Everyone wants to have a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, children with autism are prone to experiencing difficulties sleeping well.
While only about 10 percent of children suffer from having trouble sleeping, up to 86 percent of children with autism have problems with their sleep.
When your child suffers from sleep problems, the whole family is affected. For the sake of your child’s sleep health and your family’s, learn how to help your child combat their sleeping issues.
How do I know my child is suffering?
The signs should be fairly obvious, but a first-time parent may not know the difference between a stubborn child who occasionally puts up a fight to go to sleep and a child who is suffering from insomnia.
If your child takes a long time to fall asleep at night, wakes up frequently throughout the night, rises earlier than the sun regularly, and is irritable during the day, these are signs they are suffering from insomnia. Your child will also exhibit common signs of sleep deprivation: trouble concentrating, low energy, and moodiness.
Why do autistic children have difficulties sleeping?
People with autism generally don’t experience the same amount of restorative sleep as the general population. Only about 15 percent of their time sleeping is spent in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage as opposed to the 23 percent of REM stage sleep that the general population experiences. This deep sleep is vital for processing new information and retaining memories.
Children with autism often are affected by other conditions as well which may be contributing to their difficulties sleeping well. If your child suffers from other conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, or gastrointestinal complications, these could be preventing their sleep. Medications associated with some conditions, such as ADHD, are stimulants which would affect your child as well.
Sensitivity to sensory perceptions also may be disrupting your child. There may be too much light, noise, circulating air, or an uncomfortable texture bothering them.
How do I help my child sleep better?
It’s likely that you will need to consult with a licensed professional or sleep specialist to treat your child’s insomnia, especially if medications or other conditions are at play.
Before seeking treatment, you can try to adjust your child’s sleeping environment. Infants may benefit with a silky blanket, a light lavender mist in the air, or an advanced mobile that promotes safety, sensory interaction, and comfort. As your child grows and develops, they may be able to help you figure out what they need by expressing their concerns to you.
Your child may be bothered by excessive light or noise in which case you can hang up blackout curtains and utilize a white noise machine to mask disruptive noises. If sensory issues are the problem, you can let them pick out new bedding or a new bed with a different firmness level that would be more comfortable to them, especially if they are a side sleeper as this position often causes discomfort with the wrong bed.
It’s important that you help your child develop healthy sleeping habits by reducing snacks, caffeine, and exposure to television or other blue light sources near bedtime. Keep your child on a routine schedule of going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day to help adjust their sleeping cycling. Instead of turning on the television or allowing your child to play on electronic devices at night, read to them or let them read a book. You can also promote better sleep by having them take a warm bath or giving them a supplement like melatonin (perhaps consult with your child’s doctor first).
If you try adjusting your child’s environment and sleep schedule and they still experience difficulties sleeping well at night, consult with a licensed professional to help determine what’s disrupting your child and how to combat it.
Author’s bio: Laurie Larson is a freelance writer based in NC who writes on home, health, and lifestyle topics.
How to Create a Calm, Comfortable Bedroom for Your Child with Autism
By Jenny Wise
For children on the autism spectrum, creating a soothing and comfortable bedroom environment is paramount. Children with autism often require special considerations when it comes to sleep and play, and their sensory needs are often far different than the needs of you or your children who are not on the spectrum. Here are some ways to achieve the bedroom your child needs.
First Step: Focus on Sleep
Children with autism often struggle with sleep. There is still a lot that doctors and researchers do not know about how autism affects the brain, but what we do know is that autism is a condition that can affect the senses — especially touch and pressure. That’s why your child’s mattress may play a key role in the quality of their sleep. You may even have to try out multiple options to find the mattress that’s right for your child. For example, consider the mattress’ firmness level(for spinal alignment and comfort) or heat absorption. If they get too hot during the night, you should consider a mattress with breathable layers.
There may be a link between autism and melatonin production. Another theory is that those on the spectrum have trouble reading social cues about when it’s time to sleep. Another has to do with circadian rhythm disruption. All of this leads us to a solution involving visual modifications. You may want to install blackout curtains to curb light, red light-spectrum nightlights, and/or use glare-reducing rugs and paint. Your child’s bedding is important as well. Weighted blankets have been shown to reduce anxiety in children with autism, but this may be a trial-and-error situation.
Second Step: Provide Sensory Deprivation
For many children on the spectrum, the world is a lot to take in. Everything is magnified, including sound, light, and touch. Your child should have a place to go where they can turn this off or, at least, dampen it a bit. We call this “cocooning.” There are inflatable pods and hanging swings that are good for this, but you can also use a small tent. Fill the area with low lights, soft objects, and autism-friendly games and activities.
Step Three: Storage
Clutter and general disorganization can be an anxiety trigger in those of all ages with autism. Not only that, but some can also struggle with the act of organization. Messiness can stress your child out but they don’t really know how to make it better. It’s a bad cycle for someone with autism. That’s what makes storage for their toys and clothing so important. Having clear, organized storage containers is vital, as is labeling. You want your child to see what’s inside and for everything to have a designated place. Color-coding is also a good tactic.
Step Four: Color and Lighting
You can design the perfect room and stumble at the last second if you make an error regarding the basic visual theme. For most kids on the spectrum, lighting and color can make or break an environment. Use soothing, darker paint colors like deep grays, greens, or blues; vibrant colors like red, yellow, and orange tend to create anxiety. Lighting should be lower or easily controlled with a dimmer. And blue light from electronics has no place in the bedroom. If you want to let your child used the iPad for games once in a while, have them use it outside the bedroom.
Any child’s bedroom should be their ultimate safe space, and this goes double for a child with autism. Your goal is to create a soothing, comfortable, quiet, and organized retreat from the world, which can be a scary place. A child’s bedroom should be used for a lot of things, including sleep, play, relaxation, and learning. However, the common thread that ties all of these elements is that they must be specifically sensory-appropriate to your child.