As a parent to an autistic child, you know all too well the difficulty that bedtime can bring, but you aren’t alone. According to research, at least half of all autistic children have problems falling and staying asleep, and often wake up more frequently. This lack of sleep translates into intensified autism symptoms such as excitement, repetitive behavior, and communication issues. The constant waking in the night can have an effect on you and other members of your household too. So, how can you design a bedroom for your child to help them have a more positive bedtime experience?
Be Picky with Bedding
Many children with autism find certain textures or accessories (zippers, buttons, snaps) distracting and uncomfortable, so bedding needs to be chosen carefully. Take cues from your child and examine their favorite clothing, as this is what they find most comfortable and therefore should be incorporated into their bedding. Perhaps your child prefers smooth cotton sheets or something a little fuzzier such as flannel. Make sure their pajamas match their comfort preferences, as well as some fabrics, are itchy and hot, and zippers/buttons can make sleep uncomfortable. Consider incorporating additional bed accessories such as comfort items or even a weighted blanket. A weighted blanket can offer several bedtime benefits for your child, as the extra pressure and compression can calm the nervous system, making it easier to fall asleep.
Get Rid of All Distractions
Distractions are an everyday occurrence for autistic children, but they can wreak havoc on bedtime. It is best to minimize bedroom distractions including light and noise. Face the bed away from the door to avoid light creeping in from under the door, or place a rolled up towel on the floor to block the light. As for windows, blackout curtains are helpful, especially if light streams in the window. This can also be beneficial when the time changes to avoid disrupting the sleep-wake cycle. Noise can also be an issue, so find ways to block it out such as headphones, relaxing music or a sound machine.
One distraction you might not think of is the air in the room. Not only should you adjust the thermostat based on your child’s preferences, but you should also consider hidden culprits in the air that could keep your child awake sniffling and sneezing, particularly if anyone in the home is a smoker. Keep allergens and smoke particles out of the air with an air purifier that contains a True HEPA filter and a carbon filter, but make sure it’s quiet.
Reduce Clutter with Storage
Your child’s room might be their favorite place to play, but heaps of toys in the corner and various knickknacks can cause sensory overload. Use storage cubes or under-bed storage bins to keep the room neat and organized, and consider setting up a toy room/corner in another area of the home. Remove any décor or items that are unnecessary including posters and wall art/photos. Your child might find it helpful if you remove everything but the necessities, leaving them with just a bed, dresser, nightstand and desk. Make sure you have removed color clutter as well by sticking with neutral and relaxing color palettes such as greens, blues, and pastels.
Incorporate Relaxing Activities
In addition to adjusting the bedroom itself, it’s important that you incorporate relaxing activities to help your child wind down. Perhaps you could play some soft music, read a book together, or participate in a breathing exercise. Find what works and roll with it, but be sure to stick with a routine. Keep the routine simple with pre-bedtime tasks such as take a bath, put on pajamas, brush teeth, listen to music and go to sleep. If your child has trouble understanding, use visual supports to communicate with your child and help them communicate with you. These visuals can also be helpful to reduce anxiety about what is happening, as the cues will show your child exactly what to expect and what comes next.
If bedtime is difficult, it’s time to revamp your child’s bedroom to ensure it is conducive to a happy, healthy sleep environment. To appeal to your child’s unique sensory processing issues, switch up the bedding, minimize distractions, declutter and create a relaxing bedtime routine. Adjust and readjust until you find that sleep sweet spot.