Sleep Problems Associated with Sensory Disabilities

Guest Post by Kayla Johnson from

Sensory disabilities describe disabilities that affect the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and/or touch. Examples of sensory disabilities include:

  • Blindness or poor vision
  • Deafness or hearing loss
  • Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Sensory processing disorder

Totally blind people may have Non-24 sleep disorder. They have no light perception, and end up out of sync with their circadian clock as a result. They have difficulty falling asleep at normal times, and their sleep-wake cycle can change on a daily basis by varying degrees.

People may be born deaf or experience hearing loss as they age or from a life event. People with hearing problems may suffer from tinnitus, a ringing in the ear that makes it difficult to fall asleep. Sleep apnea has also been linked to hearing loss.

It’s estimated that 40% to 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) suffer from sleep problems, most commonly insomnia and waking up multiple times during the night. Anxiety and depression, often associated with ASD, also impact sleep. Children with autism spectrum disorders are also prone to bedwetting, and snoring and sleep apnea.

Often tied to autism spectrum disorders, people with sensory processing disorderexperience higher sensitivity and are easily stimulated by things in their environment, to the extent that sound, light, or touch can be painful. You can imagine how this can impact sleep.

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Sleep Advice for Individuals with Sensory Disabilities

In addition to using the assistive sleep products described above, individuals with sensory disabilities may also find the following tips helpful:

For deaf children, sleep can be a scarier place. Many children are afraid of the dark, and losing an additional sense can lead to a sense of overwhelm for deaf children. Try leaving a light on in the hall or using friendly glow-in-the dark stickers or nightlights.

Along the same lines, children with sensory disabilities are more likely to be overstimulated or fearful of their bedroom. Create a calmer environment more conducive to sleep by:

  • Painting the bedroom a dark color
  • Minimizing light in the room and using blackout shades
  • Using an air diffuser or sachet with a pleasant, gentle scent
  • Having furry, velvety stuffed animals or a favorite blanket in the bed (no rattle toys, but something that feels good to squeeze and pet)
  • Creating a cocoon out of blankets and pillows, or using a sleeping bag for a similar effect
  • Using a bed tent as a visual cue that it’s time to sleep

You may also consider using a dietary supplement like melatonin as a sleep aid, or bright-light therapy, where you expose your child to bright light during the morning to help them wake up.

To induce sleep and establish a regular sleep/wake schedule, parents of autistic children should set a predictable and short bedtime routine of 20-30 minutes. The bedtime routine should include relaxing activities and should avoid stimulation from electronics or high-energy activities.

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