Studies show that a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is likely to experience more sleep issues than a child who is not on the spectrum.
A child with autism may find it harder to get to sleep, to stay asleep, and sleep earlier in the day. Frequently, the bedtime routine can be challenging for a child with autism, and waking up at a set time can be impossible. Continued lack of sleep leaves both child and parent drained, exhausted, and often anxious.
Specialists say there are many characteristics of a child with autism that can contribute to this poor quality of sleep. It is believed to be the result of light and sound sensitivity, the probable lack of the sleep hormone melatonin, allergies or seizures, and difficulty in transitioning from a day routine to a night routine.
Abigail S. was diagnosed with autism 10 years ago. She suffers from severe anxiety, depression, and is a selective mute. Her mother, Sara, explained that Abigail would be up until 2 or 3 a.m. nearly every night trying to get to sleep.
“I would be woken by Abigail several times through the night, looking for comfort as she became very frustrated and exhausted,” Sara said. “This went on for many years until she had her assistance dog, ‘Breeze.’ Now she can’t wait to go to her bedroom to be alone with her assistance dog and best friend. Abigail will now go to her room around 10 p.m. and before midnight they are both sound asleep. I am no longer woken in the night and I’m feeling so much better in myself, too. If Abigail wakes up in the night, then now it’s Breeze that comforts her until she drifts back off. She is so much happier. We can’t believe the change in her.”
Just as Abigail and her parents discovered, the introduction of a trained assistance dog can provide many welcome answers to sleep issues. Over a period of time benefits may include:
1. Easier transition from the day into the night
The constant presence of the assistance dog throughout the day and night provides a reassuring structure and seamless overlap. The dog has a routine which is absorbed by the child and viewed as a reliable constant to him/her.
2. Reduced anxiety levels that aid falling to sleep
The assistance dog provides emotional support that promotes calm and relaxation.
3. Motivation to go to sleep
The strong bond between the child and his/her companion encourages the child to get into bed and settle down to sleep alongside the assistance dog.
4. A successful bedtime routine
The assistance dog is trained to be included in a bedtime routine. The dog’s skill set can turn brushing teeth and getting changed into a game that helps the child want to cooperate.
5. Sleeping for longer
The assistance dog is trained to lean up against the child as he/she sleeps and to lie across the child’s legs or body, providing reassuring deep pressure therapy as they relax and sleep.
6. Going to bed earlier
Spending time in bed and being in the bedroom can be transformed into a time to really enjoy, reducing the risk of late nights.
7. Reassurance through the night
The breeds of dogs chosen as assistance dogs are proven to release the highest levels of comforting hormones including serotonin.
8. Constant companion to prevent loneliness
Feelings of loneliness can worsen through the night as everyone else in the house is asleep. The presence and warmth of the loving assistance dog helps prevent feelings of being scared and alone.
9. Knowing when is the right time to wake up
Assistance dogs know when it’s time to get up, driven by their own hunger. They are brought up to eat every 12 or 24 hours at the same time to create a healthy schedule for their digestive systems.
10. Effective child monitor
The caring nature of a assistance dog can often identify if there is a serious problem with the handler and can alert the household by barking.
Assistance dogs use their emotional instincts and learned social skills to bring people emotional benefits and sensory interventions. Where many families find there is limited help for their children (or young adults) with autism, successful integration of assistance dogs is providing them much needed and immediate therapeutic answers.
Caroline Preston is a qualified member of the International Alliance of Holistic Therapists and International Association of Neuro Linguistic Programming and Coaching (IANLPC). She is also qualified in animal assistance therapy. Caroline is a cofounder of the not-for-profit organization Therapy Animals CIC that provides (self-pay) assistance dogs for autism, PTSD, severe anxiety, NF, cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, and mobility issues.
This article was featured in Issue 68 – ASD Strategies in Action