Comfort blanket helps Holly sleep

Holly Clarke, four, cannot bear to be touched, not even by her loving dad, Dave.

Holly was diagnosed with autism and sensory processing difficulties at two and is unable to withstand even light touch on her skin.

Holly finds it difficult to play with other children because she cannot stand to be brushed or accidentally knocked.

"Similar difficulties are often associated with autism but in Holly's case the sensory processing is more than you would expect," explains her mum, Amanda Moreman, 41, who also has a son, Daniel, 16, with autism and ADHD.

"It affects everything. She won't eat anything warm. Everything has to be cold, she used to want cold baths, but now I've managed to get it to luke warm. I have to have the heating on constantly because as soon as we get in she'll strip her clothes off because that's how she's comfortable."

Her condition has made bedtime particularly difficult as she refused to have any blankets touching her. She would often be awake at 4am, jumping on furniture and throwing things around the room.

"She just refused to have any covers on. I was constantly trying to sneak covers on her when she was asleep which would just wake her up. She hated it and would just kick them off."

Now, Holly has a new type of comfort blanket. Rather than soft and downy, this one is heavy and hard and is packed with dozens of ping-pong sized balls. The new ball blanket is being sold through specialist Sheffield firm, Kingkraft. The smallest blanket weighs three and a half kilos and is designed to give a child with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or sensory issues, the weighty pressure they need on their skin.

"Before she had the ball blanket she'd bounce about, she'd throw the bedding off; she'd just create havoc in the house. She could be running and charging about for two to three hours at a time. She would start to spin in circles and throw things.

"With the blanket Holly is much more settled and calm. It gives her the sensory stimulation she needs and has made bedtime a more peaceful time for all the family. It calms her system down and allows her to stay still and focus.

"It's made a massive difference because you do get those days when she'll settle down and drift off to sleep and she might stay asleep for three or four hours."

Holly even takes it to the mainstream primary school she attends, Roughwood Primary School in Rotherham, where she has her own little tent set up in a corner of the Reception classroom.

"The other children have been told that it is Holly's special place," says Ms Moreman. "The staff have been amazing."

Holly also has auditory and visual issues and has to wear ear defenders when she visits noisy, crowded places, such as the supermarket.

One of the reasons why the autism was picked up so early was that Holly didn't bond with anyone other than her mum. She used to lash out when her dad, Dave, gave her a light hug.

After a psychologist became involved, she does now accept help from other people. "She's now very close to her dad," says Ms Moreman. "He now knows he has to give her a big bear hug."

The family has been told that there could be a genetic link.

"Although both of them are diagnosed as having autistic spectrum disorder, they are both totally different," says Ms Moreman.

"You don't realise how much an impact there is with sensory issues. Somebody once said to me if you touch Holly lightly, it's like using a wire brush on her skin. She used to lash out if someone touched her because it used to be painful to her. I've got to give her real chunky hugs. She's quite a unique case really."

Calming effect on the senses

The Protac ball blanket was designed for children with ADHD and autism by a Danish occupational therapist.

In a similar way to a ball pit, the weight of the balls presses certain points of the body, which stimulates the sensation of touch and the sensing of muscles and joints.

Occupational therapist, Lisa McSpirit, who is a specialist in sensory integration, says: "The blanket offers extra input to a child's sensory system and helps them to feel calmer and happier."

She said that along with other therapy, the blanket could help to develop the central nervous system.

The blankets, which cost 400 for the larger version, can be bought or loaned from Kingkraft, Sheffield.

For more information, or call 0114 2690697.

Grants may be available for some families.