Ensuring your child has good sleep hygiene can seem daunting as a parent, but autism sleep problems can bring a whole new twist on what is considered a good night’s sleep. Children with autism are known to have different social and sensory behaviors compared to typically developing children, both of which can contribute to sleep problems.
There are many ways to measure and track troubles with falling asleep among a certain population. There can be data collected about the particular sleep problems, age of the person, the IQ (intelligence quotient), the how, when, and why, and much more.
Research shows the length and quality of sleep is dependent on the individual. There are people who need an entire night’s sleep in order to function the next day, whereas there are people who can sleep for a few hours and be ready to take on the day.
Autistic children can have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. They can be known to get up in the middle of the night and wander around, play video games, or whatever else they may find appealing when everyone else is asleep.
Is there a link between autism spectrum disorders and sleep disorders?
In the article, Autism and Sleep Disorders, by Preeti Devnani and Anaita Hegde, the authors discuss the possible links between autism spectrum disorders and sleep problems. They say there is no one item to look at when trying to pinpoint why autistic children have sleep disturbances.
Family factors and genetics, environmental, immune deficiencies, and the way the child’s brain functions and prepares for sleep all have a part to play with sleep disturbances. For example, they state there is evidence that suggests a sleep association with differing melatonin rhythms and autism and how those levels could directly affect sleep.
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The article outlines the importance of different neurotransmitters like serotonin, that require melatonin for a consistent and regulated sleep pattern. Since children with autism spectrum disorders may have a hard time regulating melatonin, that could be a cause and start of why the child is having sleep problems.
Chemistry of the brain and genetics can be a starting point, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Being a parent that has tried to get a child with autism to sleep according to what the pediatrician recommends can be a task, knowing the whys and hows may be able to help the child and parent better navigate fuller, more complete sleep for the autistic child.
How do we help our children with autism sleep better?
Do you need a local sleep specialist to help create a sleep outline and set up a sleep diary as a part of the plan to use tonight? How would that look? Could it work? Those questions might run through a sleep deprived parent’s mind as they try and find the fix for their child’s sleep problems as soon as possible.
It is suggested in the article, Sleep Problems in Autism Spectrum Disorders: Prevalence, Nature, & Possible Biopsychosocial Aetiologies by Amanda Richdale and Kimberly Schreck, that insufficient sleep is caused from poor sleep hygiene practices like lacking a solid bedtime routine or unhealthy sleep associations, like having a snack or watching television before bed.
In order to combat these negative associations and behaviors before bed, it is recommended to start positive bedtime routines, like calming activities before bed, and establish a consistent bedtime schedule. I would suggest a family walk around two hours before bed, followed by a bath, and story-time. I have also heard that people enjoy the smell of lavender lotions and/or lavender fragrance around the room.
There are positive associations that have linked the smell of lavender and an overall calm feeling, which can lead to better sleep. If there are other things that parents notice that help calm their child and help them be better prepared for sleep, they can try including those activities in the bedtime routine.
Would keeping a sleep diary help?
There are numerous ways to use diaries and journals, especially when it comes to tracking behaviors and sleep patterns of autistic children. Before starting a journal or sleep diary it is important to know why and what information you are wanting to track.
Keeping a sleep diary
- Know what you are tracking: Are you tracking hours per night? Consecutive hours? Does your child have sleep apnea, night terrors or other sleep disturbances? If you know what you are tracking then you can check out either pre-made sleep journals on the internet, or make your own bullet journal or diary
- Stay consistent: make an entry every night, or morning, depending on what you are tracking. It can become a part of the nightly or morning routine to write the information needed for that day
- Keep open conversation about your child’s sleep patterns: This conversation should be with your doctor or healthcare provider and therapist or technician. They may have ideas that can help your child get better sleep. Or, if they are concerned, they will be able to order assessments or supports that could provide more consistency for your child
- Keep an open mind: Just remember your child is unique and has unique needs. Some approaches may help your child with sleep issues, others may not work. It is all a process and can take time. That’s one reason it is a good idea to have a goal set in place. It is bonus points if you are able to make those goals measurable, like hours of sleep per night, etc.
What else could help?
If you have tried the ideas in this article and your child still is having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor or primary physician. They are trained in many aspects of health and may know something that can help your child. If not, they could refer your child to someone who may know something that can help.
A few main points to keep in mind are to try and set a bedtime that is the same every night, even weekends, and stick to it. Children with autism generally respond well to a schedule.
According to the article, Sleep in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, around two out of three autistic children suffer from some form of insomnia. With this knowledge, they would recommend:
- Education: The parent should educate themselves more about sleep and how it differs with autism
- Changes in the environment: It could simply be having neutral tones in a child’s bedroom versus bright and loud colors, not showing a loud and exciting television show before bed, etc. It could also be beneficial to try a weighted blanket or other item to support the sensory needs of your child before bed. Checking out and evaluating the environment for any kind of sensory stimulation or things that can cause sleep disturbance can have an impact on preparing to sleep
- Therapies and support: Sometimes trouble falling asleep can be caused by behavioral issues and not comprehending what time of day it is, time blindness, and what to do to get ready for bed. There are behavioral and other therapies and supports available that can help children learn positive sleep behavior and bedtime skills for better sleep
- Melatonin: There are two different types of melatonin. The one created in the body is endogenous and can be what autistic children may not produce as regularly. Then there is the supplement or exogenous melatonin that can be taken like a vitamin and lets the body relax and get ready to sleep. Autism Parenting Magazine does not recommend giving any supplement or trying any activity before discussing what the pros and cons are with a doctor or other medical personnel
Are more zzzs on the way?
There are many different forms of support parents can get when it comes to helping their child sleep better. It can be a process but the results are well worth it for the child and parents.
Sleep difficulties are so hard and can be exhausting for parents and children alike. Please remember that there are resources and support available if you ask the right questions and approach the right people.
There are autism parent support groups that discuss so many aspects of autism and disrupted sleep or other sleep problems and could be the voice of knowledge a parent needs. Also, primary care physicians should be able to help or provide resources and support the parent and child to sleep better.
Whether they are infants or school aged children with autism, there is a way to help young people on the spectrum get a better night’s sleep. A sleep disorder does not have to be the final result and a good night’s sleep can be in reach when the support is there to invite the child to sleep.
Connell, J., Eriksen, W., Kerns, C., Pinto-Martin, J., Schaaf, R., Sinko, R., Souders, M., & Zaodny, S. (2018). Sleep in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846201/
Devnani, P. & Hegde, A. (2015). Autism and Sleep Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4770638/