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Parents with a child on the autism spectrum already have their hands full.
To make things even more challenging, many autistic children also experience difficulties falling and staying asleep. They may act out and require extra attention from mom and dad. It’s not uncommon for them to take longer than normal to fall asleep, and once they are asleep, bedwetting might be a regular occurrence.
Considering the challenges these little ones already face, it’s imperative that they get the right amount of sleep.
This will help them perform better academically, encourage the development of motor skills, and allow them to maintain a better mindset.
Not to mention, it’ll help mom and dad get a fuller night of rest, too!
In this article, we’ll share our top tips on how to get an autistic child to sleep.
What is Autism?
With 1 in 59 children now diagnosed with autism, this condition is nearing epidemic proportions. It has grown exponentially, from affecting just 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 59 in a matter of decades.
But what is it?
Autism is a neurological disorder, meaning it affects the nervous system. Because the nervous system controls every function of the body, autism can present itself in a variety of ways, although there are often commonalities.
The most prevalent symptoms include difficulty communicating, undeveloped social and motor skills, obsessive tendencies, repetitive behaviors, and gastrointestinal disorders, to name a few. ASD is referred to as “Autism Spectrum Disorder,” indicating that there’s a spectrum to this disease. Some kids and adults have a more “mild” case, and are on one end of the spectrum, while severe cases would be diagnosed on the other side.
Sleep and Autism
Autism sleep problems are often reported by parents who are trying to manage their children’s disorder. They recognize that in order for a child to function at their best, they need an adequate bedtime. That’s part of the human condition.
However, the behaviors exhibited by autistic kids are the very things that prevent them from getting to bed. These behaviors include:
- Obsessive rituals
- Physical aggressiveness
In adults, lack of sleep can bring out the worst. The same is true for autistic kids. It’s almost like a vicious circle. These children are already facing daily challenges as they try to deal with being autistic.
To make matters worse, the behaviors that prevent them from sleeping properly are exacerbated by not getting enough sleep. The cycle continues, and parents worldwide are struggling to find answers to help their children get the rest they so desperately need.
Tips to Get Autistic Kids to Sleep
Regular Bedtime Routine
An established routine is helpful for anyone, autistic person or otherwise. A routine helps signal the body that it’s time for bed, and it can be soothing for someone who’s trying to make sense of all the stimuli around them.
The important thing to remember with this tip is to have a set ritual that’s in a specific order. You can make a chart with pictures for your child to follow or create a checklist, so they feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
Eliminate Screen Time
There are two key reasons to eliminate screen time at night:
- The light from the screen disrupts the production of melatonin, a hormone that’s necessary for sleep
- Exposure to a screen, whether it’s watching a video or playing a game, will keep their mind active and occupied when instead, it should be winding down for bed.
Avoid Rowdy Play
Again, as bedtime approaches, an autistic child should be winding down, not getting riled up. Even though it may be fun and playful, ticking, wrestling and roughhousing are likely to delay bedtime. Playful activities are still highly recommended, but for daytime only.
Instead of rowdy play, plan other activities that are quiet and peaceful. Perhaps coloring, cuddling the pet or reading a bedtime story together can help prepare your little one for bed.
Planned quiet time should be part of the nightly ritual. As mentioned above, it may be reading a bedtime story together. Make sure it’s not stressful. Just because it’s quiet time doesn’t mean that it can’t derail sleeping habits.
For example, some kids find piecing puzzles together relaxing. However, a different person may discover that this activity triggers unwanted stress. Work with them to seek out something to do that’s relaxing.
Bath or Shower
Baths and showers can be soothing for some children. Raising then lowering the core body temperature can help to induce drowsiness.
Some children with autism do not enjoy bathing and this could be upsetting enough to delay sleep. For these kids, bathing or showering earlier in the day may be preferable.
Pressure touch is known to be calming, especially for those with autism. We recommend a gentle massage or rub-down, using downward strokes. Moving your hands against the body in the direction of hair growth is especially soothing.
Soft Musical Background
The music should be soothing. Experts recommend something that has a predictable rhythm, and preferably a tune that’s instrumental rather than someone singing. Classical music is universally relaxing.
Reading a bedtime story is a classic technique to help a little one fall asleep. In the case of autistic children, it may help to read something in the genre of poetry that has strong rhyming and sing-song cadence.
Creating a Relaxing Sleep Environment
Surround them with the things they love. A soft blanket, a favorite stuffed animal, and a glowing nightlight can all help an autistic child fall asleep and stay in bed all night. Other things that may help are a white noise machine and comfortable pajamas.
A comfortable mattress can make a world of difference. If your little one is sleeping on a hand-me-down that’s several years old, it might be time for an upgrade. The same goes for sheets and pillows. Look for sheets that are made of natural fabric, like cotton, eucalyptus or bamboo. Your child’s pillow should also be carefully considered. It should be medium softness, without being too high or low.
Autistic individuals tend to find pressure calming, and a weighted blanket simulates this. Sleeping under a weighted blanket is similar to the feeling of a big hug. It stimulates deep pressure receptors that can be very calming, especially for children on the spectrum.
When you’re shopping for a weighted blanket for your child, be sure to look for options with non-toxic filling and ones that can be washed. You’ll also want to factor in the right weight for your child. Typically, the formula is 10 percent of your body weight, plus or minus 1-2 pounds.
It’s not unusual for a young person to be afraid of the dark, and a nightlight can help. We suggest finding one with a dim glow. A light that’s too bright may keep your child awake.
These are common among adults plagued with insomnia, and they can work equally well for kids. A white noise machine combines all the sound frequencies into a hum that’s soothing and blocks outside stimuli. There are also white noise machines available that have relaxing nature soundscapes, calming music or guided meditations.
Take a look at your existing mattress and check it for wear and tear, sagging and odors. If your child’s mattress is uncomfortable, it will certainly affect their ability to get a peaceful night of rest.
Parents will have to do some investigative work to find the best solution. The first place to start is to make sure that all pajamas fit well and are comfortable. Check to see if your child is taking off their clothes during the middle of the night, which is a key indicator that they’re sleeping hot and need something cooler.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get them to sleep in their own bed?
An autistic child often wants to be near one or both parents, and that includes in the bedroom. Unfortunately, this sets a dangerous precedent and also makes restful sleep for mom and dad challenging. It also eliminates any chance of romance.
There are three tips to try that many parents have found successful:
- Institute a reward system. You may need to incentivize your little one to resist the urge to crawl into bed with you. Let them know that if they express their independence by sleeping in their own bed, they’ll get a reward in return. It might be a new coloring book, extra one-on-one time with mom, or a trip to the beach.
- Provide a safety net. This tip is closely linked to the reward system. Sometimes an autistic child will need mom and dad close by. You can give him or her a number of “free passes” that they can use when they really need to be close.
- The vanishing chair. Instead of your child coming into your bed to fall asleep, have them lay in their bed but place a chair right next to them. Sit with them until they fall asleep or until they feel comfortable with you leaving (this time should be no more than 20 minutes). Every night, gradually move the chair further away until you are at the door. The final step is to not be in the room at all but to promise to “check-in” after a set amount of time.
Are there sleep medications for children?
Yes, there are prescription medications. However, most parents opt for a more natural route. The drugs some parents try include epilepsy drugs, sedatives, antidepressants, and alpha agonists, which affect the adrenal glands.
We can’t provide any official medical advice, and we do urge you to speak with a trusted pediatrician before placing an autistic child on medication.
Is melatonin recommended for kids with autism?
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the body that helps to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Many people take melatonin supplements to help improve their sleeping habits. One of the biggest challenges with melatonin is that it cycles through the body quickly, so while it may help someone fall asleep, it may not help them stay asleep.
Multiple studies have looked at the use of melatonin in kids with autism. One double-blind study involving 125 children with autism investigated the use of a slow-release formulation. The kids assigned to the melatonin supplement group slept nearly an hour longer and fell asleep 40 minutes faster than the placebo group.
If you’re wondering if melatonin may be right for your child, speak to your pediatrician.
Getting a child to fall asleep, regardless of whether they’re autistic or not, is a nightly challenge that could last for years. While most children respond well to behavioral training and modifications, this isn’t always the case for a child who is autistic.
Within this list of tips, we hope you’ve found one, or a combination of a few of them, helpful for your situation.
Sources and References:
- Sleep and Autism – autism.org.uk
- Sleep problems in autism, explained – spectrumnews.org
- Wide awake: Why children with autism struggle with sleep – spectrumnews.org