The Misunderstood World of Sleep and Neurodiversity 🧠
Pea is a proud champion of neurodiverse children (and adults). Our co-founder Claire has a neurodiverse child, so we know all too well the challenges they can face at home, at school, and among their peers.
We know the challenges that their parents face too, because we’ve faced them. And still, we firmly believe that, even if the world isn’t ready for them, neurodiverse people are the heroes our planet needs – because with diverse thoughts come novel solutions.
Neurodiversity Celebration Week starts on March 21 in 2022. This year, we’re putting the spotlight on sleep and neurodiversity – because few people are aware of how they’re related.
But first, here’s a crash-course for anyone who’s wondering what we mean by “neurodiversity”.
What exactly IS neurodiversity?
Neurodivergent people experience and interpret the world in unique ways.
Neurodivergent people all have strengths that can come from their unique take on the world and the information within it. They also have challenges, which are almost entirely imposed by society, and not a shortcoming of “being different”.
Neurodiverstiy describes people who display the characteristics and behaviours of neurodevelopmental conditions – the things you might know as ADHD, dyslexia and autism (as well as others, like Tourettes and epilepsy).
It’s thought that up to 30% or 40% of the population could be neurodiverse, with the remaining majority being neurotypical.
Some people think the word neurodiversity is a new, politically correct term. But it was actually coined in 1996, by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, who wrote her thesis on neurological diversity.
She began to dismantle the idea that we all experience sensory information – visual, auditory, smell, taste, texture – in the same way, and that our brains all sort information in the same way.
Her pioneering work helped pave the way for the positive labels that are helping children and adults all over the world reclaim their identities – and put away the nasty labels so often given to the people who society doesn’t understand; “lazy”, “forgetful”, “stubborn”, “absent-minded” – and “naughty”.
Why is it important to know about neurodiversity?
Mental health and disabilities became a forgotten crisis of the pandemic. It’s important that, moving forward, we empower and raise everyone – because if we don’t, we’re just breeding greater inequality, and further distancing ourselves from each other.
Knowing and caring about neurodiversity isn’t just good for neurodiverse people. It’s good for everyone.
As a society, our institutions – like school, work, health and social services – are based on the assumption that everyone’s mind is the same; the neurotypical mind. But we know we’re all different – some of us markedly so – and there are still countless people with undiagnosed neurodiversity.
Some people are misdiagnosed with mental health conditions, or develop mental health conditions that may in fact have their root in neurodiversity. Autistic people are four times as likely to experience depression than neurotypical people. ADHD usually exhibits alongside anxiety disorders or depression – and undiagnosed ADHD can make depression and anxiety more likely.
We all need to know about neurodiversity, so that we can understand each other better. We can make the world better for all of us, from schools to hospitals, where the root cause of people’s behaviours can be known and treated accordingly.
And for parents trying to help our children to sleep soundly in anxious, saddening times, understanding their brains (and our own) can help us get closer and closer to our ideal sleep patterns – and the best versions of ourselves.
How does neurodiversity affect sleep?.
Sleep difficulties are common in neurodiverse people, and considering that young children often struggle with sleep anyway, it can make things even more difficult at bedtime. Parents’ sleep can be affected, too – especially with frequent night time waking.
The causes of sleep difficulties among neurodiverse people are as varied as the brains in question – and science is still looking for answers. But with the knowledge we have, we can develop better bedtime routines and bedroom designs, to limit the impact of sleep issues on neurodiverse children.
Autism Spectrum Disorders and sleep
Well, some children with autism find it difficult to understand the difference between day and night. Others find it difficult to read and express their own body’s cues – like hunger, which can make falling asleep more difficult. Hypersensitivity to light, sound and touch can play a major role, too.
And then, there’s melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep patterns in our brains. In people with autism, melatonin secretion may be irregular, and it might not be produced at the right times of the day.
There might even be a stronger link between autism and sleep, and evidence suggests that a lack of sleep could be exacerbating the autistic traits in some children.
ADHD and sleep
Sleep issues are common among children with ADHD. ADHD can interfere with sleep quality, affect how long it takes to fall asleep, and is linked with higher rates of sleep apnea. Just like with autism, the symptoms of ADHD can be heightened by a lack of sleep; difficulty focusing, forgetfulness and meltdowns in younger children.
This is because many of the same regions of the brain regulate both ADHD and sleep.
One hypothesis also states that people with ADHD don’t have an accurate circadian clock, which may also explain why many people with ADHD find it more difficult to judge the passage of time, and why being away from artificial light – like on a camping trip – actually helps with sleep patterns.
Then, there’s medication. People with ADHD are sometimes prescribed stimulants to reduce their symptoms, but in turn these can make them feel more awake and so take longer to fall asleep, thereby feeding the cycle.
And bedrooms are important, too. An overstimulating room can make falling asleep even harder. When all their toys are out on display, the temptation to get out of bed and play can be overwhelming – even when they’re exhausted!
How can you help neurodiverse children get enough sleep?
It’s really hard, especially when you’re feeling frazzled from a lack of sleep, to know what to do – and to stick to it. But the best rules to remember are:
I Routine Simplicity
Routine is the key to sleep success in all children, whether they are neurotypical or neurodiverse. Dinner time, wind down, bath, bedtime stories and lights out – however you do your routine, it’s important to stick to the plan as tightly as possible, every night.
And beyond routine, try to simplify, minimise and problem-solve.
For children with ADHD, and some autistic children, stimulation and overstimulation are key triggers. This can range from distracting to outright distressing, and make falling asleep difficult.
Simplify their bedroom experience; make it leaner, without robbing them of their identity. Make sure things are tidy, and that everything has a place.
Reduce any distracting or overstimulating elements in their bedroom, like toys and lights, and consider decorating their bedroom in muted tones to minimise the potential for overstimulation.
Try to solve the sensory problems that your child might be encountering in their bedroom at night time. For instance, melatonin is produced when it’s dark, so you might want to consider using blackout curtains – blinds will invariably allow light to leak through, but can still do a good job in all but the most extremely sensitive of children.
And think about noise. Children with sensory issues can be particularly sensitive to noises, and what may seem quiet for others – like the boiler firing up at night, or a dripping tap – can seem very loud to them.
All kinds of little minds deserve to sleep well
At Pea, we’re committed to making all children’s imaginations come to life by day, and helping them get a restful night’s sleep by night. Help your child enjoy a happy, comforting, inspiring bedroom – see our bedroom ideas for neurodiverse children, and shop our range of bedroom themes for kids.