What is Deep Pressure Stimulation?

If you’ve ever woken up on a cold morning under the weight of heavy winter blankets and felt incredibly calm and peaceful you’ve had a little taste of what deep pressure stimulation can do for the nervous system.

What if you could help your child experience that deliciously calm sensation on a regular basis? What might that do for their stress levels in the moment? What might it do for how they feel overall, day-to-day?

Well, the answer is it can do a lot. According to an increasing tome of research into deep pressure stimulation and touch therapy.

Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) is firm but gentle squeezing, hugs, or holding that relaxes the nervous system. This pressure can be applied with the hands, special massage tools, or products that your child can wear or wrap around themselves to provide pressure.

Done properly, this therapy triggers a chain reaction in the body that releases an overall sense of calm and peace.

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Is Deep Pressure Stimulation Taught in ABA Master’s Programs?

In a lot of cases, the answer to this question is, yes. The coursework of any ABAI-(Association for Behavior Analysis International) accredited master’s program includes courses that cover methods for changing behavior built right into the Verified Course Sequence. And among those methods, you’ll very often get at least a cursory overview of deep pressure stimulation as a tool for developing, strengthening and maintaining behavior.

And while you can learn a bit about the applications and successes of methods like deep pressure stimulation in the classroom, where you really cement your practical skills in performing these interventions is in the field experience component of your master’s program in applied behavior analysis.

Deep pressure stimulation is a popular and effective enough intervention that it’s very likely to be something you get to see in action while completing the 1,000 hours of practicum required for BCBA certification. And after sitting in on your supervising instructor showing you how to introduce the method to patients during therapy sessions in the early part of your practicum, you will get a chance to do it yourself.

How Deep Pressure Stimulation Works

When you apply deep pressure to the body, the body switches from running its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system. This is the so-called switch from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest”.

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the “alert” system in the body. This is the one in charge when you’re facing a stressful situation at work, driving through heavy traffic in a storm, or when you receive an unexpected bill in the mail.

When the SNS takes the lead for too long, you feel anxious, tired, on edge, and irritable. You don’t sleep as well and your digestive system might act up.

Unfortunately, kids with autism spectrum and sensory processing disorders spend a lot of time with the sympathetic nervous system stuck in the on position. Even when they do calm down, it takes very little to retrigger this system.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), however, brings a sense of calm and peace to the mind and body.

When the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, your heart rate slows, muscles relax, and circulation improves. Your body produces endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones that make you feel amazing after a good run.

As deep pressure is applied to the body, the parasympathetic nervous system comes online, calming your child and bringing a sense of well-being.

In tandem with this change comes a release of dopamine and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitters of the brain. These hormones help with motivation, impulse control, attention, memory, positive social behavior, sleep, and digestion.

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Benefits Observed With Deep Pressure Therapy

Not all individuals will experience every benefit, but the potential positive effects include:

  • General sense of calm that can last up to a few hours after therapy
  • Decreased overall anxiety when practiced regularly
  • Increased happiness
  • Improved social interactions
  • Increased communicativeness
  • Better sleep
  • Improved focus
  • Lowered incidence of seizures
  • Lowered hypersensitivity to touch
  • Improved ability to tolerate the school environment
  • Decrease in self injury

What It Looks Like

You can find an abundance of deep pressure stimulation options ranging from the free and low-tech to the pricey and complex. No one option works for every child, so if one therapy doesn’t work, it’s worth exploring others.

The No-Cost to Low-Cost Solutions

On the low-tech side, you can give your child deep pressure massage, also known as deep pressure touch or “hand hugs.” This involves using the palms of your hands to apply firm pressure to the child’s body, working from the hands and feet inward towards the torso. Another version some children love is laying on a couch or floor while mom or dad presses a pillow or cushion over their body, or getting tightly wrapped up in a blanket.

Many families find that joint compressions really calm their child, although it can take some trial and error to figure out how to get your child to comply when you first start.

One mother we spoke with says that while her son loves these compressions, her daughter struggles and complains for the first few minutes before slowly slipping into a more relaxed state.

Another low-tech and inexpensive option is the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol which involves the parent or therapist using a special brush to massage the child multiple times a day. While there is controversy over its effectiveness, many therapists and parents say that they see definite improvement with regular use.

These interventions generally require 2-5 minutes, a few times a day. A very detailed description of how to perform brushing, deep pressure touch, and joint compressions can be found here.

The Mid-Cost to High Cost Solutions

While Temple Grandin’s famous “squeeze machine” is the oldest and most well known form of deep pressure stimulation, it is only one of many options available today. And, thankfully, most options are smaller and more portable.

Some of these options include:

  • Compression clothing
  • Weighted blankets
  • Weighted vests
  • Pressure vests
  • Neck wraps
  • Lap weights
  • Weighted “hug” backpacks
  • Pea Pods
  • Therapy dogs (specially trained to provide pressure)

Will My Child Benefit From Deep Pressure Stimulation?

As is true with many forms of therapy, each person responds to DPS differently.

One child might respond almost immediately, while another may require repeated attempts or longer sessions in order to see improvement.

Some children initially resist, but calm down after a few minutes and ultimately crave DPS.

The child who doesn’t respond to hand hugs may show marked improvement in sleep with a weighted blanket.

Occupational therapists trained to work with sensory processing disorders can teach parents how to effectively use massage for their child, and this appointment may be covered by insurance.

If you are part of an autism support group you may be able to ask another parent if your child can experiment with their squeeze machine or roller or other large item before you shell out the cash on one more therapy module.

While Deep Pressure Stimulation won’t work for everyone, and certainly isn’t a “cure” for autism, it does provide needed relief for many families overwhelmed by the struggle to help their child experience calm.

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