Like a warm embrace

Three years ago when Eileen Parker’s son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, she gained an unexpected insight into her own life. The behaviors associated with the disorder — difficulty with social interaction, intense focus, clumsiness — sounded a lot like things she has dealt with since childhood.

“As a child I could never make eye contact socially and still have episodes where I focus on things like a pattern or a smell,” says Parker, who lives in Minneapolis. “I said to myself, I think I have this!”   

A doctor diagnosed Parker, 43, with Asperger’s as well as sensory processing disorder, a neurological condition that makes processing information via the five senses very difficult. After a childhood filled with doctor visits that offered no answers and teasing from children who didn’t understand her unusual behavior, Parker describes the diagnoses as a relief.
“It opened up my world!” she exclaims. “I got therapy and saw myself in a different light.
I realized there are a lot of people like me, with the same quirky ways, and that I wasn’t a horrible person.”

Part of Parker’s new therapy included the use of a weighted blanket, a common treatment for Asperger’s and SPD sufferers, who find the weight calming. “We use heavy blankets in occupational therapy because they provide deep pressure and proprioceptive input,” says Bethany Fenhaus, an occupational therapist at Fraser Child and Family Center in Minneapolis. “That means the pressure on the central nervous system through muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments is calming and gives a better sense of movement and body position.”

While Parker enjoyed the calming effects of the weighted blankets, elements of her SPD also made it annoying. “It felt like a lifesaver, I couldn’t believe how good the weight felt. But I had to take it off after a while because it was made of denim — which I couldn’t stand on my body — the filling was too noisy, and the weight was uneven. I like everything in order and it bothered me.” Seven blankets and a lot of money later, Parker was still unable to find one with the right material, filling, and design to make her happy. So last year she made her own.

Parker had a particular design in mind that would appeal to people with her conditions: She wanted to use fleece since many people on the spectrum are sensitive to touch, she made all the seams symmetrical to satisfy her need for organization, and she distributed the weight evenly throughout the blanket. The filling is made of plastic beads that are quiet and, most importantly, washable. The result was a blanket so different from the others Parker sampled that she decided to patent the design and sell it to other Asperger’s and SPD sufferers under the name Cozy Comfort.

With a web site and blog to promote the blanket — customers can choose the right size and weight for them — it wasn’t long before Parker was hiring professional sewers and filling orders from around the world. Catherine Much, a mom researching calming methods for her 7-year-old son with Asperger’s, found Cozy Calm and was impressed with Parker’s design.

“I had seen other weighted blankets online and didn’t like them. One had beads of glass in it for weight which didn’t seem safe, and another had beans for filling so it couldn’t get wet or be washed,” Much explains. “I read Eileen’s story about how she made her blanket and decided to give it a try.”  

When the Cozy Calm blanket arrived at Much’s home in Cumming, GA, she suggested her son take it to school for comfort when his Asperger’s would cause him to have a rage in the classroom. “Now he recognizes when something is starting in him and he gets up and puts the blanket on his lap to calm down,” says Much. “He’s like Linus with the blanket, it goes everywhere, because something about the pressure calms him down.”

For Parker, helping parents understand what their child is going through is the best aspect to her newfound career as an Asperger’s entrepreneur, blogger, and speaker. “I want parents to know even just a little bit about what their child is experiencing. Every time I think of a blog post I always write it to help parents understand their child better,” says Parker. “I get a lot of e-mails from parents and I feel like the Dear Abby of Asperger’s, but I don’t mind. If I can make life nicer for a child with Asperger’s it makes me feel good.”

Monica Wright is assistant editor of Minnesota Parent.

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