Parents of children with autism learn to live life a bit differently. They may not be able to cuddle their children often, or they may have to guide their kids deliberately through social situations.
These adjustments are necessary because kids with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) act differently than your average child. They don’t speak or play “make-believe” at the ages that most children do. Most children can be diagnosed with ASD by the age of two, and the CDC recommends a screening starting at 18 months. The knowledge that your child has ASD can help you adjust their lifestyle to suit his needs better.
However, many parents probably haven’t given much thought to how a child’s autism may be impacting their sleep patterns.
Why Sleeping May be Difficult
It’s common for children with ASD to have sleep issues. One study of people with autism reported that the majority of them had sleep issues. Difficulties settling down were often reported among kids with ASD. Problems falling asleep and frequent waking during the night are also sleep issues children with Autism face.
The reasons for these sleep issues can be biological, medication-induced or learned.
An abnormal circadian rhythm has been associated with children with ASD. A typical circadian rhythm aligns with the rise and fall of the sun. Children are awake during the day and sleep during the dark of night. In children with autism, however, this rhythm may be disrupted so that kids are awake all night and sleepy during the day.
Some medications, particularly stimulants, can also cause sleep issues. Stimulants may make it harder for children with ASD to fall asleep and stay asleep. Many pills interfere with sleeping soundly through the night, so limiting the number of medications your child takes or paying closer attention to the time of day that they take their pills may help.
An additional reason for sleep issues is learned behaviors. If parents don’t model good sleep habits for their children, the kids are likely to pick up these behaviors. The good news is that learned behaviors can be corrected. Parents simply have to work on improving their sleep hygiene, the set of behaviors that leads to healthy sleep. These behaviors include having a set bedtime that is the same every night, powering down devices an hour before sleeping, and creating a dark and quiet sleep environment.
Tools for Improving Sleep
Any child may have problems settling down for the night. However, parents of kids with ASD might have to consider a few more factors.
Schedule relaxation time before bed: Doing quiet activities before bed signals to a child’s brain that it may be time to go to sleep. Kids with ASD usually respond well to listening to music quietly, reading, or lying down in the dark.
Alleviate anxiety: Some kids get anxious about being left alone in the dark. Parents can ease their worries by offering a high-five or other appropriate form of touching before bedtime.
Develop a sleep-friendly environment: Bedrooms should be dark and comfortable. Your child may benefit from a new bed that feels cozy or linens that don’t scratch his skin. Experimenting with different sleeping arrangements may help you find the best one for your child.
Minimize distractions: Squeaking hinges, creaking floors or noisy mattress can disturb any child. Check the room for unpleasant noises before bedtime.
Remember that these tips can improve parental sleep too. It’s always easier to care for your child with warmth and enthusiasm when you’ve slept well through the night.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.