Many children with autism experience less than normal sleep. Sleep problems are reported in as many as 80% of individuals with the diagnosis. A child that doesn’t sleep most often results in a parent that doesn’t sleep either. If a parent is up all night making sure their child is safe in the house, how will they function the next day? How do they get children off to school, take care of other family members or go to work? This problem can have a cumulative effect on everyone involved. So, what is a solution for all of this? Will a special bed designed for a child with autism be the answer to your wishes for sleep?
Manufacturers are now making enclosed beds, or bed tents, which provide a contained, cozy, safe space for sleep. There are many styles – separate free standing units, pop-up types that rest on top of the mattress and after-market canopies that strap to the bed frame itself. Some are inflatable, portable and easy to assemble. You can find bed tents with varying safety measures built in to prevent elopement. Some of these beds for autism can be bolted to the floor, or easily moved within the room, while others allow more flexibility for travel, allowing families to potentially spend a night in a hotel, or at grandmas house.
Selecting a bed for a child with autism can be as easy as one-click away or it can be a very selective process in considering all options. There are many ways to customize such a bed, with specific safety features, comfort accessories, storage and organization and even different entry points for the parent/child. Some brands offer different heights of side walls to prevent falls or accommodate a Hoyer lift entry. Sensory screens and sides of the bed can be individualized to minimize light and distraction or allow for a more open airy feel. Important to function, some of these beds can be constructed of heavy duty materials to withstand many rough behaviors that some children with autism experience. If aesthetics is important, you can often find covers of different colors/prints or textures to tailor to one’s preference; making the bed inviting and reflective of an individual’s taste or interests.
Along with specific autism beds, there is a separate market of sleep accessories to customize a child’s sleep environment. Special sheets made from lycra can offer a feeling of calm, snug, deep pressure input – similar to a hug, leaving one feeling “tucked in”. White noise machines, or sound units, can offer the sound of crashing waves or specific music. Stuffed animals with vibration offer sensory input to help organize and start a sleep cycle, some have aromatherapy components to them to aid rest and sleep. A weighted blanket can distribute proprioceptive input across the body consistently through the night. A sleeping bag may provide additional support in defining space for sleep, even when used inside a bed tent. Light projection units can cast a calming glow or image, or even provide literal sheep to count as one dozes off.
Before making such a large purchase for your child with autism, it is important to have an understanding of your child’s sensory preferences when creating their sleep environment. Your occupational therapist has the knowledge and training to help you make these decisions. It can start simple with the texture of the rug, colors on the wall, and the type of light in the room.
Flooring – Consider the acoustics of the room. Carpet can absorb some of the extraneous noise and be a buffer for sounds. It also offers an opportunity for some tactile input before bed. Think about giving the feet something soft to touch, a hug before climbing into bed. Consider soft, pleasing textures rather than busy activity mats close to the bed – save those for a play area instead.
Walls - Paint and window be in soothing colors like blues, purples and grays provide a sense of calm and comfort, promoting rest. Minimize clutter on walls, floors and surfaces so as not to distract from the goal of a calm sleep space. Some design experts recommend only one wall hanging or focus on each wall. Make an effort to keep the room organized with toys and small parts away from the sleeping area, as they can be visually distracting.
Light –Individuals with autism often have dysregulated circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, likely influenced by the disruption of light/dark and sleep/wake. During the day, make use of natural light as much as possible. At night, use of lamps and dimmer switches help to signal the brain that sleep is coming. Swap out bright lightbulbs for soft/warm/natural types. Make sure that the window coverings are opaque, blackout curtains are ideal to filter out light.
Routines – Most children with autism thrive on routine. Regular outdoor play and fresh air during the day can help with regulation that carries over to bedtime. Limiting screen time in the hours before bed in important for your child’s brain to signal the onset of sleep. Consistency is bedtime routines can be crucial, even the specificity of brushing teeth before putting on pajamas, or turning off all the lights before a nighttime story. Be regimented in the time you begin the bedtime wind-down routine and try not to deviate too much, even on the weekends. Implementation of a social story or visual schedule can help in establishing a consistent routine.
For more information on autism and sleep issues, read out article here.
It may be helpful to consult your child’s occupational therapist for ideas to integrate into a bedtime routine, such as massage with a foam roller, brushing protocol, or breathing techniques. When thinking about buying a special bed for your child, think about small changes you can make at home first, to see if they have an impact on sleep. Consider environmental changes for your child’s bedroom to see if that helps, and adjust bedtime routines as well. If a special bed for your child might be the answer to getting parents and the rest of the family much needed sleep, consult your child’s team for input!
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