ADHD, Autism and Research on Wearing a Weighted Vest

When we feel better, we do better — and that is what is seen in those wearing the OTvest!

Think of someone pressing gently but firmly down upon your upper back, shoulders, and front of your shoulders. It feels good and has a wonderfully calming effect. We naturally do that to others when we see that they are anxious or over-stimulated, and might even say, “Calm down” as we do it. This is similar to the feeling wearing the OTvest provides, and can be administered throughout the day, inexpensively, discreetly, without the need of another individual providing the deep pressure.

The OTvest looks like normal, “cool” clothing, making it a discrete intervention for those with autism and ADHD who need help organizing their behavior, and modulating levels of arousal and attention. The deep pressure often reduces self-stimulatory behavior (hand flapping, pacing, repetitive movements) so that the wearer can engage in more purposeful activity. 

Just as we hear runners say that running gives them a “natural high” because of the increase in dopamine, deep pressure touch stimulation changes the chemistry in our brains and can create a calming effect, focusing effect.  Deep pressure through the use of distributed weights across the upper back and upper chest in the OTvest stimulates the brain to produce the calming “brain chemicals” (norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin).  The use of the OTvest is a holistic treatment approach to improve function and attention needed for daily activities–including the classroom. It can be worn when the family eats out, during homework, church, or even to help calm during the sensory overload of hair cuts! Adults can wear the OTvest while in social, work, or academic settings.

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As Ms. VandenBerg, MS, OTR, occupational therapist, who created the OTvest after being excited by the outcomes of her research, explains in her published, and often referred to, manuscript, “The Use of a Weighted Vest to Increase On-Task Behavior in Children with Attention Difficulties”:

“Farber (1982) supported a beneficial response to the application of deep pressure, suggesting that maintained pressure is calming as it facilitates an increase in parasympathetic or relaxed tone. In describing her own autism, Temple Grandin related her experience of severe anxiety and how deep pressure ultimately helped her reduce the anxiety’s debilitating effects by reducing overall arousal and facilitating attention and awareness (Grandin & Scariano, 1986). In studies done with children with autism, deep pressure has been found to have a calming effect (Edelson, Edelson, Kerr, & Grandin, 1999; Krauss, 1987; McClure & Holtz-Yotz, 1991; Miller et al., 1999; Zissermann, 1992).”

“Proprioception and deep touch-pressure are types of sensory information that can produce a calming effect (Ayres, 1972; Farber, 1982; Knickerbocker, 1980). Both are carried by the dorsal column system to higher levels in the thalamus and the reticular formation and then up to sensory areas in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex. According to Royeen and Lane (1991), “Since the reticular formation mediates arousal, the reticular projections of the dorsal column pathway may be related to the efficacy of these inputs in decreasing arousal and producing calming” (p. 115). The dorsal column system also has some connections with the limbic system via the hypothalamus and the anterolateral system. This functional redundancy in the nervous system may play a role in the efficacy of sensory integration intervention (Fisher et al., 1991).

An example of the nervous system’s functional redundancy is seen in the registration of deep pressure. Deep pressure is registered in the limbic system, hippocampus, and reticular activating system and may stimulate production of neurotransmitters to modulate arousal levels, similar to the effects of medications. The action of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin is associated with the limbic structures and components of the reticular system, hypothalamus, and cortex (Ashton, 1987). Medications allow more of these neurotransmitters to be available to the brain, influencing the level of arousal in the nervous system of a child and thereby controlling hyperactivity and helping to increase the [ individual’s] ability to attend (Cohen, 1998; Hallowell & Ratey, 1994). The reticular system is aroused to varying degrees of alertness by sensory stimuli (Ayres, 1972), and touch-pressure appears to be particularly effective in dampening overly activating stimuli.

Deep pressure also sends sensory information into the Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, which then work to dampen stimulation entering the reticular formation through brain chemistry or neurotransmitters (Hanschu, 1998; Reeves, 1998). Purkinje cells are rich in serotonin and are responsible for inhibition of motor activity (Edelson, 1995). Children with ADHD have been found to have high levels of hyperactivity related to lower levels of serotonin in their blood (Gainetdinov et al., 1999; Taylor, 1994). Deep pressure may stimulate the increase in serotonin, as well as other neurotransmitters, to create a natural calming on the central nervous system in [ those] with ADHD [and autism].

The OTvest, weighted vest can provide deep, sustained pressure. Current school-based occupational therapy practice in the United States often incorporates the use of weighted vests to increase children’s attention to school-based tasks (Joe, 1998; Maslow & Olson, 1999) ” ¹ , applicable for those with autism, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder who need help with increasing focus and function.

Psychiatric facilities, autism centers, specialized treatment programs, and parents across the country and internationally have been ordering the OTvest since 2002. It is important to provide deep pressure by applying the weights directly to the body so that a calming effect is apparent. The OTvest require less weight than other weighted vests on the market that only hang weights inside of pockets, supported by the garment rather than the body. The OTvest contains DENSE steel weights rather than sand or pellets.

Ms. VandenBerg realized that the weight had to be in a more effective position, lying upon the body, after her research was published. Here is the entire research manuscript published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy by Nancy VandenBerg, MS, OTR, occupational therapist whose work in the public schools (35 years) with children with attention difficulties, such as ADHD, autism and sensory processing disorders, led her to create the OTvest, weighted vest:

http://fileserver.daemen.edu/~rholmstr/weighted_vest_and_adhd.pdf

¹ quoted with permission by Nancy VandenBerg, MS, OTR, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, November/December 2001, Vol. 55, 621-628. doi:10.5014/ajot.55.6.621

References in the above quote can be found on the Links page to the entire AJOT manuscript.