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.
Autism and sleep patterns
Most families with small children experience some form of sleep disturbances due to sleep regressions, teething, sicknesses, night terrors, and potty training, but these disruptions are easily explained and are often short-lived through various sleep training techniques.
Children on the autism spectrum, on the other hand, tend to have difficulties falling and staying asleep, and they often sleep LESS than their neurotypical peers due to impairments of the body’s circadian rhythms, abnormalities in melatonin levels, an inability to understand social cues, feelings of anxiety, and sensory processing issues. The reason behind autism sleep disorders isn’t always as obvious, and can be very difficult to correct, which can significantly exasperate a child’s symptoms.
It can also lead to a whole host of challenges for parents and caregivers. They become anxious and irritable, depressed and withdrawn, and start to lose interest in the things that are happening around them. Life starts to feel like an uphill battle, and since a child’s success with various treatments and therapies is very much dependent on the involvement of her parents and caregivers, autism and sleep can become somewhat of an obsession.
So, how do you improve the amount and quality of your child’s sleep in the face of neurological, behavioral, and medical challenges so the entire family can feel well-rested?
Sadly, the answer isn’t quite as simple as you probably hope, but there ARE ways you can find your way back to a good night of sleep.
How to Get a Child with Autism to Sleep
If autism and sleep is a challenge in your household, the first thing you want to do is try to figure out WHY. Does your child have sensory issues? Does she suffer from night terrors? Does she have gastrointestinal discomfort? There are a lot of underlying conditions that may contribute to autism sleep disorders, and your first step should be working with a professional to identify what those challenges look like for your child, and if any medical and/or behavioral interventions can help.
But don’t fret! There are a lot of other things you can start doing in the interim to help improve your child’s sleep patterns. Here are 9 sleep strategies to consider…
Make sleep a priority
Whether your child has developmental delays, or just struggles to get a decent night of sleep, one of the best things you can do for her is to prioritize her sleep. While some kids may sleep for longer stretches when they’re overtired, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule, and if your child is already showing signs of sleep deprivation, try moving her bedtime up an hour for 3 nights and see what happens. You can also check out Marc Weissbluth’s book, Happy Sleep Habits, Happy Child for more on the ‘sleep begets sleep’ phenomenon. While I’m not sure his techniques are necessarily designed for autism and sleep, the foundation behind his approach will certainly give you a nudge in the right direction.
As tempting as it is to let loose and let go of rules and schedules on weekends and holidays, research shows that children thrive best when they are on a consistent schedule, and if your little one finds it difficult to fall asleep – and stay asleep – it’s important that you maintain a predictable routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day. Period.
Get regular exercise
Physical activity isn’t just effective in helping us sleep better, but it also helps us enter a deeper sleep, so make sure your child is getting ample exercise throughout the day.
Adjust your child’s diet
Removing caffeine and sugar from your child’s diet is another great strategy to help improve autism sleep patterns. Can’t cut it out completely? Try limiting it after lunch so your child is calmer by the time bedtime rolls around.
Schedule your day in such a way that your child has time to wind down an hour or so before bedtime. Remove electronic devices, turn the TV off, dim the lights, and engage in calming activities like reading, coloring, or listening to soothing music.
Establish a good sleep routine
The sooner you develop – and maintain – a predictable sleep routine, the better. By following the same steps night after night, you are giving your child’s body signals that it’s time to slow down and prepare for sleep. Avoid overly stimulating activities at this time (surprisingly enough, baths with lots of toys can actually get kids excited rather than calm them down!), and make sure to follow the same routine each night. Try to keep the process as short as possible (go to the bathroom, put PJs on, brush teeth, read books, lights out…) so it doesn’t become too cumbersome.
Remove sensory distractions
If your child is sensitive to external stimuli, like light, sounds, and textures, take steps to remove them from his sleep environment. Purchase black out blinds to block out sunlight, invest in a white noise machine to drown out nighttime noises, make sure her PJs and bedding are made of comfortable fabrics and devoid of tags…you get the idea.
Use sleep tools
There are lots of fabulous tools that may help your child get a better night of sleep. Weighted blankets provide pressure and sensory input while also triggering the release of serotonin, which aids in sleep; the Gro-Clock provides a fun way for children to learn when it is – and isn’t! – time to wake up; When-then schedules and sticker charts can be fabulous motivators when used correctly; and you might even consider building a ‘tent’ over your child’s bed so he feels safe and secure in his own cave during the night.
If all else fails and your child simply cannot get enough restorative sleep each evening, ask for help. I’m serious. Sleep plays such an important role not only in our children’s well-being, but in our ability to be good parents, so don’t be afraid to talk to a sleep coach (I highly recommend The Baby Sleep Site as they offer gentle, cost-effective, personalized plans with email support), enlist the help of your doctor, or book an appointment with a naturopath. It will be one of the best gifts you give to you and your family.
A good friend once told me that Amnesty International recognizes sleep deprivation as a form of torture. Her words didn’t really resonate with me at the time, but after learning how badly children with autism and other special needs struggle with sleep – and the effects it has on their parents and caregivers – I finally understand just how profound a statement she was trying to make.
E. Joseph Cossman once said, ‘the best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep’, and while I can’t promise my sleep tips will work for you and your family, you better believe I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines.
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