By: Annabelle Short
Sometimes, there are those days – especially on Monday’s or on a cold and rainy morning – where the second my alarm goes off I am already thinking about the nap that I won’t get to take that day…
Rather than waking up feeling rested and ready to start the day, I feel overwhelmed with exhaustion. I wish for just a few more hours of sleep before addressing all of the issues and distractions of my day.
Not only does a lack of sleep make getting out of my nice, warm bed that morning hard, but it also makes the rest of the day one big challenge…
As I just can’t shake the feeling of exhaustion throughout the day, I find myself being short-tempered, upset, and frustrated. Overall, it leaves me feeling just not quite like myself. And, still, all I can think about for the day is how exhausted I am.
Thankfully, this is not my everyday experience – it is one of those things where I stayed up too late the night before because I procrastinated or I just couldn’t stop binge-watching that new season of my favorite show on Netflix the night before.
But, for some of our autistic children, this is their everyday experience. Sleeplessness is their real life.
How does autism affect a child’s sleep habits?
You might remember when your child was an infant…
They couldn’t sleep enough – it was almost like pulling teeth just trying to get them to wake up. They would sleep deep and hard, and always seemed well-rested as soon as they opened their eyes.
Then, as they grew older, they eased into a normal cycle of sleep and wakefulness. You began to develop a schedule, likely based on their school and extracurricular activity schedule. But, for some children, this isn’t the case. And, trouble with sleep is most commonly found in those children who have also been diagnosed with autism…
Researchers estimate that between 40 and 80 percent of children with autism also have difficulty sleeping. And, these major sleep problems can include some or all of the following:
Waking up early and waking up frequently, inconsistent sleep routines, restlessness throughout the night or poor quality of sleep, and difficulty falling asleep in the first place.
Now, doesn’t all that just sound like a recipe for disaster? Well, that is because it is.
A lack of sleep – due to these common sleeping problems – does not only affect the child but it also affects their entire family. The child often experiences behavior problems as a lack of sleep, and often, the parents are up through all hours of the night just trying to get the child to go to sleep in the first place or go back to sleep.
As a result, this can leave the entire family feeling irritable and fatigued. But, why does this happen?
Why does autism cause sleep disorders?
It is not known by researchers definitely what causes autistic children to experience sleep problems. However, several theories circulate:
The first is that it has something to do with social cues. The average person knows when it is time to go to sleep at night. Their body has adjusted to the regular cycles of light and dark, and therefore, their body’s circadian rhythms are in tune with this cycle. But, people also use social cues, too.
For example, if a child has a sibling and they see their sibling brushing their teeth and putting on their pajamas, they will likely start to get ready for bed, too. However, an autistic child has difficulty communicating and might misinterpret or fail to even understand these social cues.
The second theory is that autistic children have inconsistency with their sleep hormone, melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone which regulates an individuals’ sleep-wake cycles. Typically, darkness causes melatonin to rise, and it dips with the daylight hours – causing you to fall asleep and wake up. However, in autistic children, studies have shown that their body doesn’t release melatonin at the correct times. Instead, it does the opposite – so, they experience higher levels of melatonin during the day and lower degrees at night.
Other reasons why autistic children experience sleep disorders could include anxiety or increased sensitivity to outside stimuli.
So, getting a child with autism to sleep can be quite the task, but it is a vital aspect to keeping their behavior in check and keeping them happy. While it might seem complicated, with a few tips and tricks, helping your child with autism sleep isn’t impossible:
Tips to Help Your Autistic Child Sleep
There are several different ways to help a child with autism sleep better – from a simple “don’t do…” to products designed to calm them down. One of these might just be the answer you have been looking for:
Invest in a weighted blanket
A weighted blanket is designed to help calm your child down by actively applying a slight bit of pressure to all the pressure points on their body located underneath the blanket. The blanket works to help your child relax, rid them of their anxiety, and ultimately help them fall asleep. The soft fabric, combined with the dots and the added weight is the perfect sensory blanket for your child to use when they are trying to sleep. You could even use this blanket as a haven for your child – allow them to develop a closeness to the blanket like they would a stuffed animal and teach them that when the blanket comes out, it is bedtime.
Establish a nightly routine
Every kid needs structure, but especially autistic children. They cannot just pick up on signs on their own – like the changing into pajamas scenario mentioned earlier. So, a strict schedule is essential. Develop a nightly routine for them – maybe one for school nights and one for the weekend, or the same one for every night – such as bath time, story time, and then time to get in bed. This is also a great way to incorporate the weighted blanket into your routine, like mentioned, teach your child it is part of the bedtime routine.
One significant hurdle children with autism have to climb over at night is trying to relax. Their mind is racing, and they are busy-bodies, so, it can be hard for them to rest. However, try to help them encourage their body to relax by turning on soft music or giving them a gentle back massage. By supporting your child to relax, you are also promoting them to go to sleep. And, once their body is relaxed, they will find that drifting off to sleep is a much easier task.
Avoid stimulants close to bedtime
Every child loves a good piece of candy or some sugar-filled hot chocolate. But, sugar and caffeine can only make the night that much more difficult. Instead, try to give your child warm tea such as chamomile tea, that helps promote a calm feeling and ultimately, sleep.
Everyone needs a good night’s sleep, and especially a child with autism. It may take a little extra work to find a method that works for you. You may need to spend extra time helping them fall asleep, but over time it will get easier.
A good night’s sleep will make all the difference.