Navigating Sensory Challenges of CPAP Mask for Autistic Users


Do you frequently feel tired during the day? Do you constantly wake up throughout the night, resulting in little accumulated sleep time overall?

You could be dealing with sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep condition that causes fatty tissue to collapse on the airway during sleep, obstructing the healthy and steady flow of oxygen.

Navigating Sensory Challenges: Improving CPAP Mask Comfort for Autistic UsersPin

This can lead to persistent poor sleep quality, which can lead to a slew of frustrations during one’s waking life, particularly increased irritability and fatigue. 

This condition can be debilitating on its own, but it’s manageable with devices like continuous positive airway pressure masks. That said, if you’re a person with autism, treating this condition effectively can present itself with a lot of new challenges.

In particular, the sensory sensitivities commonly associated with autism can make using a CPAP machine—a common treatment for OSA—especially challenging. 

These challenges usually involve the mask’s design, leading to fewer sleep apnea symptoms but a heightened sense of discomfort that can lead to fewer hours of sleep.

If you want to enhance comfort while using a CPAP mask as an autistic person, here are five useful tips to help you navigate these sensory challenges and sleep more soundly.

1. Practice Wearing Your Mask When Awake

If you’ve recently been prescribed a CPAP mask, it’s a good idea to get used to it before you actually use it for its intended purpose. Wear the mask throughout the day during your free time, such as when you’re using your phone or watching TV. 

Get used to the sensations and pressures provided by the mask and try to get accustomed to it. If you aren’t comfortable with it yet during the first days, pace yourself accordingly. Gradually acclimatise to it until you can wear it for an hour or more without extreme discomfort.

Once you’re accustomed to the feel of the mask, lay down with it with the hose attached. Increase the duration of your wear time until you can sleep soundly with it. It takes patience, but consistency is key to getting you the results you need. 

Over time, you’ll likely feel used to the mask on your face, as well as the sensations that come out of the mask when you sleep. 

It’s important to be gentle to yourself and listen to what your body is telling you, so if you find it excruciatingly difficult to utilise the mask to its fullest potential, tell your doctor so that they can provide alternative treatment options.

2. Consider Switching Mask Types

Some masks are generally more intrusive than others, which can make for a more uncomfortable sleeping experience for people on the autism spectrum.

These are some of the popular CPAP mask types that you can find in the market:

  • Full-face mask: Covers mouth and nose.
  • Nasal mask: Covers nose exclusively.
  • Nasal pillows: Mask exclusively for nostrils.
  • Hybrid mask: Full-face and nasal masks in one.
  • Oral CPAP mask: Covers only the mouth area.
  • Total face mask: Covers the entire face.
  • Nasal prong mask: Covers nostrils with a non-intrusive design.
  • Nasal cradle mask: Lightweight mask that sits under the nose.

If you find your mask too hard to sleep in, then you should consider switching your mask type to something more suitable for you. Nasal pillows, nasal prong masks, and oral masks are especially ideal for people who easily experience discomfort when wearing a mask.

That said, be sure to talk with a sleep specialist to ensure that the CPAP mask you choose is still effective for your specific case of sleep apnea.

3. Use Desensitisation Techniques

It can be difficult to adapt to wearing a whole mask during rest, but you can perform techniques and habits to make the whole process easier.

For people with autism, this means adopting gradual desensitisation techniques. This process is a slow approach to helping you get accustomed to the sensory discomfort a mask may provide.

To start, consider getting used to the mask’s different textures and edges. Place it against your face for short bursts at a time until you get used to it, and then fasten it once you’re more comfortable.

As mentioned earlier, don’t try to sleep with it immediately. Once you’re wearing it, do things to distract you from the mask. Watch TV, read a book, finish a jigsaw puzzle—do anything that makes you feel accomplished and happy afterwards.

If you’re a carer for someone with autism, then praise them every time they put on the mask for an extended period. Praise them after every difficult milestone for them—like using the mask lying down, using the mask with the machine on, and using the mask before they get to bed.

Feel free to give them a small reward like playtime with a toy, a book, or something they find nice to reinforce their progress. This can help make the process easier for both the carer and the sleep apnea patient.

4. Consider Alternative Therapies

As much as we recommend CPAP masks, some people with autism may simply be better off considering other avenues of treatment for their sleep apnea.

Many of these alternative clinical methods are intrusive but can permanently alter your body’s anatomy to make breathing easier during sleep. These therapies include inspire therapy and uvulopalatopharyngoplasty

As these are surgical treatments, they are done on a one-off basis and require a bit of a recovery time. But once you’ve recovered, then you can go about your sleep schedule without much trouble.

That said, there are a few therapies that are less intrusive and less expensive. Oral appliance therapy, for instance, uses a minimally-invasive dental device that’s custom-fitted and inserted into your mouth, assisting in keeping the airway open during sleep. 

There’s also positional therapy—which is a therapy that encourages sleep apnea patients to utilise an optimal sleeping position before bedtime to reduce the risk of a sleep apnea episode.

Lastly, medical professionals may also prescribe sleep apnea patients to undergo lifestyle changes to lose weight gain, as that’s a large contributing factor to sleep apnea.

5. Integrate Mask-Wearing in A Strict Bedtime Routine

blanket on a bedPin

If you rely on consistent routines to pass your day, then it’s a good idea to integrate CPAP mask-wearing into it.

For instance, if your usual routine consists of turning off the lights, changing into your pyjamas, and playing calming music before bed, then gradually incorporate putting on a CPAP mask in the middle of this order.

Putting that activity in the middle helps you more seamlessly integrate the act without as much pushback. You’ll find yourself motivated to put on the mask to accomplish your entire routine. Once you start familiarizing yourself with the routine, you’ll find it more natural for you to put on your mask. This, in turn, can lead to less resistance when wearing the mask.

Final Thoughts

Navigating the sensory challenges of CPAP mask use for autistic individuals doesn’t have to be a solitary journey. With the right approach, including practicing mask wear during the day, exploring different mask types, employing desensitization techniques, considering alternative therapies, and integrating mask-wearing into a bedtime routine, users can significantly enhance their comfort and sleep quality. 

It’s a process of trial, error, and patience, but the payoff is a night of better sleep and, by extension, a more fulfilling day. 

Always remember, adjustments and consultations with healthcare professionals are key steps in this personal journey towards improved well-being.



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