Well over half of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, including children, have trouble sleeping. This can be very frustrating for both the parents and children.
Loss of sleep can affect everyone physically and mentally but young people with ASD who have sleep issues experience severe behavioural, learning, and social problems during the day. On the flip side, a 2016 study showed that not getting any sleep was consistently associated with daytime behavior problems.
While sleep issues may continue well into adulthood, they may improve. So don’t fret! To better understand the matter, we’ll explore the many causes of loss of sleep and provide some tips to help your child get their much needed shut eye.
Why children with ASD have sleep issues
Ways that sleep problems may manifest is:
- Having trouble falling asleep but can stay asleep once they do
- Waking up several times in the night
- Trouble with both falling and staying asleep
Not much is known or proven about the struggle with sleep children with ASD have. Possible causes could be in the many medical problems that commonly trouble people on the spectrum such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), gastrointestinal distress, and seizures or their medications that disrupt sleep.
People with ASD are also hypersensitive to sensory input and have a harder time blocking out noises or uncomfortable sensations. Their natural circadian rhythm may also be off, as well as below-average levels of melatonin, the hormone that induces and maintains drowsiness.
It may also just come down to genetics. The genes that cause autism may also affect the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up refreshed. In fact, even when they do sleep the whole night, they may not wake up with the same refreshed feeling as neurotypical people do.
How to help your child get good sleep
It’s important to create a consistent routine around sleep and maintain good sleep hygiene. This means keeping a daily routine and creating an environment that promotes sleep. Below are some tips.
- Make the bed only for sleeping. Avoid other activities like watching TV or snacking on it. Electronics or anything else distracting or stimulating should be taken out of the bedroom.
- Encourage exercise in the day but make sure it’s not too close to the hours leading up to bedtime. This can help them feel more naturally tired at night.
- Take note of what they eat before bedtime. Which foods help? Does an early dinner improve their ability to fall asleep? Some foods that naturally induce sleep are nuts, leafy greens, or foods rich in calcium and magnesium. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in turkey, chicken, bananas, and beans, can help induce sleepiness while grapes and pineapples contain high levels of natural melatonin.
- Follow a regular routine that starts at least one hour ahead of bedtime. During this time, there must be no more electronics or other stimulating or vigorous activity. This time should be for brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and doing things that relaxes your child such as reading or listening to music together. It’s very important to stick to this routine, even when you’re in a different environment such as when vacationing.
- Create a transition to bedtime that your child can recognize such as turning off the TV and start preparing in the bathroom. Do this 5-15 minutes before starting the actual routine.
- Remove sensory challenges in the bedroom. Keep it as dark, cool, and quiet as possible. Blackout curtains and soundproofing the room can be helpful as well as a white noise machine or a weighted blanket. If your child has a particular object, like a stuffed animal or toy, they are attached to, make sure they are present in the bedroom.
- Be patient and stick with the process. Stay with your child while they are trying to fall asleep and slowly move farther away to the other side of the bed, then the room, and until you are outside.
Of course these tips aren’t guaranteed to get rid of your child’s sleep issues. If your child has serious sleep issues, other approaches can be:
- Have a physician order a sleep study. This can help uncover issues related to your child’s sleep cycle such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
- Consulting with specialists in pediatric sleep issues. They may help you better understand how to help your child sleep.
All that being said, it’s also important for parents to also get a good night’s sleep. It’s not encouraged that you also wake up when you feel your child stirring or waking up. This might make it harder for them to learn to fall back asleep on their own.
Getting enough sleep is crucial to your health so you can be there for your child.