Every child seems to go through a period when sleeping becomes difficult. Whether it’s because there is a monster under the bed or stress from school, parents know there will be sleepless nights.
When your child has autism, counting the nights you get to sleep might be easier than counting the sleepless ones. It is rare to know exactly why your child with autism isn’t sleeping, but there are things you can try so you all get the sleep you desperately need.
See Your Doctor
Before you try anything else, visit your doctor to make sure there is nothing physically causing your child to not sleep. A kidney or bladder infection could be causing the child to feel like they need to go to the bathroom all night. Coughing or a stuffy nose can also cause sleepless nights. Unfortunately, an illness can completely disrupt your child’s sleep pattern and it can take weeks to get back to “normal.”
Use a Picture Schedule
Children with autism can rarely move from one activity to another easily. If your child is non-verbal or has limited verbal skills, a picture schedule can help reduce the stress of getting ready for bed.
Many companies sell pictures that you can print and make your own schedule, but most people with autism respond better to real pictures.
Take photos of your bathtub, toothbrush, medication, snack, cup, PJs, blankets – anything that you use (or places you will be) when you are getting your child ready for bed. Create a picture schedule so your child always knows exactly what will happen next.
You can use Velcro to stick your pictures to a board and your child can pull each one off as it is completed. You may start with a picture of your bathtub, then one of Pjs, a snack and drink, toothbrush and finally a picture of your child’s bed (with all of his/her favorite blankets and animals in the picture).
If you have a routine in your child’s room, such as turning on a fan, reading a story and tucking the blankets around him/her, create a schedule of that, too. Your child needs to know what is happening next at all times and if the schedule is available, this may reduce some of the anxiety your child feels at being left alone.
Stick to the Same Routine
Children with autism crave the same things over and over. Once you have created a picture schedule, give it a few weeks and see whether it seems to be helping your child. You may need to change the schedule a few times until you find the best one for your child. After you find a routine that is working for both of you, stick to it!
Use Deep Pressure
For children with extreme anxiety, deep pressure can help them relax and go to sleep. If your child has a physical or occupational therapist, discuss deep pressure options with them. It may take some time to find what kind of pressure works best for your child. Sometimes, they need pressure around their whole body. You can get that by tucking the child in tightly or by rolling them up in a blanket (with arms free and never cover their face!).
Sometimes, you can give your child the pressure they crave by simply piling lots of blankets on them. Some children like to squeeze their pillows or sleep in awkward positions to get the pressure they need. Your child is your best guide – follow his/her lead.
Use White Noise
If your child has hypersensitive hearing, he/she might be waking up all night because of the sounds in your home. Maybe the furnace kicking on is enough to wake them up or the TV that is on the other side of the house. Try turning a fan on or play sounds from nature, such as a waterfall or ocean waves. You will know quickly if something you try is not working – your child’s behaviors will make it obvious.
Let your Child Show You
If parents think outside the box, they might come up with some pretty awesome ideas to help their child sleep. Many times, we think we know what is best and if we would just follow the child’s lead, we might find the best sleep solution for the child. If your child wants to lay with his head at the foot of the bed, who cares? If your daughter wants to sleep without clothes, does it really matter?
If sleeping with a favorite train keeps your child calm, what difference does it make? You and I might not think that would be comfortable, but I’m sure our kids think some things we do are odd, too! Let your child show you what they need and you might resolve sleep issues.
Most children with autism have some degree of anxiety. If anxiety is keeping your child awake at night, there are several things you can try to relieve that before it’s time to go to bed. Stretching exercises, warm baths, or doing a quiet activity could help your child’s body be calm. Remember that every child with autism is different, though. You know what helps calm your child. Use that gut instinct to help relieve their anxiety.
Many people frown about giving their child medication. If you have tried everything else and your child is still not sleeping, it’s time to talk to your doctor. This is especially true if your child is a danger to himself or you when he is up during the night. Some children will try to play with dangerous items or leave the home and you will be shocked at how easily these children can escape the most tightly locked up home.
Explain your child’s inability to sleep to your doctor. It may be that anxiety is causing the sleep issues and an anti-anxiety medication will take care of the problem. Maybe your child’s body simply cannot stop moving so your child can sleep. Your doctor may prescribe a light sleeping medication.
No one can live up to their potential without the proper amount of sleep. It may be that your child doesn’t need as much sleep as other children, but they have to sleep sometime. You can’t expect great behavior and hard work at school when they are exhausted. You can’t be the best parent for your child if you are so tired you can’t keep your eyes open. You may not want to consider medication, but it may be the best option for your child.
I was willing to try anything to help my son sleep through the night. He wasn’t a danger during the night, but his constant pacing (and “singing”) through the house woke everyone else up and none of us were handling life well. He needed to sleep, but just couldn’t fall asleep. We finally found the right combination of medications (one for anxiety and one for sleep), routine and deep pressure to help him. We all are so much happier now and he knows he needs the medication to help him.
If your child had diabetes, you wouldn’t think twice about giving him/her the medication needed to help control that disease. Why worry about giving your child anxiety medication, if that’s what is needed? It is the same – you are not failing your child by giving medication. You are trying to help.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some children outgrow their sleep issues. In a few years, you may not even remember how hard it was when your child didn’t sleep. Always keep your faith and hope strong – what seems devastating now will end. It always does! My children are young adults now and I can say with absolute certainty that the bad days get fewer and the good days get better. Sweet dreams!
Jen Jones is a preschool teacher, a freelance writer and the very proud mom of three amazing young adults. Autism has been part of their lives for more than 25 years and she wants to share the joys autism can bring to a family as well as let people know that, even during dark days, life will get easier.
This article was featured in Issue 51 – School: Preparing Your Child for Transition