AMHERST, Mass. – Children with autism and ADHD may soon get anxiety relief from a novel “deep-pressure” vest developed by Brian Mullen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The vest, which can also be used for adults with mental illness, delivers a “portable hug” called deep pressure touch stimulation (DPTS).
“People with developmental disorders and mental illness are often overwhelmed in everyday environments such as school and the workplace, and solutions available to families and mental health professionals are limited,” says Mullen, a doctoral student of mechanical engineering. “This is an alternative therapy that can safely and discreetly provide the treatment they need to function in mainstream society.”
To market the vest, Mullen has created a concept business called Therapeutic Systems, which recently won the $50,000 grand prize in the UMass Amherst Technology Innovation Challenge, a competition for the best entrepreneurial technology business plan produced by students, recent alumni and faculty advisors on campus.
Occupational therapists working with children suffering from autism, ADHD and sensory processing disorders have observed that DPTS can increase attention to tasks and reduce anxiety and harmful behaviors by providing different sensory stimuli. DPTS is also part of a growing trend to improve the lives of adults with mental illness by using touch, sound and aroma to influence alertness, attention and their ability to adapt to their surroundings.
Eight clinical studies of the effectiveness and safety of existing weighted blankets and vests that deliver DPTS were conducted by Mullen and his advisor Sundar Krishnamurty, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass Amherst. Mullen used that data to design a prototype system for applying DPTS that can be inserted into any commercial vest or jacket with a lining. Initial results of a study with students at UMass Amherst who did not have autism or ADHD showed that participants preferred Mullen’s prototype vest, which applies pressure that feels like a firm hug or swaddling, over the current gold standard weighted vest.
Mullen’s prototype has several advantages over weighted or elastic garments and toys currently used to apply DPTS in hospitals and schools. “Existing methods provide limited control over the amount of pressure applied and require some oversight by a caregiver,” says Mullen. “Their use is also limited because of the lack of literature documenting their safety, and their tendency to make the user stand out in a crowd.”
Therapeutic Systems is also starting the initial phase of designing a DPTS blanket to aid with resting and falling asleep. “Falling asleep has been found to be a major problem for many people with mental illness,” says Mullen, who adds that an estimated 65 percent of Americans are losing sleep due to stress.”