Autistic children and adults often seek pressure in a variety of ways to calm themselves and cope with sensory overload. Oftentimes, hugs and squeezes from other people can cause more distress because autistic children or adults are often unable to communicate their needs by indicating a particular amount or length of pressure. This is both frustrating and ineffective for both the autistic person and whoever is hugging or squeezing them.
The hug machine was created to help relieve this frustration, putting autistic individuals in control of their situation. Both children and adults who suffer from autism sometimes crave pressure to help calm anxiety.
Because of this, one woman with autism developed the hug machine, also known as a hug box or a squeeze machine. The hug machine has two padded sideboards connected near the bottom of the boards to form a V-shape.
A lever helps push the sideboards together to create pressure; the lever also allows the autistic child or adult the ability to control the amount and length of pressure.
Studies are still being conducted to find out why those with autism respond to pressure and how it can produce a calming effect. The hug machine may affect the heightened sensory perceptions of those with autism who often feels disruptive or distressing behaviour.
By applying pressure, perhaps the autistic child or adult moves his or her focus to a single feeling-the pressure-which, in turn, produces a calming effect. For many autistic children and adults, anxiety can be completely incapacitating.
Not being able to function with the anxiety is frustrating, and so appropriate social behaviour is even more difficult. Sometimes, the only release from such anxiety is through pressure. To this day, the hug machine is used by several programs and researchers studying autism as well as therapy programs.
Remember that hugging or squeezing an autistic child may not help him or her. You may, in fact, increase their senses and cause more anxiety. Though you may not be able to purchase a hug machine, you may be able to create a similar object.
Try wrapping the autistic child or adult in a blanket, where they can control how much pressure to apply. You can also look into buying padded boards that more closely simulate the hug machine’s side-boards and perhaps tie or tape some heavy-duty yarn to each side to allow the autistic child or adult control over how much pressure to apply and for how long.
Contact your child’s school to see if there has been any interest in purchasing a community hug-machine. This may not be a cure to all your child’s problems, but it works well to help many autistic individuals cope with the world.
A modern twist on the hug machine is the weighted vest
How a Hug Can Help Your Autistic Child
How much weight should the vest have?
While there are no studies on how much weight a vest should have, most therapists recommend anywhere from five to ten per cent of a person’s body weight. This recommendation is based on studies on maximum weight allowances for backpacks. Too much weight can result in over-stimulation and/or injury.
How long should a child with autism wear it?
Some therapists recommend as little as fifteen minutes while others encourage wearing them throughout the academic time in class. The positive benefits of a weighted vest usually happen while the child is wearing the vest. However, in cases where it is calming, often it can be taken off and the child will remain calm.
Do all children with autism need one?
You should only use a weighted vest with a child when you are attempting to help them focus or calm down. They do not help all children because they can be uncomfortable and distracting for some. Pay attention when introducing one, especially if the child has significant communication challenges. Discontinue use if you see no benefit or it causes any distress.
Do weighted vests decrease “stimming” or stereotypical behaviours?
There is almost no research on whether or not weighted vests decrease stereotypical behaviours in children with autism. Therapists report observing some children decrease “stimming” behaviour while wearing one. However, there is little if any research on this topic.
What kind of therapy is a weighted vest?
They fall under the umbrella of Sensory Integration therapy. Sensory Integration therapy is usually performed by an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration. These therapists believe that inattentiveness and stereotypical behaviours are caused by over- or under-sensitivity to sensory input. Wearing one provides deep pressure sensory input that helps with sensory difficulties.
Please remember to consult with a therapist to make sure you add the appropriate amount of weight.