Frequently, children with autism who are working with an Occupational Therapist or are involved in Sensory Integration Therapy will be recommended to use a weighted vest. This is ‘‘a vest that typically has 10% of a person’s body weight evenly distributed around the vest.’’ (Olson and Moulton 2004)
Some common reasons a teacher or therapist may recommend a weighted vest:
- To improve a child’s focus so they can pay attention to academic work in the classroom.
- To provide deep pressure stimulation that has a calming effect.
- To help decrease stereotypical behaviors.
Increase Attention to Academic Work
Research indicates that children with attention difficulties, including those on the autism spectrum, benefit from weighted vests.
- In one study focusing on children with attention disorders, “on-task behavior increased by 18% to 25% in all 4 students.”
- A study of autistic preschoolers found “that for these 5 children with PDD, the use of a weighted vest resulted in an increase in attention to task.”
- A study of children with ADHD found that children wearing weighted vests at school displayed significant improvements in attention-to-task, in-seat behavior; and they completed academic tasks more quickly.
Please note: weighted vests do not work for everyone, and they do not work with all children with special needs. It's also, it’s important to keep in mind that they are often used with other strategies.
A Calming Tool
A current theory is that weighted vests provide deep pressure stimulation that has a calming effect on the brain. It has been suggested that deep pressure may affect the limbic system (AKA the emotional brain) which can prompt a fight-or-flight response to emotionally charged or negative situations. There is little research in this area however, anecdotally teachers and therapists report using them as a convenient calming tool in school settings that doesn't distract classmates.
Do weighted vests decrease “stimming” or stereotypical behaviors in children with autism?
Many believe that because weighted vests are calming, they can help decrease stereotypical behaviors in children with autism. Some therapists recommend alternatives such as weighted blankets, belts, or wrist weights. However, there has been very little research on this.
While weighted vests are helpful for some children with autism, they are not appropriate for all children on the spectrum. For those who are having difficulty staying on task, or frequently become over-stimulated, it may be a good idea to try a weighted one. However, it is very important to pay close attention to the child especially if they have significant communication difficulties. If the child is uncomfortable or there is no noticeable positive change, then it shouldn’t be used.