This post is a condensed version of the article, ‘Sleep Help for Those Diagnosed With ASD’ by The Sleep Help Institute. Read the full, original article here.
Between 44 to 83 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder experience sleep issues. Most commonly, children with autism have difficulty falling asleep and experience disturbed sleep once they do. Problematically, their sleep problems tend to exacerbate other issues characteristic of the disorder. For instance, daytime sleepiness from lack of sleep often results in hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and aggression during the day.
Children with autism who get a better night’s sleep tend to have fewer behavioural problems and better social interactions, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Sleep. If your child has difficulty sleeping, wakes frequently during the night, or wakes up early, they may have a sleep issue. Monitor your child during the night and note anything unusual such as snoring, movements, or breathing problems. You can share this information with your pediatrician or a sleep specialist.
Note that children need more sleep than adults. Here’s an overview of the recommended amount of sleep by age:
- Toddlers: 14 hours
- Preschoolers: 12 hours
- Elementary and middle schoolers: 10 hours
- Adolescents: 9 hours
- Adults: 7 to 8 hours
Helping your child sleep better will also help you as their caregiver. Caregivers and parents of children with ASD tend to have more sleep problems than the average adult, whether due to the emotional stress of raising a child or interruptions during the night from their child. Further, parents of children with ASD sleep less overall, have worse sleep quality, and wake up earlier than other parents.
Many behavioral changes can completely resolve or at least alleviate sleep issues for children with autism. The following tips have been helpful for parents:
1. Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
Children with ASD have heightened sensitivity and can be more sensitive to their environment than other children, so you may want to invest in blackout curtains and remove any stimulating electronics. Limit television time in the hours before bed as it can overstimulate their already sensitive brains. Instead, focus your child’s attention to quiet activities like drawing, puzzles, or reading.
2. Practice good sleep hygiene and establish a bedtime routine.
Bedtime routines can help children fall asleep faster, according to research by Vanderbilt University. Repeat the same activities in the same order each night 30 minutes before bedtime, including when your child brushes their teeth and if you read a bedtime story together. Have your child go to sleep and wake up at the same time, regardless of whether it’s a weekday or weekend.
Children with autism can show strong favoritism towards objects. Lean into this by using the same pyjamas and objects in the bedtime routine. Find a way to include multiple objects (such as two stuffed animals) so your child can still sleep if one item becomes unavailable.
Prepare your child for bedtime by reminding them that it’s coming up, so they don’t get irritated by a sudden transition. Use something consistently, whether it’s a verbal reminder or a clock that signals the time.
Because children with autism are highly sensitive, you might consider using relaxation techniques in the bedroom routine, such as a gentle massage or lavender oils during bath time.
3. Adjust your child’s diet and exercise.
Watch your child’s diet and take care to remove any foods that they have a sensitivity to as an upset stomach can disturb sleep. Children with autism are more likely to have gastrointestinal problems and food allergies or sensitivities, which if ignored, can cause disrupted sleep.
Limit liquid intake before bed to prevent bedwetting. Avoid caffeine (remember that tea, coffee, chocolate, and soda can all be sources of caffeine).
Provide regular exercise earlier in the day so your child can fall asleep better at night.
4. Coach your child to fall asleep without you in the room.
Children with autism can have an even harder time falling asleep without their parents than their typically developing peers. Slowly coach your child to fall asleep without you in the room. In the event they wake up during the night, this will also help them fall back asleep on their own.
First, you can also establish a sense of normalcy around falling asleep alone by showing your child a picture of them asleep in their room while you are doing another activity, or limiting any sleep or nap time to take place solely in their bedroom. Then, go through each of these steps until your child falls asleep, doing one step for a few nights at a time before moving on to the next one:
- Lie next to your child in bed
- Lie near the bed
- Sit on a chair inside the bedroom with the door open
- Sit outside the bedroom but remain visible to your child
- Sit outside but out of sight, with the door open
- Sit outside with the door closed
- Go to your room and sleep
Are you a parent? Are you looking for strategies to help your child sleep? Here’s what you need to do: Contact Colleen on 0434 337 245 or Duncan on 0434 331 243 for a FREE 10 minute consultation on how we can best help you or book online.