Physical pressure is a powerful treatment technique for people with autism and can have remarkable calming effects despite its simplicity. Studies conducted, most notably by Temple Grandin with her squeeze machine, prove that many people on the spectrum can actually be relaxed by applying pressure by means of a hug, self-stimulation, or usage of a machine such as Temple’s that are designed for such a purpose.
In my work as a special needs camp counselor I have witnessed the effect of pressure first-hand. I once had a non-verbal girl in my group who would frequently go into sensory overload, especially during lunch. When this happened she would take the nearest counselor’s hands and press them onto her head. I found that by applying pressure she would appear more relaxed and not scream so much. Another boy in one of my groups would wrap counselors’ arms around him whenever he was upset. I would frequently use the pressure technique on campers who were having fits in order to both calm them and control the fit.
As my mother has always told me, though, autistic people are like cats. If we solicit a hug it feels good, but if we do not ask to be touched we can be shocked and find it more painful than soothing. For this reason it is important to be sure that applying pressure will be helpful and not startling based on the situation. I find that pressure can be extremely calming in several situations. The best way for me to sleep is under a pile of heavy blankets, as I feel very relaxed by the weight. When I am feeling stressed or anxious I can be calmed by squeezing pillows or breathing with a pile of books on my chest.
Temple Grandin specifically designed her squeeze machine for situations like this. The idea for the machine came when she was at her aunt’s farm and saw that farmers calmed cows for immunizations by clamping them in a sort of cage. Temple adopted this idea and developed a similar system to be used by people on the spectrum as a calming tool and it has proven to be an extremely effective device.