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Valuable Ways Rhythms Can Help People With Autism Get To Sleep

October 13, 2023

“Our son didn’t sleep for YEARS until he started listening to your music. I have to admit the concept sounded a bit like snake oil at the beginning, but now I am a true believer. I sing your praises to anyone who mentions sleep issues. Kids with autism (and their parents) have many challenges every day and it is so difficult to make progress when completely exhausted. It’s 7 a.m. and our son is still sleeping!! Wahoo!”  —Jenn

Valuable Ways Rhythms Can Help People with Autism Get To Sleep

Jenn sent me this email after I worked with her five-year-old son. When we began, Michael’s biggest challenge was his inability to wind down at night and fall asleep. Jen had tried a whole host of approaches—from melatonin to classical music, white noise to binaural beat tech.

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As a five-year-old child with autism, Michael insisted on sleeping in his parents’ room. This made it difficult for his parents to sleep well. Michael is like many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): his anxiety and lack of self-regulation manifested as a need for strict routines and for a parent to be present while he tried to fall asleep.

What made it doubly difficult, because he was not verbal, was his inability to articulate how any of the musical approaches they tried made him feel. His parents were unsuccessful in finding a fall-to-sleep solution.

Typically, when someone chooses a musical approach to sleep, they choose a soothing and calming style of music that pleases them. This approach relies on a psychological affinity for the music and, as such, the music that helps varies from person to person.

Selecting the right music to relax

Regular music calms by creating a psychological response in the listener—a phenomenon referred to as the relaxation response. With the relaxation response, what works for you is unique to you. And what helps one day may not help the next. Therefore, choosing music for someone else, regardless of abilities, can be difficult.

This approach works if you are willing to seek music that feels just right. Personally, I prefer instrumental jazz. You may like a solo piano. Your child may like something entirely different. In fact, I get a lot of feedback from parents of teens who describe that music with a driving beat is soothing.

Does white noise help kids with autism sleep?

White noise is also commonly used to help someone fall asleep. It can be a great distraction for some people, especially in noisy environments. But it can also be overstimulating for many sensitive children as well as disconcerting for those who have separation anxiety and who need to be able to hear others in the house in order to feel safe enough to sleep.

Ways rhythm can help the transition to sleep

This brings us to rhythm, my preferred way to help individuals transition to sleep. Rhythm directly affects brainwave states, removing the need to choose the right feel-good music for each listener. Auditory rhythm synchronizes the brain to its underlying pulse through a technique called “brainwave entrainment” (BWE). Brainwaves relate to our level of awareness. We have four basic brainwave states: our wakeful state of beta, relaxed-alert state of alpha, internally-directed state of theta, and unconscious state of the delta.

BWE takes three basic approaches: binaural beats, tone bursts, and drumming. Binaural beats are pulsations that the brain perceives when two dissimilar tones are heard through headphones. Tone bursts use pulsations of white noise. Complex drumming uses the rhythms of the drum to create these pulses.

Most BWE approaches for sleep try to get the brain into the delta state, in which we are unconscious. This is often not very effective. As sleep is a multifaceted brainwave dance that moves through several brainwave states, humans do not fall asleep straight from the delta.

When we fall asleep, we first enter a theta-driven state called Stage 1 as we transition from a relaxed-alert state of alpha. Stage 1 sleep generally lasts ten minutes or so. Then we enter Stage 2, which is also in theta but contains short periods of higher-level activity called sleep spindles. These sleep spindles are short bursts of brainwaves in the lower end of beta that occur after a huge spike in brain activity called K-complex.

Both the K-complex and sleep spindles seem to be related to the process of becoming less responsive to external stimuli. Once these stop, we enter Stage 3 sleep.

Stage 3 is the delta level deep sleep state. Because we have gone through Stage 2 and are internally directed, we really aren’t hearing, or at least responding to, sounds that are trying to entrain us. We have successfully tuned them out, unless they are a threat to us, in which case, we may wake up.

Given this process, entraining the brain to an alpha state of consciousness allows us to enter a relaxed neurological state in which we are responsive to music. From here we can easily and naturally transition to sleep on our own.

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Entraining a sleeper to alpha requires certain conditions. The stimulus must have enough variability to engage the brain so entrainment can occur. Binaural beats and tone bursts both create their effects by using regular pulsations. There is no variation in the sound of the pulses. Therefore, no entrainment can occur.

This is where drumming can be useful. Every drumbeat, when played by human hands, will have a slightly different sound. As well, a drummer can create an infinite variety of patterns and orchestrations. This creates novelty, something that the externally directed brain needs to stay engaged in the process long enough for entrainment to happen.

I came to understand this notion in one of my very first studies. We compared a steady, repetitive pulse (like those found with binaural beats and tone bursts) to complex, variable drumming patterns. We saw children and adults with autism calm within minutes of hearing the variable drumming, whereas the repetitive pulses were agitating to the subjects within that same time period.

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Another great thing about entraining a listener’s brain to the alpha state of consciousness to help transition to sleep is that our brains learn how to make the transition on their own. This eventually eliminates the need to listen to fall asleep.

I could go on, but all the talk in the world is nothing compared to your own experience. You can try this approach for yourself with this free audio download (no sign-up required).


You can also learn more and hear me play the music in this video for transitioning to sleep here: https://youtu.be/Usoxz7JtB38.

This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance

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