Autism, Sleep and Your Child
Sleep problems are incredibly common for children on the autism spectrum. According to the Interactive Autism Network, 50 to 80 percent of children with autism experience insomnia. Insomnia may include problems falling asleep, staying asleep or both. Either way, the consequences extend far beyond groggy mornings.
Sleep loss among autistic children has been linked to lower intelligence scores and more severe autism symptoms when compared to children who get the appropriate quantity and quality of sleep. Studies have correlated insomnia with spikes in compulsive rituals, challenging behavior, social problems, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The less sleep a child gets, the more severe the consequences.
While researchers aren’t sure why sleep problems are so common among children with autism, the connection is clear. However, parents aren’t helpless in the face of their child’s insomnia. With certain behavioral strategies, parents can improve sleep quality and quantity for their child with autism.
Keep a Regular Bedtime
Children with autism thrive on routine. Routine makes life predictable, which decreases anxiety in kids on the spectrum. By maintaining a regular bedtime, you make it so your child is mentally prepared for sleep when bedtime rolls around. Regular bedtimes also help regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle, increasing the likelihood your child feels physically tired at bedtime.
Create a Calming Bedtime Routine
Setting a bedtime isn’t enough. If your child is engaged in another activity when bedtime approaches, it’s hard to switch gears and go to bed. Instead, create a 30-minute bedtime routine designed to relax your child so he’s ready for sleep. A bedtime routine might include bathing, changing into pajamas, brushing teeth and saying goodnight to family before settling in for a story. It shouldn’t, however, include stimulating activities like exercising or watching videos unless you’ve identified those as calming activities for your child.
Shut Off the Screens
The blue light emitted from electronic devices including smartphones, televisions and computers interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that triggers sleepiness. That means that screen-free time before bed is especially important for children with autism, who are suspected to have irregular levels of melatonin production. Put away devices one to two hours before your child’s bedtime.
Improve Your Child’s Sleep Environment
Cool, dark bedrooms are best for sleep. Avoid putting a nightlight in your child’s bedroom as the light may affect sleep quality and length. If skipping the nightlight entirely isn’t an option, Wellness Mama recommends using a red-toned light to minimize sleep disruption.
Parents should also consider if their child’s mattress is contributing to sleep problems. A mattress that’s uncomfortable can make sleep difficult, especially for children with sensory issues. The comfort level of a particular mattress depends on your child’s sleep style; side sleepers need different mattresses than stomach sleepers, and stomach sleepers need different mattresses than back sleepers. Children with autism also frequently have temperature regulation problems, which means they’re more likely to be a hot sleeper and need a cooling mattress. Long story short? There are a lot of mattress options out there and understanding your child’s sleeping style is the first step in choosing the right one.
Other home modifications can be helpful too!
Consider Other Causes of Sleep Problems
A child’s sleep problems may not be directly caused by their autism. Other health issues including gastrointestinal problems or sleep apnea can disturb sleep. Some medications used in the treatment of autism and related disorders such as sedatives and ADHD medications are known to affect sleep. If your child’s sleep problems remain despite your own efforts, talk to your doctor about other causes.
When children with autism suffer from poor sleep, it doesn’t only affect their own well-being. Kids who can’t fall asleep or who wake up in the middle of the night disrupt the sleep of their entire family. For a better night’s sleep for your child and for you, start introducing these changes today.
Please check out Mercury Does it cause Autism?
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