Bedtime Battles? Neurodivergent Kids and Sensory Sensitivity

Published by : Claire

It’s Neurodiversity Celebration Week! Every year, we get our chance to bring our most powerful driving passion into the spotlight, raising awareness of (and removing the stigma around) neurodivergence.

It’s a big deal to us. Some of us at Pea are parents to neurodivergent kids. We live life with extremely unique and gifted little ones. It can be hard, scary – even upsetting at times. But we learn more about our children and their uniqueness every day.And things get easier, as we learn.

Parenting is never a walk in the park for anyone (even going to the park can be tough at times!). But it’s important to recognise that neurodiversity exists – and highlight just how different everyone’s experiences are; right down to how their senses are experienced.

Every child is different. Neurodiversity, as a word, is the literal representation of that. And we champion those whose minds are wired differently to the majority.

Claire, our Co-founder, always writes and speaks openly about her incredible son, Zane, and his journey through life with ADHD and dyslexia. Claire and Zane even took part in a Microsoft collaboration with Pea, discussing the use of software in his learning, and using technology to enable his built-in creative superpower.

Read more: Creativity – the hidden superpower of ADHD

ADHD is just one neurodivergence in a universe of possibilities. And within ADHD, there’s another universe of possibilities. It goes deep. There’s autism, dyslexia, hyperlexia, dyscalculia, hypernumeracy… Some consider things like epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD (often thought of as psychological conditions) to be forms of neurodivergence, too – among other non-typical brain characteristics.

In short, it’s an absolutely wild world of brilliant, beautiful, baffling brains! And while we don’t have personal experience with all of these, we do have first-hand experience with some.

One of the biggest challenges we face as the parents of non-typical children is sensory sensitivity. It’s by no means a universal thing, but there are common tropes. And these can become unbearable at bedtime, in ways that we with neurotypical brains can’t understand.

We can try, though. So first, let’s explore sensory input in a way we can all relate to.

How neurodivergent brains process sensory information

Sighted, hearing people get most of the information about the world around us from our eyes and ears. This is mostly true in neurodiverse people, too – but processing, particularly auditory (hearing) processing, can be delayed. If you’re the parent of a non-neurotypical child, you might be familiar with having to say things several times for them to get it.

It’s not them being rude (although a lot of people think that’s what they are); it’s their brain wiring trying to catch up with what’s been said or sounded. This is quite common in autism.

Autistic people may also struggle with sounds that others don’t find offensive at all, or find comfort in sounds that are particularly annoying or repetitive to most people – or they may be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by a sound. It’s pretty complicated.

Visual processing varies between people, too. And it’s not always a part of dyslexia – visual processing disorder is a separate diagnosis altogether, which can impact symbol recognition in ways that dyslexia doesn’t.

Sight and sound are the big, obvious ones. Olfactory senses (smell and taste) are the next most obvious; broccoli is yucky, chips are yummy, remember?! And this neatly brings us to texture, where foods are a prominent issue. But we need to try to realise that texture and touch are closely related, and are experienced primarily by our skin.It’s the largest organ in our bodies. It covers the entirety of us, from our heads to our toes.And our neurological network is intricately woven through it – the branches and stems that radiate outwards from our brains.

Sensitivity to light, sound and foods gets a lot of attention, and rightly so. But touch sensitivity is a huge and often overlooked facet of sensory sensitivity, and it’s built into the skin. This type of sensory sensitivity can become very apparent at bedtime, when it’s dark, quiet, and no other stimuli are available.

Read more: The Misunderstood World of Sleep and Neurodiversity

Touch sensitivity at bedtime

Here’s a story – a true story – about bedtime.

A bedtime story, if you will, about a dad and his little boy.

This little boy is a beautiful, gentle soul, who is positively bursting at the seams with creativity. He has several autistic traits but no formal diagnosis yet (it’s a long, long process). He had delayed speech, not uttering a word until he was almost 3. He has both hyperlexia and hypernumeracy; a fascination with letters, numbers, language, symbols and patterns.

These are his superpowers.

His ever-patient, totally brilliant teachers have seen just how incredible his abilities are; in reading, writing, numeracy, pattern recognition and novel thought. He is the definition of brilliance.

He is also exceptionally funny.

But this little boy, as wonderful, kind, and brilliant as he is, has some struggles.

He can have a hard time socially, even though he is well liked, and even with his closest friends.

He doesn’t communicate in a typical way, and his passions are not commonly shared by others. He can find it hard to notice his body’s cues for hunger, thirst, needing the toilet – but with lots of love and support, he’s learning and growing in confidence in all of these areas.

And bedtime can be a big struggle, too. He prefers to do bedtime with dad. It can be hard for mum when dad’s working at night.

Even with a solid routine, it can be an arduous process.

Blackout blinds helped with the light, and adding a ticking clock helped with the discomfort of silence – but something still kept this little boy up at night. And daddy thought it could be the sensory sensitivity to his bedding and bedclothes.

Learn more about creating bedrooms for neurodiverse kids.

So, dad tried swapping out his little boy’s favourite sets of pyjamas (Hey Duggee, if anyone’s interested!) for a simple pants and vest combo.

And for sure, things improved.

But something still wasn’t right. And it became more noticeable when the bed covers were changed.

See, most people are delighted to sleep in freshly laundered bedding – but the change in smell and texture can add to sensory sensitivities in neurodivergent children.

Dad noticed that there was some bobbling on the bedding, and that the texture of the fabric after a wash had changed. It wasn’t 100% cotton fabric, and it felt flimsy and almost too light. By switching to all cotton, high thread count children’s’ bedding, the tossing and turning stopped so much quicker than usual. The added weight and breathability made a huge difference – but it was the softness against bare skin that really gave comfort in a way that pyjamas couldn’t.

And the bedtime battle was all but over!

Of course, this hasn’t had any effect on the “I don’t want to go to bed!” and “can I play for five more minutes?” bargaining in the build-up to bedtime… But it’s made life much smoother and easier for the whole family –especially for mum when dad’s got work. This story won’t play out the same for everyone, but if your ND child has similar struggles at bedtime, it’s definitely worth experimenting with the fabrics and weights in your child’s bedding.

Weighted blankets are another option to try.

They can alleviate the anxiety that “ethereally light” fabrics can cause. It’s a hard sensation to describe, but it boils down to not feeling safe unless the blanket or duvet covering you has some weight or some substance to it, like it holds down to the contours of your body. Not having this feeling of total safety can cause anxiety at bedtime –and anxiety is the opposite of calm, which we all need to get to sleep.

Even just adding a heavyweight blanket to their existing bedding can help.

There’s so much to our little ones that we can’t see on the surface. Even when they are non- communicative or non-verbal, their behaviour can tell us so much. It’s hard, but it’s our job to decipher this behaviour, and help them get what they need – so we can get back to celebrating the things that make our ND children brilliant, without dwelling on the struggles.

Children’s bedding that feels as good as it looks

Bring calm to bedtime. Discover our range of super comfortable, high thread count children’s bedding. With beautiful designs in four adventure themes, bedding from Pea is made from 100% organic cotton, with a soothing texture that will last for their whole childhood – and beyond.

pea journal