Temple Grandin is a hero in the autism world. Her research, advocacy, and influence have shaped how we treat and talk about autism and sensory issues. Sometimes forgotten though is the incredible impact of her inventions. Temple Grandin’s Squeeze Machine or Hug Machine, played a huge role in defining what we know about the benefits of deep pressure and compression for people with autism and sensory issues.
From an early age, Temple Grandin struggled with sensory sensitivity. Like a lot of us on the spectrum, Grandin struggled with being touched.
Grandin’s interests drove her towards animal science, with a specific specialty in livestock. In her work, she noticed that animals relaxed when they experienced deep touch pressure - If the animal chutes were used properly, they could apply deep touch pressure to animals prior to going to slaughter, calming them down in what is otherwise a very stressful moment.
This gave Grandin an idea. Despite the overwhelming feeling that came with being touched, Grandin craved tight hugs and deep touch pressure. Could she give herself the same deep touch pressure that was proving so beneficial for her livestock?
To satisfy her cravings for deep touch pressure and quell her anxiety, Grandin invented a machine at age 18 in 1965. She experimented with several designs and eventually perfected her protocol; naming it the Temple Grandin Hug Machine.
The hug machine provided users control, where they could choose how much pressure they received, and leave at any point in time. She reported that by using the device frequently, she was able to withstand touches from other people and the anxiety symptoms she once felt, were now subsided (you can read the paper she published on it here).
She originally constructed the hug machine to alleviate her own symptoms of autism, but upon finding great success, she expanded her search to determine if it would help others. In her own words:
"As a child, I craved to feel the comfort of being held, but I would pull away when people hugged me. When hugged, an overwhelming tidal wave of sensation flowed through me. At times, I preferred such intense stimulation to the point of pain, rather than accept ordinary hugs … Whenever anyone touched me, I stiffened, flinched, and pulled away. This approach-avoidance characteristic endured for years during my childhood.
At age 18, I constructed the squeeze machine to help calm down the anxiety and panic attacks. Using the machine for 15 minutes would reduce my anxiety for up to 45-60 minutes. The relaxing effect was maximized if the machine was used twice a day. Gradually, my tolerance of being held by the squeeze machine grew. Knowing that I could initiate the pressure, and stop it if the stimulation became too intense, helped me to reduce the oversensitivity of my "nervous system." A once overwhelming stimulus was now a pleasurable experience.
Using the machine enabled me to learn to tolerate being touched by another person. By age 25, I was able to relax in the machine without pulling away from it. It also made me feel less aggressive and less tense. Soon I noted a change in our cat's reaction to me. The cat, who used to run away from me now would stay with me, because I had learned to caress him with a gentler touch. I had to be comforted myself before I could give comfort to the cat.”
Luckily, there are A LOT of ways to give your child deep touch pressure without having to invest in a Squeeze Machine. Think about how you can turn everyday objects and experiences into Squeeze Machines. Here are some great things you can use to give your child deep touch pressure:
- Squishing between couch cushions
- Tight bear hugs
- Compression clothing
- Weighted blankets
- Use a foam roller to “roll over” your child
- Wrapping up in a blanket like a burrito
- Using weighted products
- Doing heavy work like pushing and pulling
It’s really important to let your child adjust to it slowly and at their own pace. While it can be relaxing, deep touch pressure can be really overwhelming at first. Your child’s body will need time to acclimate. Start with a few minutes, or even a few seconds, of deep touch pressure. As your child gets used to it, you can increase the time.
Why does deep touch pressure take so long to get used to?
Some kids may not have any trouble adjusting to deep touch pressure. Our sensory seekers are probably already crashing into walls, sliding under couch cushions, and doing whatever they can to get that pressure their body needs. To them, deep touch pressure instinctively feels good to them. Our tactile defensive kiddos are a different story though.
When she invented the Squeeze Machine, Temple Grandin had tactile defensiveness. This means that any touch would overwhelm her sensory system and send her into a fight or flight state. Instead of craving touch like our sensory seekers, her body repelled touch and treated it as a threat.
For children with tactile defensiveness, at first, deep touch pressure sets off alarm bells in their bodies and can be so overwhelming that it becomes painful. If a light touch can set them into a panic, imagine what happens with a bear hug. Overtime, that bear hug is actually preferable to the light touch, but it takes time to get to that point.
Why does touch make some children panic?
We have two states: “rest and digest” and “fight or flight.” Children with tactile defensiveness are much more prone to entering the “fight or flight” stage when they are touched. While most of us would simply turn around when someone tapped on our shoulder, someone with tactile defensiveness may go into full “fight or flight” mode and have a meltdown.
Basically, their bodies are more sensitive to touch and are more likely to go into a defensive state when they are touched.
When our bodies and sensory systems are relaxed, we’re in the “rest and digest” state. This is a great state to be in, as it means that we’re relaxed and not threatened by anything in our environment. Deep touch pressure is actually a signal to the body to leave the “fight or flight” state and enter “rest and digest.” That’s why it is so important for our kiddos who can be so easier put into a “fight or flight” state by touch.
Key Takeaways from Temple Grandin’s Squeeze Machine
Temple Grandin’s Squeeze Machine was instrumental in laying the foundation for what we now know about the benefits of deep touch pressure. She had a problem, so she solved it! That solution is now helping a countless number of kids that struggle with tactile defensiveness. While we could write pages and pages about how the Squeeze Machine has shaped research around deep touch pressure, autism, and tactile defensiveness (other people already have), here are some key facts to take away.
- For our kids with tactile sensitivities, touch can set off alarm bells in their bodies. Deep touch pressure helps calm down their sensory systems so that they can leave the “fight or flight” stage and enter the “rest and digest” stage.
- It takes time to get used to deep touch pressure. Start slow and increase the pressure and duration as your child adjusts.
- Deep touch pressure has long term benefits, which is why it’s important to make a routine of it.
- Anything can be used for deep touch pressure like couch cushions, hugs, and weighted blankets.