explaining deep touch pressure: the benefits of compression for spd

Deep touch pressure is a commonly used term among the circles of people that are interested in Sensory Processing Disorder, autism, anxiety, tactile defensiveness, or any general sensory challenges. Frequently used by occupational therapists and parents, deep touch pressure is notoriously successful at helping reduce feelings of anxiousness and induce feelings of calm. So, what is deep touch pressure exactly?

Deep touch pressure vs. light touch pressure

The best way to understand deep touch pressure is to explain its counterpart, light touch pressure. Whenever we feel someone brush by us in the grocery store or sense the wind on our skin, we’re experiencing light touch pressure. This light touch activates the sympathetic nervous system. Colloquially known as the “fight or flight” system, the sympathetic nervous system alerts our brains to prepare for action.

When we receive light touch pressure, we increase our awareness of the world. While this response is beneficial for survival, it can also cause undue stress and anxiety. When sensory challenges are at play, a light touch from a friend can cause overload and unbearable anxiety. Due to this reaction, many individuals with sensory issues often try to avoid touch. Shying away from holding hands, sand, being outdoors, or chaotic environments in which people are bumping against each other is common. The problem is that the world is an unpredictable place and even the most controlled of environments poses a risk of exposing an individual to light touch of some sort.

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Counter to light touch pressure, deep touch pressure has a calming effect on the body. Deep touch pressure occurs from getting tight hugs, wearing compression clothing, or being squeezed between mats or pillows. This compression triggers activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Colloquially known as the “rest and digest” system, the parasympathetic nervous system tells our brains and bodies that we’re safe and that there’s no reason to be alarmed.

When we receive deep touch pressure, we ease our anxiety by helping our brains tell our bodies that it’s ok to relax. In essence, deep touch pressure turns off the part of the brain that causes anxiety and overwhelm.

why is compression important

As is exemplified above, the deep touch pressure that results from compression can be a great way to reduce anxiety. Here at The Sensory Toolbox, I’m a big believer in compiling a variety of resources and techniques that you can turn to at a moment’s notice depending on your needs or circumstances at the time. To learn more about building your own sensory toolbox for your child, check out my free sensory toolbox guide.

When your child is overwhelmed or anxious, try introducing some compression activities that provide the benefits of deep touch pressure. Here are some examples of compression activities that you can try:

-TIGHT HUGS

-COMPRESSION CLOTHING

-ROLLING UP IN A BLANKET

-SQUISHING BETWEEN COUCH CUSHIONS

-HIDE AND SEEK

-USING A ROLLING PIN FOR MASSAGE

-GETTING A PEA POD CANOE

-USING A WEIGHTED LAP PAD AT SCHOOL

-GETTING WEIGHTED STUFFED ANIMALS

There are an endless number of examples of compression activities, so get creative and see what your child prefers.

Aside from the benefits of reducing anxiety, deep touch pressure has some fascinating benefits to those with sensory challenges. Through her use of the Squeeze Machine, Temple Grandin found that regular exposure to deep touch pressure resulted in desensitization to light touch overtime. Basically, after a period of time using deep touch pressure, tolerance to touch can increase. This finding suggests that, in addition to compression’s immediate advantage of helping decrease acute anxiety, it can also be beneficial to decreasing tactile defensiveness overtime.

how to incorporate deep touch pressure into your routine

If you work with an occupational therapist, it’s likely that deep touch pressure is already a part of your child’s therapy sessions. If your OT hasn’t talked with you about the benefits of compression, ask about how it is being used in therapy and can be used at home. Be aware that a lot of what OTs do revolves around play. Play is one of the best ways to get your child on board with therapy and receive the benefits of treatment in the context of fun. OTs are notoriously creative and can give you a lot of ideas about incorporating compression into your current routine. Watch your child’s therapy sessions carefully to pick up some ideas and then ask your OT directly.

Aside from using your OT as a resource, try to make deep touch pressure a natural part of what you’re already doing. Maybe you have your child use a weighted lap pad whenever you’re driving in the car, or watch a favorite movie while under the couch cushions. Take the things you already do in your day and think about how you can add compression to them.

easing into deep touch pressure and compression

Your child will likely need time to get used to compression and the deep touch pressure it causes. Especially for children with extreme tactile defensiveness, deep touch pressure can be overwhelming at first. While deep touch pressure has a calming effect, the novelty of it can cause stress the first couple of times. Until your child is familiar with deep touch pressure, introduce compression activities for short durations and in a natural way. For example, start by giving a few extra strong hugs every day and progress to weighted animals or lap pads and then to compression clothing. Be keen to your child’s natural progression and don’t try to rush it. It is much easier to develop a slow tolerance to deep touch pressure over a long period of time then to try to do damage control from introducing deep touch pressure too quickly.

Deep touch pressure has many potential benefits to children with autism, anxiety, and SPD. Once you find some compressive activities that your child likes, you can add them to your sensory toolbox so that you can harness the calming effects of deep touch pressure on a regular basis.

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About the Author

Diana Fitts is an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders.