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Improving Your Autistic Child’s Sleep

Improving Your Autistic Child's Sleep
Alex Warrack

Alex Warrack

I worked for the Ontario Autism Program in Canada for several years and I heard from many of my parents over the years that their child never slept.

I could see the sleep deprivation in the parents and in the kids. I wished I could help!

Hearing these same statements over and over from families is what started my journey to become an infant and child sleep consultant. I wish I knew then what I know now so I could have helped all those families to get more sleep.

I can’t go back, but I want to help you if you are struggling with improving your autistic child’s sleep. Life can be challenging for a child with disabilities and also for their parents. But sleep doesn’t necessarily have to be one of those challenges.

The Challenges With Autism and Your Child’s Sleep

Kiddos with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can experience challenges with “increased sleep onset latency (longer to fall asleep), night wakings, decreased sleep efficiency, and inconsistent sleep patterns.” (Delmare and Dounavi, 2017)

When their child is taking a long time to fall asleep, this leaves parents searching for ways to help their child fall asleep. Many parents turn to medication or supplements like melatonin. This can be effective to help your child fall asleep initially at night, if your pediatrician recommends it, but many parents want to steer clear of medications or supplements if at all possible. Melatonin also only helps people fall asleep. It doesn’t prevent night wakings.

Other parents resort to rocking, bouncing or laying with their child to fall asleep, not knowing there are other ways to promote healthy sleep habits.

What You Need To Know

The act of falling asleep is a behavior and as with any behavior, it can be taught. And you are the teacher!

I want you to imagine…

After you fall asleep, you’ve got your blanket on and your pillow is under your head.

You wake up, disoriented and they are both gone. You look down and they are on the floor. So you have to fully awaken to replace them and then try to go back to sleep.

And then it happens every night. Maybe even multiple times per night.

That would become disturbing and really start to interrupt your sleep, right?

Here’s the thing…

We all wake throughout the night multiple times. We scan our environment to make sure nothing’s changed and go right back to sleep.

But for children that are reliant on their parent’s presence or comfort, if they wake up and their parents aren’t there or they are in a different environment from where they fell asleep (your arms / your bed), your child will wake startled, looking for their blanket and pillow. (a.k.a. YOU!)

What You Can Do

To help your child to be able to fall asleep independently and to resettle if they awake at night, we’ve got to teach our children independent sleep skills.

If your child falls asleep independently each night, when they have those brief arousal, they will scan their environment, nothing will have changed and they will go right back to sleep. This means fewer bedtime battles, less night wakings, and increased sleep quality and efficiency. Sounds dreamy, right?

Tips To Improve Sleep Habits

Below I am going to share some tips that can help to promote healthy sleep habits.

I want you to keep in mind that not every child is alike and not all strategies will work for every child. That is where it is helpful to have a support team.

Create A Sleep Team

  • Parents come in as being the key player in helping their child learn to fall asleep independently.
  • Other professionals that you work with (pediatrician, occupational therapists, developmental pediatricians, etc.) can also help. They can provide advice based on your child’s personality, temperament and any other coexisting conditions.
  • If your kiddo has sensory processing issues, talking with an occupational therapist to learn techniques to incorporate into the bedtime routine to help calm your kiddos nervous system.
  • Having a sleep consultant, like me, can round out your team in your quest for healthy sleep. I can provide knowledge and guidance into sleep and sleep training that other people on your team may not have, plus I can provide a sleep plan and support.

Preparing For Sleep

  • Start to quiet down the house an hour before bedtime. Dim the lights. Put away all electronics and engage in quiet time activities. This will help your child and their body start to wind down.
  • Create a calming sleep environment:
    • Ensure your child’s sleep space is not too hot or too cold. We recommend to keep the room between 68-72.
    • For toddlers 2+ and up, you can add a night light to help with any fears or anxieties, but make sure the bulb is red/orange. Stay away from white, blue, purple, pink or green lights which mimic the sun and can keep children awake.
    • Use materials for bedding that your child can tolerate.

Bedtime Routine Chart

The bedtime routine should be no more than 30 minutes and should include sleep readiness activities such as bathing, brushing teeth, storytime, etc. A visual schedule, like the one below, can help your child learn the routine and the routine easier.

Calming Activities

Choose calming activities to be done at the end of the routine to help your kiddo relax and fall asleep. Here are some examples…

  • Reading books: this is a great time to have 1-1 time with your kiddo and fill up their love tank
  • Stretching/yoga: this is a great way to release any built up tension, stress or anxiety in your kiddo
  • Massage: a deep pressure massage for your kiddo with sensory processing challenges will help them release any pent up energy or tension.

Consistency

All children thrive on consistency! But with children that have ASD diagnoses, consistency can be even more important. The order and timing of each activity should be consistent each night.

Why is consistency so important?

Because since we are teaching a new skill, we are essentially re-wiring our child’s brain to learn a new activity. Consistent repetition of the same activity makes it easier for the brain to learn.

Also, our kiddos are brilliant and will test us to see if we will change our response. So fun, right?

What happens is if our child tests us by crying louder or screaming when they don’t like the changes we are making and we don’t follow through on what we said we were going to do, we’ve inadvertently taught them that those behaviors will get them what they want. If your words and actions align and you stay consistent, your child will begin to accept the new patterns around sleep much quicker.

Sleep Rules & Expectations

I recommend you write down the new sleep rules and review them with your child before implementing them. You can post the rules in the bathroom or in your child’s room as a reminder and you can review them at bedtime with your child.

Also, share with your child how you are going to respond if they don’t follow their sleep rules. This way, when your child calls out for you or comes to your room in the middle of the night for the 3rd time, you’ve got a plan and know how you’ll respond. Having the sleep rules posted can also serve as a reminder to you to stay consistent!

Need Help Improving Your Autistic Child’s Sleep?

That’s what we are here for! Sleep challenges can present in many different ways and we help parents to create an individualized sleep plan to meet your child’s sleep needs. We also provide support as needed.

If you want to work with me or one of our team, please reach out to learn more! Healthy sleep habits are attainable, even if your child is neurodiverse!

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