Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 3, 2015
For persons with special needs, restful sleep is vital for health

Seeing big yellow school buses always remind me of Heidi, our darling disabled daughter affected by Down syndrome and autism.

Years ago, she rode the “special services” bus to school. Bless her little heart; I was proud of her courage and was with her in spirit. Thankfully, time is a great modifier.

Resuming school is a blend of emotions for most families — excitement for the “social butterflies” and those who are bored with the “dog days of summer.” For those who struggle academically or emotionally, the feeling is often inadequacy.

When facing a new chapter such as starting middle school, most students feel an even higher level of apprehension. Moms usually feel a blend of relief and anticipation, for they know families generally do better with some structure, but then pressure mounts to manage it all.

Even dads are anxious as bills for new clothes, athletic stuff, and high-tech calculators always go up, and activities never go down. Balancing responsibilities and opportunities is tricky, but when life is “crazy hectic” and people aren’t sleeping, it’s a red flag.

Sleep is a big deal, right up there with air, water and food. I had two daughters who did not sleep easily like their father, and two that hit their pillow and were out like their mother. Yet, we didn’t prioritize sleep until Heidi’s multiple challenges of an accelerated nervous system, which contributed to her not sleeping well, forced us to wise up. It was impossible for Heidi to turn off the river of anxiety — despite having a wonderful life.

Sleep studies indicate a lack of sleep affects one’s ability to adapt, which is vital in school and society. Heidi and countless individuals with personality disorders I’ve known have difficulty with transitions and adaptability, and I suspect sleep deprivation is a factor.

Fundamentally, Rod and I did what we could to reduce our own anxiety, like taking vitamin B complex, which converts food into energy; herbal supplements, which help calm or enhance alertness; and simplifying our schedules by saying “no” more. We prayed a lot, too.

My SLEEP TIME acronym reviews some typical advice for families, plus some lesser known tips and tools.

S – Schedule: Experts indicate parents should ensure children get to bed at a reasonable, consistent time. Starting early — before your students get over-tired — helps a lot. For some families of teenagers with cognitive challenges, having a quiet, “winding down period” with no media screens/music/loud talking from 9 p.m. on, has been essential.

L – Light: A nightlight in the hall or bathroom is acceptable, but avoid using them near beds. Brain studies indicate the presence of light shuts off the natural flow of melatonin (our important sleep hormone) in the brain. Additionally, “light sleepers” often hear everything, so ear plugs or a soothing fan that neutralizes noise can be valuable.

E – Eat: Everyone knows caffeine, sugar, artificial dyes and food flavorings are stimulants that rev up the brain, so swap out bright-colored sweetened cereals, chocolate milk, or ice cream before bedtime for apple slices, cheese sticks, or grapes. Also remember the brain-benefitting good fats like butter, olive oil, and avocados are healthier than margarine, lard, or shortening.

E – Exercise: This free method simply promotes sleep — period. I recently heard Temple Grandin, autism expert, say students need exercise, sunshine and activities so they actually sweat. Perspiration is nature’s way to expel toxins, and lab testing validates people with autism retain abnormally high amounts of chemicals and heavy metals (like mercury, aluminum, copper, and lead).

P – Perception: When decorating your child’s bedroom, consider that colors and characters invoke emotion. Do you really want images of aggressive dinosaurs, skulls, dolls with tons of make-up, or fangs? Does a big red monster truck on the wall invite restful slumber? What do we play/watch? Companies make disturbing images appear dreadfully real and perception is reality to the human brain. Be wary and wise.

T – Textures: When I used to read on Heidi’s bed at night, I realized most of her sheets were cute, colorful and quite scratchy to my skin. Eventually I swapped them for a higher quality of fabric. I also finally realized she preferred T-shirts and shorts to nightgowns that often bunched up.

I – Isolate: Individuals with anxiety frequently require time to decompress after high-emotion or high-stimulus settings, like school or shopping. We knew after ballgames, wedding receptions, or holiday gatherings, Heidi needed “down time” in her play room.

M – Medicine: When it feels like nothing works, some folks get sleeping pills for their kids. We’ve felt that desperate with Heidi, but discovered every drug had side effects, and so another pill was given for that issue, and then it also had side effects, so it “snowballed.” I’m a minimalist when it comes to prescriptions; take what is absolutely necessary. Honestly, there are dozens of drug-free methods to encourage sleep not listed here, like Melatonin, so try ideas.

E – Essential oils:  These family-friendly concentrated herbal drops derived from plants, flowers, and citrus are simply remarkable. Nature generously offers safe methods, which not only help fight infection, viruses, and skin conditions, but also help calm the mind or invigorate the body. Read up. We rubbed a drop or two of blended frankincense, myrrh, tangerine, and chamomile on Heidi’s feet to relax her and she loved it. (Me, too.)

Well, there are a few more tools to keep in your survival bag. Good luck and good nights.

Pearson can be reached at

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