While some sleep difficulties are an expected part of childhood, studies show that those with autism seem to struggle more with falling and staying asleep, with up to 80 percent experiencing sleep problems.
A child’s repeated nighttime wakings can quickly become a daily parenting challenge; leading to daytime sleepiness, learning problems and behavioral concerns. It’s not clear why children with autism experience such a high rate of sleep issues, but experts say that digestive problems, melatonin levels, anxiety and sensory sensitivities could all play a part.
Marci Wheeler, a social work specialist with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community (IIDC) in Bloomington, has studied sleep issues among children with autism. She recommends parents begin with the child’s doctor to rule out any potential medical causes. “The doctor can at least look at any gastrointestinal issues, the possibility of undetected seizures, test for sleep apnea or even address sensory issues,” Wheeler says. “There are also more mainstream doctors who are looking at vitamins and other alternatives.”
From there, Wheeler suggests parents closely examine their child’s sleeping environment; suggesting these tips to encourage a better night’s sleep.
Think from your child’s perspective
Parents should closely examine their child’s sleeping situation, taking note of the room’s temperature, noise level, light and even the texture of bedding and pajamas. “One boy I worked with, no matter what the time of year, wanted to wear tank tops and have a fan on him,” she says. “The trick is not to think of yourself but to think of your child and what they need.”
Indianapolis resident Katie Friedericks says she didn’t realize how significantly changes to her son’s bedroom would affect her then three-year-old son who is on the spectrum. “In the few months leading up to his sleep problems, we made some changes in his bedroom – getting him a new bed, new bookshelves and replacing a lamp that had broken,” she says. “They seemed like minor changes to us, but to him, they were probably major and [they] all happened in a short amount of time.”
Parents may also need to accept whatever unique sleeping parameters their particular child needs to make going to bed easier. Noblesville mom Kasey Bradley says she’s learned to adapt to the sleep habits of her eight-year-old son, Isaiah, who is on the spectrum. “He has a bunk bed, but he pulls the mattress off onto the floor and often sleeps in his doorway,” she says. “You have to choose your battles!”
Wheeler also encourages parents to be flexible when it comes to what their child wears to bed. How clothing fits, itchy seams and the weight of bedding are all tactile sensitivities that can affect those with autism. “Some may want to wear layers of socks or even shoes tied tightly, while others don’t like to have anything touching their feet,” she says. “You may need to rethink how to make a normal bed, too.”
Establish a routine
Having a nightly ritual surrounding bedtime is a good idea for any child, but especially for those on the spectrum.
Wheeler suggests that parents create a visual routine of four to six steps that are realistically achieved most nights, giving their child a feeling of control. Bedtime activities to consider could include looking at the same book or story, listening to soothing music and saying goodnight to family members. “Predictability is often calming and relaxing, and these children seem to thrive with those kinds of things in place.”
For more helpful sleep tips, read Wheeler’s article on the IIDC’s website entitled Good Night, Sleep Tight, and Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite. The Autism Speaks website also catalogs a number of good resources for parents on the subject of sleep and autism spectrum disorder.