How to Design A Sleep Environment to Help Your Autistic Child Sleep Soundly


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.

Joyce Wilson

Prayers and Pills

2018 was not my favorite year. It did contain some great moments and lessons that I believe will set the stage for not just better years, but a better, stronger version of myself.

For starters, I spent (and am still spending) a lot of time recovering from my second ankle reconstruction surgery. Then, I became this person: Right, when I was at my most empty, October and the start of November introduced me to the reality of total sleeplessness, the stress of hair loss, and the constant feeling of tightness in my chest. My moods were unpredictable, and my spirit was weak. The spans of time when I felt like myself when I felt whole, became shorter and less frequent. I felt like a failure at everything I did, including parenting. I could not find joy. I could only fake joy to avoid more questions.

Then, November 10th hit. My campus community was rocked by a mass shooting and the loss of a student. My students, who had lost their friend(s) in the most devastating way, needed support. I wanted to be there for them, so badly. I wanted to dig up the real me from the pits of my soul and give it to them, to wrap them in love and receive their burdens as my own.

But, I was drained. There was none of me, of the real me, to give. I prayed to be filled up so that I could pour out to them. I was scraping the bottom of a drained pool with my fingernails, hoping for water to appear. How could I be so empty when people I loved needed me so badly?

Two days later, the local and campus community caught on fire, for days. The world for most everyone I know was turned upside down. Classes were canceled, lives were upended, homes were lost. Everything seemed to be falling apart. How could so much be happening at once?

In late November, I sought refuge, as I often do, in my Bible. I went to church. I volunteered. I studied the Bible. I prayed. I mean I prayed and prayed and prayed for God to re-fill the empty vessel of my soul. When I sought guidance from Christian friends, they affirmed that I needed to pray.

I prayed some more.

I gave to those in need.

I prayed some more.

I prayed more in a few weeks than I probably have in my entire life up to that point. Nothing changed. No, that’s not true. I did start to feel a new hole gnawing at the crater in my chest. I started to feel like a failure in Christ like I was somehow letting God down by not feeling healed by all of this prayer. I hated myself more, which I did not think was possible.

It wasn’t until someone suggested that I go see a therapist that I started to feel some hope. She suggested that I start taking an anti-anxiety medication so that I could start sleeping again. This was not something of which I was quickly convinced. In my adult life, I have tried to stick to natural wellness remedies, including physical activity, and always through prayer.

As a Christian, I have listened to countless testimonies about prayer rescuing people from depression, from learning difficulties, and from physical pain. Honestly, a large part of me was afraid that taking medication would mean that prayer was insufficient or, worse, that I was insufficient at prayer.

After about 2 weeks of this discussion, the therapist said something to me that finally took root: “Stop seeing prayer as a solution and think of it as illuminating the path towards a solution. It’s a conversation, not a directive.” We talked about my relationship with God. Did I trust Him? Yes. Did I try to have a relationship with Him? Yes. So, then did I trust what He was telling me/pushing me towards? I needed to. Anxiety was stopping me from sleeping and feeling, so she suggested medication as a way to return to healthy sleep and, hopefully, emotional recovery (including my faith in prayer). At my breaking point, I gave in and started the medication.

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It has been several weeks now and, for the past week and a half, I have been sleeping better. Some nights are more difficult but, increasingly, I am having restful nights. I am catching more frequent glimpses of myself. The tightness in my chest is subsiding. The dread that propelled me through the fake days and sleepless nights has almost entirely dissipated. It feels, finally, like everything may be okay.

I don’t know how I made it through the second half of last year. So much of it feels like a blur. Every step felt like an irrecoverable stumble leading me closer to existing as a void. I am amazed that I kept my job. I am thankful that I did not wreck my kids. And, in the most unexpected way, I grew closer to God.

I am in awe of God. I know that He answers prayers. I am confident now that His answer is not, “Thanks for praying, I’ll handle that.” But His answer was there, all along, in the people He surrounded me with. In the persistence of the therapist, in the unwavering support of my best friend, in the little bit of me, that refused to give up while the post-traumatic stress ate away at my soul.

This is not just my story. So many people are wounded and reeling in a world that preaches (and commercializes) self-care but doesn’t slow down for us to truly practice it. I think this tension is acute for single parents because there is never the opportunity to transfer our parenting burden to another adult. I think that this tension is often acute for Christians because we think that prayer is the answer in itself, instead of the way to find the answer that best works for our lives.

For me, the answer is still prayer. But, at least for now, it is also pills.

A. Smith

How to Stop Getting Into Bedtime Battles With Toddlers

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With toddlers, it sometimes feels like every step of the day is a battle. And bedtime can feel like the most difficult time of the day, especially when you're tired and ready to wind down. But understanding why toddlers struggle with sleep and how to manage their struggles can help your toddler (and you) sleep well at night.

Why Toddlers Fight Sleep

Sleep is awesome, and most adults, especially moms, would do practically anything to get more sleep. So why do some toddlers resist sleep?

Toddlers develop rapidly every day. They spend their days learning and growing, and their desire for exploration doesn't stop when it's time to go to sleep. Even if they feel tired, they still have a desire to see, think, and do, and sleep is an obstacle to doing that.

In the toddler stage, children learn more about fear. They know they may feel scared when you leave the room or turn off their light, but they may not know how to express it. Instead, they may respond by whining, screaming, or making endless requests for water, snacks, books, or songs.

The reasons toddlers struggle with sleep are practically endless. Getting too excited with nighttime play, teething, not enough stimulation during the day, overstimulation, even screen time or food choices can have a negative impact on sleep.

How to Help Toddlers With Healthy Sleep

Toddler sleep can be complicated, but the solutions can be simple. Follow these tips to help support your child's healthy sleep habits and put an end to sleep battles at bedtime.

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  • Set limits and follow a schedule. Children thrive on predictability. When you follow a regular schedule throughout the day and especially at night, they know what to expect, what's coming next, and the comfort of going through the same thing each night and day. Limits may feel restrictive at first, but maintaining clearly defined limits demonstrates to toddlers that you won't let them push boundaries -- and they'll be less likely to keep pushing them if you don't give in.

  • Make bedtime relaxing. If you've been burned by bedtime battles before, you may approach bedtime with a nervous attitude. Toddlers can smell fear; don't let them get to you. Be confident and positive, and offer relaxing activities before bed, including a warm bath, snuggles, storytime, songs, and talking about your day or the day ahead. Some children enjoy a nighttime massage or having their head rubbed.

  • Create a comfortable sleep environment. Just as you need a comfortable place to sleep, toddlers need a healthy sleep environment, too. Make sure they feel safe, secure, and relaxed in their bedroom. Consider their mattress and whether it's appropriate for their needs. It may be time to move up to a larger size, or you may need to choose a different mattress for comfort.

  • Give them attention. Sometimes, life gets hectic and we miss out on quality one on one time during the day -- and toddlers may try to make up that time at night. Make sure you get time together before bed, and if they want to talk, listen. Plan ahead and start bedtime earlier if necessary so you'll have enough time to visit and go through their bedtime routine.

  • Listen to their fears. Bedtime can be scary for toddlers, who may now realize that a dark room with shadows and sometimes unfamiliar noises can be unsettling. When toddlers fight going to sleep or whine about things they need, they may be scared but unable to find the words to explain their fear. Talk to them about it and consider creative solutions like monster spray (water in a spray bottle with a label on it).

Toddler sleep struggles can be frustrating, but with support, you can help your toddler sleep better and avoid bedtime battles. Approach bedtime with patience, confidence, and clear limits, setting expectations and following a consistent routine and schedule so toddlers know what to expect and will be less likely to push boundaries.

Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.