Be Our Vest, Be Our Vest! We Love Our Weighted Vests!

by Tim on July 6, 2009

[Personal note: I know I haven't blogged in eons. The chaos of work, the J-Man going on break from school, the serious need to work on some of his behavioral issues, illnesses, and the overall bedlam of baby-parenting have been exhausting. Just wanted to let people know we haven't died or something!]

The adjustment to life as the Flashlight Four has been a challenging one to say the least. Our primary concern has been how all these changes would affect the J-Man as – not surprisingly – even small variations in routine can be difficult for him, and a new baby in the house is decidedly not a small variation in anything.

Things were going along more or less OK, but then we started noticing some significant changes in his behaviors at home. Nothing aggressive or in any way what you might call ‘negative’. It’s that he was so completely overloaded that he would run around screeching, stimming like crazy, spinning in wild circles, and pretty much literally bouncing off the walls. He couldn’t sit still for more than about two seconds for anything, not even for his favorite shows (which is a sure sign something is amiss).

When his teachers said they were noticing similar changes at school and that it was really affecting him there, we knew we needed to concentrate our full attention on finding something to help him get through this.

His OT at school suggested trying out a weighted vest at school and at home. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s worth getting some background information as we’re now total converts to weighted vests as a tool that may help sensory-overwhelmed kids. (BTW – To use one at school here, it has to be ‘prescribed’ and supervised by the OT as otherwise it’s considered a restraint, which is not permitted. Don’t ask; I don’t understand that rule either.)

I found an article (“Weighted Vests for Children with Sensory Issues”) and some additional information on commercial sites at eSpecial Needs and (Note: I’m not endorsing their products as I know nothing about them, nor about anything advertised on these sites. We made our own vests – more below.) Research on the broader effectiveness of weighted vests hasn’t really been conducted to any real degree, so your mileage may vary for sure. All I can say is that our recent experience has made believers out of us.

We tried a weighted vest about a year ago, but the J-Man just walked around like a drunken sailor with it on. His gross motor skills were much less developed then, and the overall experiment was more or less an interesting failure. I think the added year of development and the resulting additional body weight made a big difference toward the success of our recent work. The OT last year did say that before age 3 is early to be trying this out and expecting to see much benefit. We’re very glad we tried it again now.

We borrowed the vest the OT had (I think her mom had made it) and used it both at school and at home for a couple of weeks. He’d wear it for about 20-30 minutes at a time about every two hours. We always tried to do some heavy proprioceptive sensory work while he was wearing it.

(For those still struggling with autism terminology – ‘proprioception’ is basically the sense most of us take for granted that helps us be aware of where our bodies are and what the various parts of ourselves are doing. Example: I’m aware that I’m currently sitting in this chair and that my butt is firmly in contact with the seat of this chair. Now imagine the chair slowly fading out of existence such that you are still in a seated position but you feel it less and less until you don’t feel it at all. Bet you’d seriously flinch and jump to your feet. Know that sensation of falling you sometimes get when you’re in bed and half asleep? Imagine that your kid feels that way all the time, which they very well might.)

At school, they often have him carry heavy objects around (e.g., old encyclopedias) or jump up and down on the mini-trampoline. He loves our little mini-trampoline at home (more accurately, in the kitchen), so he climbs on it and jumps forever. His current record is 13 straight minutes… And he much prefers it if you sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and hold his hands while he’s doing it.

The change has been really quite remarkable. One of the teachers said something to the effect of, “We’ve got our old J-Man back!” He really has seemed so much more like himself.

Since commercial weighted vests can be very expensive, we decided to make our own. Or more accurately, we decided to sweet talk Mary’s mom into making them. :-) The basic construction of it is fairly straightforward, but neither of us know how to sew worth anything. Essentially, we (more the ‘royal we’ where we = Mary’s mom) got some heavy denim fabric and some thinner, more decorative fabric to go on top of that, made it into a long vest, and then rolled up the bottom and sewed in pockets to put weights in. Velcro along the back helps fasten it around his body.

Here are some pictures of the J-Man modeling. I thought the chili peppers were an inspired choice.



For the weights, we took the 1/2-pound inserts out of some adjustable ankle weights (like these) and put one in each pocket. We think these are still too bulky – they make the waist really poof out and hard to velcro closed – but they are still less bulky than the other things we tried such as BBs, sand, pennies, and sinkers (fishing weights). Next things we’re thinking about trying are dense modeling clay and buckshot. (FYI – a digital kitchen scale is a huge help in figuring out the weights and getting them balanced all around the vest, something that’s very important.)

Between the weights and the heavy fabric, the whole thing weighs about 2 1/2 pounds. I’ve heard varying recommendations on how much weight to use, but the consensus of what I’ve been told seems somewhere between 5-10% of the child’s body weight. We’re kind of on the lower end of that right now.

I’d be interested to hear the experiences others have had with weighted vests. If any of this has made you want to try this out, talk to your occupational therapist. You shouldn’t start putting weighted anythings on your child without the supervision of a trained OT who can tell you whether this is appropriate for your child and their needs and what sorts of ‘heavy work’ would be most helpful to them.

As with most things, so much of our learning comes through trial and error, but we definitely feel we have trial and success here!

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