06 March 2008

Content Under Pressure

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved the feeling of pressure. Not pressure like meeting deadlines but literal, physical pressure. If you know me chances are at one point or another I’ve asked you to either stand on my back, lay on my back, walk on my back or drop a grand piano on my back. And for that, I thank you.

But it was not until years later when I was reading an amazing book by Temple Grandin called “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior” that I realised the two were so closely connected: the need for pressure and autism.

Autism is a brain development disorder that impairs social interaction and communication, and causes restricted and repetitive behaviour, all starting before a child is three years old.

Temple Grandin noticed that cattle in a tight chute immediately calmed down from the deep pressure. Since she also has an intense need for deep pressure due to her sensory integration dysfunction, she designed her own device.

Temple found that the use of this squeeze box provided just the right amount of pressure to ease her anxiety. By adjusting the lever, anyone can control their own pressure to meet their own needs. The effectiveness of her hug machine has been confirmed throughout the country. You can find out more about her experience with her hug box in the following books by Dr. Grandin herself: Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals by Temple Grandin, Ph.D.

Autism is highly heritable, although the genetics of autism are complex and it is generally unclear which genes are responsible. Ranging in severity and presentation, autism and associated behaviours have been estimated to occur in 1 in 250 births.

I think Rain Man somewhat perpetuated the myth that all autistic people had extraordinarily rare talents involving the memorization of trivia and the like. This is not true. People with autism may have symptoms that are independent of the typical diagnosis but only a very, very small fraction of individuals show unusual abilities, like the memorisation of trivia to the extraordinarily rare talents of prodigious autistic savants. My uncle has some signs of autism within his profound mental retardation but it’s nothing like Dustin Hoffman.

No one really knows what causes autism. Some say its an excess of neurons that cause local over-connectivity in key brain regions, disturbed neuronal migration during early gestation, unbalanced excitatory-inhibitory networks or abnormal formation of synapses and dendritic spines.

The more I read about pressure and pressure therapy the more I learned. It seemed some autistic children became more relaxed under pressure and used weighted pads and blankets among other autism treatments. I’d always said how I loved the feeling of the x-ray blanket at the dentists office.

From Temple Grandin’s book I learned mechanisms applying weight and pressure have been used for decades to soothe people with autism and sensory processing disorders. Most occupational therapists use weighted vests to improve attention and sensory processing for patients who have an autism spectrum disorder.

Although research is limited, it’s believed that pressure from weighted objects send a calming message to the nervous system. That triggers the brain to produce the chemicals serotonin and dopamine, usually associated with pleasure. Some autistic children like to sleep in pop-up tents surrounded by pillows, cushions and blankets. Sounds pretty fucking cozy to me. Yeah, sounds about right.

And so since autism is so highly heritable perhaps my peculiar love of pressure is the one autistic strand that was passed on to me through my father? I don't even know if that’s possible but I suppose it could be. It's my father’s brother who has profound mental retardation.

I’m not at all qualified to delve any further. So, here are some links:

Overview of Autism

Temple Grandin's 'Hug Machine'

Hug machine

More relaxed under pressure