oils to help promote self-soothing in children and adults with sensory processing disorders. Founded by Dr. Robert Melillo, the Brain Balance Achievement Centers suggests several different essential oils for improving behavior in children with sensory processing disorder.
According to the site’s recommendations, certain essential oils may have calming and relaxing qualities. These oils include lavender, geranium, bergamot, neroli, sandalwood and ylang ylang. As with any type of therapy or treatment, however, it’s important to first consult your doctor or therapist.
If you’d like to fill a room or area with the scent of an essential oil, it’s useful to have a diffuser, which uses water to release a steady stream of oil into the air. You can find everything you need for getting started with essential oils on our essential oils page.
Weighted blankets may help children and adults with sensory processing disorder feel calmer and more relaxed. Research has also shown that weighted blankets help reduce insomnia and ease pain. Although weights can vary depending on the user’s needs and comfort level, weighted blankets are usually made with 10 percent of the individual’s body weight. This allows the blanket to provide firm but gentle pressure known as “deep pressure touch” or deep pressure stimulation.
According to research published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, “The application of deep pressure, through for example weighted vests and blankets, has been reported to produce a calming and relaxing effect in clinical conditions such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and pervasive developmental disorders. Applying deep pressure has been shown to be beneficial for children with high levels of anxiety or arousal and deep pressure touch may also alleviate anxiety…”
At Luna, we have been the industry leader in weighted blankets for a decade. Our blankets are beautifully made and designed to look like a regular blanket — not a therapy tool. Available in a wide range of colors, patterns and weights, our weighted blankets are a popular self-soothing tool for adults and children with sensory processing disorder, ADHD, autism, insomnia and a host of other health conditions. We even hear from customers who use our blankets to reduce pain caused by fibromyalgia and restless leg syndrome.
Luna Weighted Blankets for Self-Soothing
Would a weighted blanket help you or your child experience fewer meltdowns? If you or a loved one has sensory processing disorder, you already know how important self-soothing can be. Research shows that weighted blankets can promote calm and ease anxiety. Using a weighted blanket is like getting a big, warm hug — without the sensory overload.
To learn more, or to order your weighted blanket today, visit our order page to browse our available fabrics.
Questions? Give us a call at 212-473-4013, or use our online contact form to get in touch with our team.
Disclaimer: The content on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any type of therapy or treatment.