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Sensory Needs and Sleep for Your Child with Autism

June 28, 2021

A look at how addressing your child’s sensory needs could help him/her get a better night’s sleep.

Sensory Needs and Sleep for Your Child with Autism

In the special needs community, I know sleep is a very important topic. Many parents are aware their kids are desperate for more sleep, but they just can’t seem to get these precious hours. For children with autism, a good night’s rest can be especially tough to achieve. In my years of working with kids just like yours, I have learned a few things:

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1. Incredibly long wake-ups (three to five hours at a stretch) in the middle of the night are very common for kids on the spectrum. Three out of four of my children with ASD struggle with this exact issue

2. Taking three or more hours to get to sleep at night happens…a lot

3. If a child struggles with one or both things, it makes it really hard for him/her to regulate the next day.

When sleep training a child with autism, or any kind of sensory processing issues, knowing what that child needs to stay regulated is key. When a child is struggling to get the long stretches of sleep he/she so desperately needs, it’s his/her brain telling you it needs more stimulation!

I’ve learned time and time again the traditional methods of sleep training only go so far until you’ve helped address the sensory needs. These two things go hand in hand. And, why is that?

The area of the brain that controls sleep is right next to the area of the brain that processes and integrates all the “input” coming into the brain through the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. If one of these areas is not running as efficiently as it should, there will be negative ripple effects—chances are you’ve seen this! Parents will tell me when their child hasn’t slept well that they’ll stim more, be more hyperactive, etc. That’s going to affect his/her sleep the next night.

It’s a vicious cycle. But, it’s a cycle that can be reversed!

When sensory needs are addressed in the right way, my kids are starting to fall asleep faster, sleep through the night more consistently, and waking more rested and ready to tackle the day—that’s because their brain is happy. It’s gotten everything that it needs to do the work it has to at night.  If your child with autism just can’t sleep, here’s my top recommendations to help address their sensory needs at home:

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1. Tactile needs: whether your child is a seeker or an avoider, I first recommend incorporating joint compression massage specifically in your child’s bedtime routine and during the day. Very often, just a few minutes of this before bed can help your child’s brain to wind down and their body to relax. I find it’s a great way to release any built up tension or stress from school, daycare, therapy, etc. And, it can be very helpful to reset things if your child has been up for a while at night. Try to incorporate even more sensory play, brushing techniques, and more with your child throughout the day. 

In addition to this, make sure that your child’s bedroom is cool at night. Many kids run hot, and this will prevent them from getting into a deep sleep. Make sure that your child’s room is no hotter than 70°F (22°C).

2. Auditory needs: in most cases, the kids that I work with struggle with being too sensitive to sounds. Signs of this are: certain sounds bother your child, they struggle in crowded places, they’re distracted easily, or tune out a lot. They will make constant noise either with their voice or with other objects, or wake with the slightest creak of the floor boards. Some children may be hearing many sounds at once, and much more intensely than you and I. Imagine trying to sleep through all that racket!  My recommendation is to cut out sounds as much as possible.  For kids over 5 years old, I recommend that they sleep with silicone ear plugs that are usually used for swimming. These simply sit over the ear canal, and can be comfortably molded to the shape of your child’s ear. 

I don’t usually recommend sound machines for my hypersensitive kids, as they can make it harder to settle. However, from time to time they can be helpful. At most, try to find a machine with a pink noise setting which has a calmer frequency. Or, simply run a fan at night.

3. Visual needs: if your child hears and feels things differently than they should, chances are they’re seeing lights in a more intense way as well. Even the tiniest little bit of light in the bedroom can throw your child’s sleep off. It’s important that your child’s room is as dark as possible at night. My rule is if you are standing in your child’s room, you should not be able to see your hand extended in front of you.  That means, putting up black out shades and blacking out the windows. You can do this by taping thick paper or aluminum foil over the windows. If your child needs a night light, use something that is red, orange, pink, or yellow and put it behind another piece of furniture to dampen it. Avoid anything with a blue tinge.

Finally, avoid TV, tablet, smart phones, laptops, etc. at least one hour before bedtime. The light that these devices emit tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime and delays the natural dump of melatonin into the system.

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4. Oral needs: every once in a while, I will work with a child whose mouth sensitivity (or lack thereof) will keep him/her up at night. This makes it especially difficult to drop bottles and pacifiers, and I’ll work with kids who are still using these at age six and older! In order to ease this sensitivity, you can use different oral sensory therapy tools. My favorites are the NUK brush and Z-Vibe brush. If your child needs this, use these tools right before a meal or snack.

Whether your child’s sensory issues are mild or severe, giving the brain the stimulation it needs will make it easier for your child to go to sleep calmly and satisfied. In addition, with all the information your child gets during the day, the brain can process it and learn how to see, hear, and feel the world more consistently. The great thing is a little bit can go a long way! Consider focusing on one or two areas at first and see how it helps your child. Then, dive into some of these other sensory pathways for a better night’s rest.

This article was featured in Issue 118 – Reframing Education in the New Normal

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