Approximately 1% of all children born in the U.S. each year are diagnosed with autism. Children on the autistic spectrum frequently have problems with sleep.
Interestingly, these children often instinctively use some of the 5 S’s to call themselves! They hum, spin and make repetitive motions. And many teachers and parents notice that they calm faster with rocking, white noise and the use of heavy blankets.
If your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and trouble sleeping, you may be surprised to learn that research reveals that—on average—children on the autism spectrum sleep only a bit less than typically developing kids. However, caring for these kids can be so exhausting that it makes even normal sleep disruptions hard to handle.
How to Help Your Autistic Child’s Sleep Problems
If your child has autism and sleep difficulties, here are some things you can try to get slumber back into your life:
- Prepare for success. Reduce junk food (candy, chips, fried food, sweet breakfast cereal and sugary drinks—including undiluted apple juice—and anything with caffeine, including chocolate, teas, herbs and supplements). Ask your pediatrician about the potential benefits of a gluten-free, casein-free diet. (Some parents of children with autism find this diet works wonders). Also, make sure your child gets plenty of sunshine, fresh air and exercise during the day. In the evening, you’ll want to use every trick in your bedtime routine. An hour before sleepy-time, dim the lights, turn off the TV, stop roughhousing and turn on some soft white noise in the background. Children on the autism spectrum can be especially rigid and resistant to change, so make sure you follow your beddy-bye ritual to the letter.
- Create good nighttime habits. If your child’s nightly cries disturb the family or neighbors, you might be tempted to sleep with him to make him calm. But if you can place your child in bed awake, he’s more likely to learn to self-soothe and put himself back to sleep if he wakes during the night. To boost your chances of success, use the rough, rumbly white noise CD or app all night long. If you haven’t been using white noise, introduce it slowly. Initially, play it quietly in the background during the evening (some kids do well with it during the day, too). Next, begin using it quietly all-night long. Gradually increase the volume over 3 or 4 nights until it reaches the noise level of a shower.
Many parents find that the right-brain Happiest Toddler communication tips (like Toddler-ese, gossiping, magic breathing, and patience stretching) are particularly helpful with children with left-brain verbal delays (like autism) throughout childhood…and well beyond.
Consider These Calming Sleep Routines for Autistic Kids
- Putting your child in a heavy vest or using a heavy blanket.
- Brushing your child’s skin gently with a hairbrush or backscratcher.
- Snuggly swaddling his upper body.
- Using a very silky blanket as a comforting lovey.
- Spraying a little lavender mist into the air as a signal that it’s time to sleep.
- Dimming or blocking all lights (including the TV, clocks, hall lights under the door and streetlights outside the window).
One exception: a very dim night-light may reduce your child’s anxiety.
Very delayed children may require fortified cribs (with safety netting and higher side rails) or alarms on the door to keep them from leaving the bedroom and disrupting the whole family’s sleep.
Finally, your doctor may also recommend giving a magnesium supplement; or 3-10 mg of melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime; perhaps even a prescription sleep medicine.