An Autistic perspective: deep pressure and primal memory

Debbie Denenburg

By Debbie Denenburg

Over the course of decades I have learned many coping strategies for all kinds of emotional situations which those of us on the spectrum experience. I was lucky enough to have my knowledge validated when eight of my articles got published in the book Been There. Done That. Try This.  It is a book in which older Aspie mentors give advice in dealing with life’s challenges.

Debbie Denenburg "Face"
Debbie Denenburg “Face”

In my research, one of the subjects that I have seen touched on is the benefit of pressure. I have searched diligently but I haven’t found anything like my theory on primal memory regarding pressure. It is my belief that we have subconscious memories of being in utero – the safest place in our personal history. Inside the womb we had constant pressure enveloping our entire bodies. There were no unusual sensations such as finger poking or anything prickly. There was not yet any of life’s rude surprises. It was perfect safety.

We already know there is such a thing as physical memory or muscle memory. It requires no conscious thought to do a particular action. This has been proven by people such as factory workers who continuously manufacture the same part over and over. Typing is another example. There are people who can sit at a keyboard and type a hundred words a minute. If a person had to focus on each action that they performed, the rate would drop significantly. Their fingers remember what to do. The same goes for driving a car. Reflexes are crucial to staying safe. Reflexive action comes from conditioning. Behavior becomes instinctual based on circumstances.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that autistics have primal physical memory. We are sensory based beings which means that everything about us stems from our sensory perception. We might cringe at bright lights or loud sounds. This is not voluntary. We might be affected by smells or textures. That is also not voluntary. So when we put on a weighted vest or get comfortable under a weighted blanket, or as Temple Grandin uses her squeeze machine, a sense of relief may be from the primal memory of being yet unborn. There was nothing to fear. Then life happened.

When life is too hard we want to feel a sense of safety. We know from primal memory that having all encompassing pressure takes us back to a safe place.

Read more about deep pressure in Temple Grandin’s paper – Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals.


I am Debbie Denenburg, an autistic adult. I barely spoke, if at all, until I was about 4 years old. I know what it’s like to be “stuck” in my own head and wish that someone would reach into my mind and pull me out. My passion is caring about other autistic adults. I have been doing research since about 2003. I live in Arizona with my husband, two cats and a dog. I have no other family but the autistic community has pretty much adopted me and allowed me to feel like I belong somewhere. I am grateful for that. I continue to do research by listening carefully to how others express their feelings. I do this because I know that autism has many superior qualities. They just need to be exposed, utilized and appreciated.

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