Sensory Processing Disorder - What Is It & How Can a Sensory Blanket Help

Sensory processing disorder is a complex neurological condition that causes people who have it to misinterpret external stimuli. We’d like to say that it’s rare but, unfortunately, around 1 in 20 children in Australia are currently affected by the sensory disorder (SPD) to some degree. The condition is extremely disruptive to everyday life because it affects everything from how we receive a sensory input to how we react to it.

Fortunately, there are ways to cope with this disorder with the use of sensory tools. One such tool is a weighted blanket (also called a sensory blanket). Read on to find out how our blanket can help both adults and kids manage their sensory over or under-activity and avoid meltdowns.

Sensory Processing Disorder - How Does It Manifest

Illustration of a child covering their ears in a crowd, with his mother shielding him with her hands

To learn what SPD is, we first have to explain what regular sensory input looks like. Most of us operate in a state that is called ‘sensory integration’ - the ability of our brain to:

  • Receive and interpret stimuli as it was intended
  • Recognize what that stimuli is
  • Choose an appropriate response
  • Respond accordingly to stimuli

So, for example, when you put your hand on something hot, your brain receives that stimuli, recognizes that excessive heat is harmful, sends signals to the hand, and moves the hand away. That’s a normal response of every person who’s body knows how to react appropriately.

However, a person with a sensory processing disorder will not react the same. They may perceive something that’s merely warm as extremely hot, and overreact. Or, they might put their hand in scalding water and not register it until their skin is blistered. These two opposite conditions have their names:

  • Hyposensitive SPD - children and adults are over-reactive and avoid sensory input as much as they can.

  • Hyposensitive SPD - children and adults are under-reactive and seek out input (often need hugs or enjoy heavy sensory blankets, want to hold hands, need to be physically close to another person).

People with SPD can find everyday situations extremely uncomfortable or unbearable. For you, visiting a shopping mall is an everyday activity - for them, it can be a horror show with too many lights, people, and awful, mind-numbing noise. Some of them will react differently to rough fabric touching their skin, some to noise, others to light - it all depends on what particular sense they are having trouble with.

When a person (especially a child) with sensory processing disorder experiences an overload, it will often end in a meltdown or a tantrum. The important thing here is to move them to an environment that will not overly stimulate them, and to help them to calm down through breathing exercises and self-regulation.

Sensory processing disorder is not treatable with medicine, but occupational therapists often prescribe what is known as a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a personalized plan of activities designed to help people stay focused. The ultimate goal of it is to achieve sensory integration by correcting how the brain receives and deals with outside stimuli.

Sensory diet includes practicing sensory inputs for all seven senses:

  • Proprioceptive - joints and muscles and body’s position in space
  • Tactile - sense of touch - temperature, pressure, pain, textures
  • Auditory - hearing and listening
  • Vestibular - sense of movement and stability
  • Taste - how food and drink taste on the tongue
  • Olfactory - various smells
  • Visual - reactions to colour, light, and vision

In a sensory diet, all these senses receive regular ‘exercise’ throughout the day. The point is to keep them consistently busy so that a single, unexpected event or stimuli doesn’t overload them. Therapists often use essential oils, spicy foods, colourful videos, different types of fabric, squeeze balls, chewies, and other tools at their disposal. One of the big guns in their arsenal is, of course, a sensory blanket.

A Sensory Blanket Is An Around-the-Clock Self-Soothing Aid

A hand resting on a soft, sensory blanket.

A sensory blanket (more commonly known as a weighted blanket) is the go-to tool for occupational therapists working with SPD patients, especially those who’s proprioceptive sense is their main area of concern. The weight in the blanket applies pressure to the whole body evenly, and helps ground them. That way, they always know exactly where their body parts are in relation to everything else, which is a real comfort (and a prerequisite for a peaceful, rest-filled night).

Sensory blankets are also known to help people with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, restless leg syndrome, and anxiety issues - a study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders notes that it can even help reduce insomnia instances.

These blankets can be used around the clock, providing people with SPD with a way to cope and retrain their brain whether they are sleeping or lying on their couch. Using one is like getting a great, big hug - one that won’t overload the senses and feels so darn good!