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Sleep and Your Autistic Child

About two-thirds of autistic children have problems with sleeping. If your toddler or child is autistic, you might experience difficulty in establishing a regular bedtime. This can be due to their naturally irregular or random sleep/wake patterns. They might want to sleep all day and then be ready to party at night when everyone else wants to go to bed. 

Some reasons why autistic children have sleep difficulties

Differences in melatonin production, which affect a child’s circadian rhythm. 

Heightened senses and/or sensory overload.

Social cueing problems, which make it difficult for them to make the connection between bedtime routine and bedtime.

Anxiety.

Associated neurological problems like epilepsy.

Food allergies/sensitivities/issues which are common in children with ASD – cause digestive problems and discomfort.

Sometimes autistic children have other health issues which can cause them discomfort and/or pain.

How does this affect their sleep?

Autistic children can have difficulty settling off to sleep and delayed sleep onset. This is common in lots of children but especially for those with autism.

Because of the difference in melatonin production, some autistic children sleep in short bursts rather than for a sustained period. This can mean lots of night wakings, and sometimes very early waking as well. 

Melatonin

Melatonin [“the hormone of darkness”] is the hormone that puts us to sleep and keeps us asleep.

Sometimes for people with autism, its production can be low or irregular.

If your child has sleep problems, you may have been prescribed melatonin by your paediatrician. 

It should only be given as a short-term measure, along with support and guidance about helping your child get into a good bedtime routine. It can be helpful for some children, especially if it is used to help kick-start a sleep plan. Then once a new sleep behaviour is established, the Melatonin can be withdrawn.

Prescribed melatonin is usually given about half to one hour before bedtime, and it can help a child to fall asleep. Unlike natural melatonin which continues to be produced during the night, synthetic melatonin wears off quite quickly. This can of course cause them to wake in the night. 

However, you can take advantage of the prescribed melatonin at bedtime to help you teach your child how to fall asleep in their own bed. Help them to do this without having you sitting or lying with them. This alone can help them to resettle more easily, without you if and when they wake up later.

How you can help

There are lots of things you can do to improve your child’s sleep.

I’m going to divide this into 3 categories to make it clear why each intervention is helpful.

Biological

Make sure they have an appropriate wake window so they are tired enough to sleep. 

Avoid being over-tired i.e keep their cortisol levels low.

Encourage daylight exposure – this helps to release sleep hormones at bedtime.

Stop screen time 1 hour before bed.

Have lots of exercise during the day.

Lights low 1 hour before bed.

Low red night light in the bedroom they need it – kept on all night.

Blackout blinds during summer months.

Encourage foods which contain tryptophan [milk – chicken – turkey – nuts – oats – tuna – nuts & seeds.] Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps melatonin production.

Avoid sweets/cola/fizzy drinks & food with artificial colouring and other chemical additives.

Behavioural

Have a familiar recognisable bedtime routine.

Use a social story [TM]* to help prepare for changes to the way that they sleep or let them know what they are meant to do.

Encourage them to fall asleep alone, so that they don’t wake later feeling upset that you’ve gone. It’s fine to do this in gradual steps – altering the social story as you go.

Give them rewards for good sleeping. Make sure that you are specific in your praise. For example, “You got into bed when I asked you to!” “You slept in your bed all night!”

Environmental

A tidy room – put toys away before bedtime.

A dark room or a dim red night light to encourage melatonin production.

Have the walls and furnishings in soft, muted colours.

Thick carpets to muffle sounds.

White noise/noise cancelling headphones

Try sensory lighting – lava lamp/bubble lamp/fibre optic lamp [red tones.]

Avoid strong food smells etc.

Have your child fall asleep in the same conditions that they then subsequently wake up to.

Some people use a weighted blanket, as they are good for sensory processing issues and can provide a sense of calm. It should be said that many sleep experts and occupational therapists don’t believe in their effectiveness. Weighted blankets should never be used for very young children. 

Why sleep matters

It is so important to address and try to resolve any sleep issues rather than just accepting them as part of your child’s differences. 

You want them to be as well equipped as possible to enjoy their life, their education and their friendships. 

We know that poor sleep in younger autistic children can lead to an increase in such things as social difficulties, struggles with learning and challenging behaviours.

Sleep is very important for you too! It’s hard work being a parent, particularly if you have a child who is autistic. If you’re going to give them your best, you need a good night’s sleep.

As a mum of an autistic son myself, and speaking from the heart,  I wish you lots of love and luck in helping your child with their sleeping.

Further help

If you are struggling with your autistic child’s sleeping, I’m here to help you. 

If you choose to book a one-to-one consultation with me, you will receive my expert advice along with an individual sleep plan for your child. 

You will be in very safe, experienced hands and I treat every parent and child with kindness. 

As a qualified health professional, I can help families with medical and developmental issues.

See my reviews on Trustpilot

www.andreagrace.co.uk

*I make sleep stories a lot in my work with children with special needs and they are very effective as well as being fun for the child.