Children with autism have a tough time concentrating. They spin objects, run around in circles or fail to notice when you call their name.
But sometimes, a little weight is all that is needed to calm them down. While not all autistic children benefit from the technique, therapists and families have witnessed the power of putting a special two-pound pad on a seated child's thighs.
The results so impressed Lois Gutshall of Altoona that she and other members of the Trinity Stitchers, a sewing group at Trinity Lutheran Church in Juniata, make them as a ministry for families with children who are diagnosed with autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
(Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich) Stuffing a weighted lap pad are (from left) Judy Hale, Elaine Conrad and Joyce Otto of the Trinity Stitchers. The women put poly pellets and fiber fill into sections of the pad, then sew horizontally across the vertical panels, forming little pillows of pellets in weighted lap pads for children who have autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. The tool being used by Conrad helps to settle the pellets and fiber in place. The pads help some children with autism or ADHD to focus.
The idea for the pads sort of fell into Gutshall's lap.
She had never heard of them until a neighbor invited her to join some women who were stitching them to for autistic children. Gutshall then became convinced that the technique works when she saw it demonstrated.
She watched an autistic child, who would often spin and never sat still, calmly watch a TV program after being given a weighted lap pad.
"I was absolutely amazed," she said.
A nurse, Gutshall said the weight of the pad seems to help a child focus and relax.
The women Gutshall had helped to make lap pads were sending them to Georgia, but she decided it would be a good project to help children in the area.
As a result, Trinity Stitchers have given lap pads to the Northwestern Human Services School in Altoona, the Early Intervention program at Home Nursing, Easter Seals of Central Pennsylvania as well as parents.
Melanie Ligas, a registered and licensed occupational therapist with Easter Seals, said the lap pads are used when children come for therapy or testing. She said the lap pads are usually given to children with attention deficit issues. While the pads don't work for all children, she said the deep pressure from the weight helps some to focus.
"They sit and complete what they need to do for that day's session," she said.
According to information given with the weighted lap pads, the deep pressure it puts on muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments allows the central nervous system to better interpret and integrate sense of touch and sense of movement input.
It seems to help the brain work better with the senses as children with autism often have sensory processing problems.
When Gutshall helped her neighbor's sewing group make the lap pads, they used pennies for weight and sewed vertical channels to hold them.
They filled the channels with pennies and then sewed them shut, trying to avoid breaking needles by keeping the coins out of their path. But controlling unruly pennies was not easy. Gutshall said she found herself breaking needles.
After doing some research, she modified the design for the lap pads and uses poly pellets and fiber fill in place of the coins.
The Trinity Stitchers make colorful removable covers to keep the pads clean. Patterns on the fabrics are appropriate for children with some featuring trucks and cars for boys or flowers for girls.
Both the pads and the covers are washable.
The pads, which retail for about $40 online, are given to families who request them.
For the first year or so, Gutshall and a few friends made the lap pads at Trinity Lutheran Church. Eventually more women joined them, and they formed the Trinity Stitchers last February.
It has also grown from a few women who like to sew to about 15 members.
Gutshall estimates that the group has given away 125 to 135 weighted lap pads in the past three years.
In addition to the Trinity Stitchers, others have learned to make the lap pads, including a group at Mardorf United Methodist Church and the Redbud Quilt Guild in Huntingdon. Every few months, Gutshall and some of her Altoona friends travel to Zimmerman's Bernina Shop in New Enterprise to make lap pads with a group of quilting friends there.
Expanding on the project, Gutshall has made two weighted blankets to help autistic children sleep.
Adults also are reaping the benefits of the pads.
Gutshall said a man who has knee problems attributes the weighted pads with helping him feel better. They also can help people with restless legs syndrome, she said.