A Brief History of Autism & Weighted Blankets

This Article first appeared on "Magic Mentality" 
Read it here.

            Over the last few years, weighted blankets have become the new "it" product. They've hit a level of trendiness that no other item in the wellness category can match. Since 2016, weighted blankets have skyrocketed in sales, leading hundreds of new pop-up companies to jump on the trend. Weighted blankets were invented in America in 1997 and are now growing in popularity across the globe, with growing markets in Europe and Australia.

For almost two decades, the weighted blanket market was a niche category with only a few stores selling them in America.

            The first company to sell weighted blankets was Magic Weighted Blanket, a Los Angeles-based company. At first, they largely focused on marketing their product to autistic children and individuals with sensory processing disorders. However, the parents of those children quickly realized how comfortable weighted blankets were for themselves. This led to the weighted blanket market expanding to include people with anxiety, PTSD, depression, insomnia, and, eventually, to anyone who just needed a hug.          
            Although the market had expanded, their primary use remains as a tool for helping individuals with neurological conditions. As weighted blankets have gained popularity for their use amongst people with mental illnesses, they've started to show up everywhere from special education classrooms to mental health treatment centers. And as weighted blankets and other products geared towards those with mental illnesses have grown in popularity, it seems that a mainstream interest in and understanding of the autistic community has grown as well.

Of course, autism is not a new thing. As with other mental health disorders, it has probably been around for as long as humans have.

          According to the book Neurotribes, the first mention of autism occurred in 1943 when a "child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner noticed that 11 of his young patients seemed to inhabit private worlds, ignoring the people around them and were panicked by the smallest changes in their environments. Kanner named this condition - autism, from the greek word for self, autos - because they seemed happiest in isolation." However, unlike much of the discussion around autism today, it wasn't considered a negative trait back then. Another individual in Neurotribes, a teacher, simply referred to his "different" students as little professors. To him, the students were just a bunch of smart kids who had a unique way of communicating and learning.
leo kanner autistic founder
                     Dr. Leo Kanner, 1894 - 1981 Child Phycologist
          It wasn't until World War II that the rhetoric surrounding autism actually started to get negative. At this time, there was a lot confusion regarding mental illnesses and how they affected people. This confusion rapidly turned to fear as the Nazis spread propaganda about creating a "perfect race." Those who were deemed unfit, unable, handicapped, or sometimes just "difficult" were sent to institutions to be studied and, eventually, killed. Fortunately, after the war ended, people were so horrified by the Nazis and the Holocaust that eugenics started to lose the appeal that it had gained around the globe.

Fast forward several decades after the brutal aftermath of the war, and discussion of mental illness started to resurface.

          Around the 1980s the term autism started to gain traction again. One of the most well known autistic adults, Temple Gradin, wrote about her life with an autistic brain. This is where weighted blankets and autism begin to connect. Gradin discovered how much a deep pressure sensation could help calm her down when she was experiencing difficulty grounding herself. During her time as an Animal Scientist she noticed that fearful cows began to calm down once they were herded into a device called a squeeze chute that pushed them into tight corridors. She craved the feeling of being squeezed/hugged, so she came up with an experiment. By putting herself into a cow press and having the wood lightly squeeze her body, she noticed an instant calming effect. She began referring to the cow press as her squeeze machine.

A weighted blanket operates on basically the same concept of the squeeze machine.

          These heavy blankets allows users to get that deep pressure sensation, just in a much simpler and cozier way than by inserting themselves into a cow press. The inventor of the weighted blanket, Keith Zivalich, was inspired to create his product when he noticed that he felt a relaxing hugging sensation after his daughter placed a beanie baby (a 90's cult toy filled with beans) on his shoulder. He realized that the sensation was calming, and wondered how it would feel to lay under a blanket made of beanie babies. And thus, a trendy new product was born...although the trendy part came a bit later. Zivalich's design (fun fact: his wife sewed the very first prototype) consists of quilted, pocket-like squares, each filled with an exact measurement of polly pellets to create an evenly distributed weight. The polly pellets in each square are able to move around just enough to cause the blanket to mold to your body. This creates the perfect hugging sensation, which is exactly what Gradin was looking for in her hug machine.          
          Coincidentally, weighted blankets were invented during the same time period that autism was starting to be considered an "epidemic" by the public. For the first time, information on obscure subjects was widely available via the internet and that, coupled with fear mongering, helped raise awareness of autism. As public scrutiny of autism increased, organizations began claiming they were searching for the "cure" to autism. One such organization was, Autism Speaks, which is now a well-known nonprofit organization. Unfortunately, their talk of "curing" autism as a method of raising money has caused much of the actually autistic community to hate them. As real research continued and more and more children were being diagnosed with autism, the public developed an increasing demand for products that could help ease autism symptoms. Thus, the need for sensory friendly products was on the rise and an entire industry was born, part of which included weighted blankets.

Families with autistic children are the ones who began opening up their own weighted blanket shops.

          Soon after Zivalich launched his weighted blanket store, other mom and pop stores started to sell their own versions of his weighted blanket. For years the weighted blanket market was a small but steady source of income for these businesses, several of which were owned by individuals with autism. It didn't take long, however, for weighted blankets to blow up on Etsy (an internet platform for artists to sell handmade items). This created more jobs for members of the mental health community, who often have trouble finding work outside of self-employment. Zivalich says that he had never minded that others were using his idea, claiming that "as long as they are made in America, there is enough business for all of us". Other items aimed at helping people with sensory rose in popularity as well, including things like heavy vests and stimming toys. This opened up a market for disabled people to work from home and become their own boss; which is especially important because they're a statistically underemployed demographic.
weighted blanket inspiration from beanie babies Zivalich's wife under their Beanie Babies that lead to the invention of the weighted blanket.
          For about ten years this niche community had a lot of success. However, that changed a few years ago, when a company called "Gravity" created a weighted blanket Kickstarter page, acting as if weighted blankets were a new, original product. They even claimed on their social media that they were an original product. Unlike previous weighted blanket sellers, however, Gravity made their blankets in China at a far lower price than the American entrepreneurs could compete with. The low price, combined with apparent media connections (Gravity was owned by Futurism Magazine), made Gravity a huge success, which had the side effect of making weighted blankets a trendy product on social media.
            Despite creating some drama with their Kickstarter, they managed to raise over 4 million dollars from backers (many of whom later complained about not receiving the blanket that they were promised for their donation - thus, the drama). However, because of Gravity's success, demand for weighted blankets soared. It didn't take long for corporations to jump on the bandwagon and companies like Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc. now sell the same, Chinese-made version of Zivalich's product at extremely low prices (it's quite profitable to pay foreign workers a starvation wage to make your product). And so, with small businesses unable to compete with big corporations' prices, many of the disabled entrepreneurs that had started selling weighted blankets online found themselves out of work once again.
           Fortunately, a few of the original small businesses remain, including the original, Magic Weighted Blanket. To show your support to these small business, you can choose to purchase weighted blankets that are made in America. They may cost a bit more, but their decision to employ American workers and the resulting higher quality of their products is worth a bit more.
magic weighted blanket in chenilleMagic Weighted Blanket in Champagne Chenille - get it here

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