What Not To Do
Dont forget that their nervous system will need help allowing them to sleep.
Dont give up if your first attempts dont work. Learning to sleep well is hard for any child, let alone one with sensory sensitivities and increased risks of nightmares.
About the writer
Im a writer, artist, and advocate who loves living in Maine among the trees and oceanside villages. Im also autistic, ADHD, and PTSD. My education, both academic and personal, has centered around mental health and neurodevelopmental disabilities, as well as discrimination and the socioeconomic consequences of living disabled in America. I work to plant seeds and spread ideas through my writing and will be among the autistic adults helping you understand your autistic kids better on Spectroomz Ask An Autistic.
You can find me on Twitter .
How Can I Help My Child Sleep Better
Sleep medications should only be used with children as a last resort . There are a number of lifestyle changes and natural sleep aids that can improve sleep time and quality for kids with autism spectrum disorder:
- Avoid giving your child stimulants such as caffeine and sugar before bed.
- Establish a nighttime routine: give your child a bath, read a story, and put them to bed at the same time every night.
- Help your child relax before bed by reading a book, giving a gentle back massage, or turning on soft music.
- Shut down television, video games, and other stimulating activities at least an hour before bedtime.
- To prevent sensory distractions during the night, put heavy curtains on your child’s windows to block out the light, install thick carpeting, and make sure the door doesn’t creak. You can also make sure that the temperature of the room and choice of bedding fit with your childâs sensory needs.
- Ask your pediatrician about giving your child melatonin just before bedtime. This dietary supplement is often used as a sleep aid to help people get over jet lag. It may help normalize sleep-wake cycles in autistic children who have sleeping issues, and research done so far finds that it’s safe and effective.
- Talk to a sleep psychologist about bright-light therapy. Exposing the child to periods of bright light in the morning may help regulate the body’s release of melatonin by helping them to feel more awake during the day.
How To Get An Autistic Child To Sleep
Getting any child go to sleep can be a struggle, but this struggle is often exacerbated when the person fighting against their rest doesnt have the tools to accurately communicate with their caregivers about what theyre experiencing, feeling, or worried about. Meltdowns are common, especially close to bedtime when children are tired and worn down.
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Set Up Healthy Sleep Associations
Sleep associations and habits are the things that children need to settle for sleep. When children wake at night, they need the same things to go back to sleep.
For autistic children, sleep associations and habits can be very strong. They might include falling asleep next to a parent, while watching TV or after using an electronic device.
If youd prefer your child to fall asleep by themselves in their own bed, you might want to help your child develop some healthy sleep associations. Here are some ideas:
- Use pictures of your child sleeping in their own bed as part of a visual support.
- Give your child a reward for staying in their own bed.
If your child can fall asleep only when youre next to them, you could try sitting on the edge of the bed or on a chair next to the bed. Gradually move away from your child each night as your child gets better at falling asleep alone.
How To Help My Child Overcome Their Sleep Problems
Getting your child with autism to get over their sleep issues might be challenging, but with the right lifestyle changes, the odds are in your favor. Please note that sleep medication should be used only in the last instance.
Lifestyle changes that can help your child with autism sleep better:
- Limit caffeine and sugar intake, especially before bed.
- Build a nighttime routine. Include activities that relax your childprepare them a hot bath or read a bedtime story.
“One of the keys to good sleep is establishing a routinemake sure you have a wind-down schedule before going to bed. There are many potential treatment options for sleep issues, so ask your doctor and if needed, ask for a referral to see a sleep medicine physician“, says Dr. Patil.
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What Causes The Correlation Between Sleep And Asd
The answer is not straightforward and the science is still ongoing. But the following is one theory that has shown up in multiple observations.
Evidence suggests that there is a link between melatonin production and sleep disturbances in autistics. A study performed by the Sleep Disorders Clinic indicates that any impairment in the production of these neurotransmitters may disrupt sleep In melatonin synthesis, the final enzyme encoded by the N-acetylserotonin O-methyltransferase gene demonstrated less activity in ASD children therefore, implying lower levels of melatonin. To put it in layman’s terms, this suggests that melatonin production may be irregular in ASD individuals due to genetic activity.
Causes Of Sleep Issues In Autism
As with so many symptoms of autism, the causes of sleeplessness are not well understood. A few possible theories include:
- Genetics: The genetic causes of autism itself may have some impact on the ability of people with autism to fall asleep, stay asleep, and awake refreshed.
- Sensory issues: Most people with autism are hyper-responsive to sensory input perhaps they have a harder time sleeping because they can’t easily block out noises and sensations that disturb their rest.
- Lack of melatonin: Some studies suggest that people with autism produce less melatonin at night than do neurotypical people.
- Physical or mental illness: In addition to sleep-related challenges, many people with autism have other physical and mental illnesses that may impact sleep sleep apnea, acid reflux, seizure disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD, and anxiety can all make it harder to sleep.
In addition to these possible causes, people with autism may also find it harder to just “let go” of the day’s cares and interests.
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Getting Autistic Child To Sleep
You can try the following steps to get your child to good sleep.
1. Begin a sleep journal: Describe when and how the issues happen. Define the issues so that the problem can be identified.
2. Find out any physical problems or patterns that may be causing impairment of sleep. You can consult your physician, occupational therapist, neurologist, etc. to rule out any medical conditions, prior diagnosis or in case your kid is taking any medicines.
3. Consult a Behavior Analyst so as to address behavior issues that may be causing sleeping impairment. It may also help in gaining assistance in identifying any environmental factors and receiving guidance in forming a bedtime routine and schedule.
4. Create an appropriate bedtime routine: Consistency is the key. Create a regular bedtime routine and try to stick to it. You can use a visual schedule, which your kid can understand to assist in establishing a bedtime routine. Some kids may not understand a visual schedule which uses icons, words or photos. In such cases, you can use objects.
5. Avoid excessive play and stimulation before bedtime in order to getting autistic child to sleep. Your child should be engaged in plenty of outdoor activities and exercise during the day.
6. Designate a fixed place for your kid to sleep and make sure that they sleep in that place only during bedtime. Try to maintain a similar sleep environment and routine as possible while travelling or living in different environments.
What About Medicine?
Create A Positive Bedtime Routine
Routines are useful for human beings, autistic or not. But as we mentioned earlier, autistic kids are extremely fond of routine, and have trouble adapting when a routine changes. Also, if you establish a bedtime routine with positive rituals associated with going to sleep, they are more likely to know when its time for bed.
Its important to keep this routine consistent every night and to do activities in the same order every time. It might help to have a checklist that your child can follow and check off once tasks are completed to give them a sense of accomplishment. Ideally start this routine around 30 45 minutes before its time for them to shut their eyes.
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Tips About Autism And Sleep: How To Get A Child With Autism To Sleep
This post may contain affiliate links.
Autism and sleep is a hot topic in the special needs community. In fact, I once read that more than 50% of children with autism struggle with sleep disturbances of some kind. MORE THAN 50%! And since sleep deprivation can lead to learning problems, hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, and aggressive behavior, it can feel like a cruel joke that autism and sleep problems go hand-in-hand.
But When It Doesnt Work That Way Anymore
For autistic children, however, getting an appropriate amount of sleep is not that straightforward. Sleep difficulties which can include taking longer to get to sleep, a shorter total sleep time, or lower quality of sleep occur up to twice as much in autistic children than in the typically developing population.
There are several signs to look for if youre concerned your child is lacking sleep. For example, are they groggy or falling asleep during the day or taking a long time to get going in the morning?
Routines are a common culprit with sleeping difficulties. There are three essential foundations to sleep, says Charlie. A consistent sleep schedule, a regular bedtime routine, and an appropriate bedtime.
Its worth noting that there are no set answers to those. Just like theres a wide range in how much sleep people need, an appropriate bedtime for one child might not be right for another. The key is finding what works best for your child.
We know that anxiety can also play a big part in sleeping difficulties, especially if your child is having trouble sleeping before school or other similarly stressful times. As ever, communication is key to managing anxiety.
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How To Get A Child With Autism To Nap
Developing a healthy bedtime routine or children with autism starts by creating healthy habits during the day. Your child should wake up at the same time every day, all seven days a week.
If your child is 5 years or older, avoid naps. Plan activities throughout the day to help them stay awake. But, if they are young enough to nap:
- Make sure they sleep in their bed
- Avoid naps past 3:00 p.m.
The key to trying to get a child with autism to nap is to develop routines. A bedtime routine, as well as a daily routine , is the best way to get your child to take naps during the day.
How To Help Your Autistic Child With Sleeping
There are several reasons autistic children can struggle with sleeping. First, their nervous systems struggle with emotional regulation, meaning it can be challenging for them to calm down at night. Autistic kids are known to have frequent nightmares, which makes staying asleep difficult. Some kids struggle with sensory issues, like a lack of stimulation, at night as well.
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Help Your Child Feel Tired
ABC Everyday: Fiona Churchman
Zoe Sandell gets it. She has two autistic sons. Her youngest son Brodie, 20, started struggling to go to sleep when he was about two.
“He’d wake up all hours of the night and he didn’t have the skill of putting himself back to sleep but he didn’t want to be awake either, so he didn’t know what to do with himself so he would literally just scream and you couldn’t console him,” she says.
Zoe says setting up a regular routine of home-based therapy and kindy as well as melatonin helped him develop better sleeping patterns.
Now, as an adult, if Brodie’s not sleeping it’s all about exercise.
“So, when he gets home he goes for a bike ride and then he goes and walks the dog â¦ and we do exercise, exercise, exercise. We’ll do that for two or three nights in a row, and then he will finally just have to get into bed, and we break that cycle of staying up,” Zoe says.
How Does Lack Of Sleep Affect Children With Autism
When we get enough sleep each night, our bodies use this downtime to repair themselves and prepare us for the next day.
When we don’t get enough shut-eye, however, our bodies aren’t able to perform all those tasks properly. The result is fatigue, which leads to irritability, decreased attention span, and even lower performance at school.
Lack of sleep has been linked to many health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia.
In children with autism, insufficient sleep can lead to behavioral changes, impaired social skills, and reduced academic achievement.
In addition, research indicates that sleep deprivation affects the way the brain processes information. For instance, it causes memory loss, decreases focus and concentration.
In addition, there are several physical effects associated with not getting enough sleep. These include headaches, stomachaches, sore muscles, skin rashes, dry eyes, constipation, and difficulty concentrating.
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Additional Tips And Tricks
Deep Pressure Simulation
This is a range of firm to gentle squeezing that is done with the hands or a massaging tool. This treatment helps relax the nervous system and has been used as a method of helping calm ASD individuals before bed.
A weighted blanket provides some of the same relief as deep pressure stimulation. Added weight can act as a comforting embrace. These are typically filled with sand, glass beads, or some other finite substance that can provide extra pressure.
The size of this blanket should weigh no more than 5-10% of the users body weight. Many manufactures have advised that more than this can be potentially dangerous, especially for small children.
This can be a blanket, stuffed animal, baby doll, or really any object that the child forms an emotional relationship with. This item is meant to provide a sense of security.
White Noise Machine
White noise can help autistic children who experience neurodiverse audio sensory stimulation. These can help cancel out or cover other noise. This can help them relax and facilitate falling asleep.
A type of therapy where artificial light is used to help regulate the circadian rhythm. This has been used to treat both sleep and psychiatric disorders and has been recommended by some as an effective treatment for people on the spectrum.
Getting Some Sleep Yourself
Getting a proper nights sleep is hugely important.
It may have been suggested that you sleep when your child sleeps, but this wont necessarily be convenient, especially if you have other people to care for and it can also be difficult to switch off on demand. By the time you have got your child to sleep, particularly if they needed calming down, you may feel too wound up to sleep yourself.
- Safety proof your childs room so you can relax knowing that they cannot harm themselves while you are asleep.
- Find out more about community care and respite services. All parents of children with disabilities are entitled to be assessed to see if theyre eligible.
- If you are struggling with long-term lack of sleep, implementing strategies such as those above can be impractical. Seek support outside the family such as your GP, social worker or your childs school, for help and advice.
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Sweets And Other Sugary Treats
Eating foods high in sugar will increase your childs energy level for a short time. Then, their blood sugar will drop, and they will feel sleepy. This seems like a sure-fire way to get your child to sleep, right? Well, not exactly. Once your childs blood sugar drops, their body releases the sugar-elevating hormones cortisol and epinephrine in an attempt to return the level to normal.
Unfortunately, these hormones can keep your child wide awake. Sugary foods also disrupt the release of melatonin. Artificial sweeteners, which are sometimes used instead of sugar, are no better. They have been linked to hyperactivity, irritability, and sleep loss.
How To Teach An Autistic Child To Point
Children use the pointing gesture as a means to communicate with those around them. In children with autism spectrum disorder/condition , this small gesture can go a long way since they often have trouble with verbal communication, leading to immense frustration. This is where nonverbal communication, like the pointing gesture, comes in it helps them get their point across to another.
Scroll down to learn how to teach an autistic child to point.
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Sleep Problems: Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many babies and children have settling and sleep problems. In children with autism spectrum disorder , these problems can be more severe than in other children. You can manage and overcome many sleep problems in your child with ASD using common behaviour strategies.Autism spectrum disorder and sleepLike all children, children with autism spectrum disorder can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.Children with ASD can also have sleep problems that we dont see as often in other children. These difficulties include:
- irregular sleeping and waking patterns for example, lying awake until very late or waking very early in the morning
- sleeping much less than expected for their age, or being awake for more than an hour during the night
- getting up and playing or making noise for one or more hours during the night
- excessive sleepiness during the day.
Other factors If your child has been ill, he might keep wanting the extra attention he got when he was sick. When your child is better, try the settling strategies above again. But consult your childs doctor if you think your childs poor sleep is related to a medical problem for example, asthma or epilepsy.