It comes as no surprise to the parents and professionals reading this article that many children with autism have sleep issues. At least 50 percent, and as many as 80 percent, of children on the spectrum struggle to sleep well (autismspeaks.org). To have these struggles on top of developmental issues can be wearing on any child, parent, or family.
It may take your child hours to get to sleep. Your son may wake twenty times a night or start his day at 2am. Maybe the only way your daughter can sleep is by being cradled and bounced on a physioball. Do any of these sound familiar? Whatever the struggle is for your child, I know you’re struggling too.
When your child doesn’t sleep well, it affects not only their attention and cooperation, but also just how well he or she does in therapy and how well the brain absorbs the information it is given. Your child is more prone to temper tantrums, sensory meltdowns, hyperactivity, a weakened immune system, and more.
Being a parent of a child who has developmental issues presents its own set of challenges. Your child’s poor sleep is something so many parents just like you are facing. Parents who reach out to me often feel they’ve exhausted all possibilities. They’ve tried melatonin, weighted blankets, essentials oils, supplements, medications, etc. only to find their child still cannot get a good night’s rest. When your child isn’t sleeping, it makes you crankier.
You have a harder time dealing with stressful situations and controlling your emotions. This can cause rifts between you and your partner and puts strain on the whole family.
You cannot be at your best when you are defeated, overly exhausted, and only getting a couple hours sleep a night. Your child doesn’t deserve this situation, your family does not deserve this situation, and neither do you.
However, it does not have to be this way. In learning about sleep training, I had a profound realization. children with autism did not rest well solely because of their diagnosis, which is so often assumed. They could not sleep well because they had never been given a chance to develop good sleep habits. It was the child’s diagnosis professionals would use as an “excuse” for why a child slept poorly.
So, what to do? How do you start righting the ship? Here are my top recommendations and the foundation of what I teach all of my families:
1. Get your child to bed earlier
If there is one thing you do, getting your child to bed earlier will make a big difference. Here’s why: our energy goes up and down throughout a 24-hour cycle. This is called the circadian rhythm. The lowest dip in energy happens at night, and this is our “window of opportunity” when it comes to getting a great night’s sleep. Mother Nature is giving us a little nudge, but we often ignore her. When we miss that window, it will take longer to fall asleep, we will wake up more frequently during the night, and will wake feeling out of sorts.
For children under the age of 8, this dip in energy happens around 7-8 p.m.. Take advantage of that window! When kids are put to bed too late, they become overtired. Overtiredness makes kids do the total opposite of sleeping at night. Research has shown the areas of the brain that dictate sleep get completely disorganized when sleep deprived. Unfortunately, this same area of the brain also controls sensory perception, behavior, balance, coordination, and language. For a child with autism, overtiredness is a double whammy.
If your child is between the ages of eight and 15, my recommended bedtime is anywhere between 8:30 pm-9:30 p.m. For older teens, a 10 p.m. bedtime would be appropriate. Even if you cannot stick to these ideal bedtimes consistently, a simple 30-minute adjustment can make a big difference.
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2. Teach your child to sleep on his/her own
This is a little easier said than done (I know!), but this shift will make a “night and day” difference in the quality of your child’s sleep. All of us have our own way to go to sleep. You need your pillow and blanket, you might flip to your left side, you may need your arms curled up to your chest. You may need to listen to white noise. Whatever it is, you have your own way of getting to sleep.
For the majority of kids I’ve worked with, the root of a child’s sleep issues lies in that initial falling asleep for the night. Why? Because he/she is still dependent on mom or dad in some way. He/She doesn’t have his/her own strategies to get themselves to sleep. And, your child will keep looking for that help during the night when he/she wakes up. Over and over again. This will affect the quality of his/her sleep, and everyone will wake up tired the next day.
If your child needs patting, rocking, cradling, someone lying next to him/her, a drive in the car, etc. to get to sleep, it’s time to give him/her the space he/she needs to figure it out on his/her own. Once he/she knows how to do it without you, he/she can use those strategies to get himself/herself back to sleep at night. This will make it faster for him/her to settle again, and those long wake ups at 2 a.m. will get significantly shorter.
3. Reduce bright light exposure
For many children on the spectrum, they are much more sensitive to light exposure than we might think. Your child is experiencing lights much more intensely. This can delay the dump of melatonin in the system leading up to bedtime and can trick your child’s brain into thinking it’s still daytime.
My recommendation would be to first cut screens at least 1 hour before bed, and even earlier if you can. Many children on the spectrum might find watching videos before bed comforting, but it will affect their overall sleep quality. The strong, blue light from screens will delay the release of melatonin in the system and will cause middle of the night disturbances too.
In the afternoon, do your best to limit your child’s exposure to strong, artificial light (fluorescent lights, for example). You might consider putting “blue light blocking bulbs” in certain fixtures around the house as well. And, lead by example—if your child can’t have screens an hour before bed, make sure you follow the no screens rule too.
I was recently contacted by a mother whose child was sleeping terribly. After attending one of my seminars, she got rid of screens before bed, took away the nightlight, and reduced light exposure in the evening. In 3 weeks, her child was not only sleeping through the night, but he was sleeping independently. With good sleep, her child started to try new foods, stopped toe walking and began saying words. Look how great an impact some simple changes made!
These are just some of the strategies I teach my families to help their children sleep well. For a child on the spectrum, a careful look at sleep hygiene as well as factoring in physical activity, nutritional recommendations, and more, can pave the path to sleeping great for years to come! Any change, big or small, takes time to adjust to.
However, with consistency and a little patience, your child can make these changes. Your child with autism has all the potential in the world to defy his/her diagnosis and sleep great.
Lamm, Carin. Establishing Good Sleep Hygiene. Retrieved from https://www.autismspeaks.org/sleep
This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together