With claims that they help with sleep, anxiety and stress, the popularity of weighted blankets increased markedly in 2018.
Now, local first responders are utilizing those same calming effects to help people on-scene who have autism or are in crisis.
This week, the Spokane Valley Fire Department announced it purchased 10 pairs of 7-pound weighted blankets – one for each of its stations – from the ISAAC Foundation, a Spokane nonprofit that helps families with children who have autism. The Spokane Fire Department has used them for three years and now has a pair on each firefighting apparatus and ambulance.
“We’ve found it extremely valuable with autistic men and women, children, as well as a number of other behavioral health challenges,” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said. He added later, “I’m very thankful that other departments are catching on to this type of treatment.”
Weighted blankets and vests have been used in occupational therapy for years to help children who have autism or similar disorders. Holly Bahme-Lytle, the founder and executive director of the ISAAC Foundation, remembers therapists using a weighted vest with her son, Isaac, who had autism, 14 years ago when he was 2-years-old.
“It was amazing just the difference between him being able to focus and regulate himself during those sessions,” she said.
Staying on task, staying seated and an increased attention span are some of the behaviors occupational therapists have noted when using weighted materials.
“If you imagine when you go to the dentist and they put the X-ray vest on, a lot of times people feel calmer,” said Megan Marney, an occupational therapist at Youthful Horizons Therapy in Spokane Valley.
Bahme-Lytle was inspired to start her foundation to help families touched by autism after her Isaac died before his fourth birthday in 2007. In addition to support groups, the foundation often helps families acquire equipment, like weighted blankets, that insurance won’t cover. Medical-grade weighted blankets can cost $100 to $300, and children can outgrow them quickly.
In 2013, Bahme-Lytle found a cheaper way to provide them. “I had my mom look online for a pattern to make our own,” she said.
Within a few years, the ISAAC Foundation began to partner with first responders to offer training on how to help people with autism at a scene.
“There was no access for training for responders, yet the need was increasing,” Bahme-Lytle said.
Autism in the Wild trainings have given Spokane fire, Spokane Valley fire and Spokane police departments techniques for safely helping people with autism. Some of them include being aware of lights and noise from radios, as well as the use of weighted blankets.
The fire departments address weight concerns by carrying two smaller blankets that can be stacked for adults and bigger kids. First responders are also taught how to use substitutes like bunker coats, bulletproof vests and stacks of blankets in place of a weighted blanket.
“If we can help bring a kid down from a heightened situation, they will feel more ready to follow your directions, answer your questions,” said Marney, the occupational therapist.
Bahme-Lytle said she often hears from first responders about how helpful the blankets have been in practice.
Schaeffer, the Spokane fire chief, estimated paramedics use the blankets about twice a week. And with the success they’ve had, the department now stocks extra; if a blanket successfully helps comfort someone, they get to keep it.
Spokane Valley Fire spokeswoman Julie Happy said firefighters and paramedics will start testing how the blankets function on-scene. If there appears to be a need for more, the department could purchase them in coming months.
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