Sleep can be an issue for autistic children. In fact, 80 percent of autistic children experience difficulty falling or staying asleep at night. And when autistic children struggle to get enough sleep, they may experience behavioral difficulty, including aggression, lack of concentration and hyperactivity. But there are ways to help autistic children sleep better at night.
Why Autistic Children Struggle With Sleep
Medication, co-morbid conditions, and irregular sleep cycles can influence how well (or not) your autistic child sleeps.
- Medications: Autistic children taking medications may experience hyperactivity before bed or find it difficult to settle down. Or, prescriptions may cause daytime drowsiness and naps that leave them feeling too rested to sleep well at night.
- Medical and mental health conditions: Autistic children may be affected by anxiety, depression, ADHD, epilepsy, and gastrointestinal issues. Any of these conditions can cause problems for sleep.
- Irregular circadian rhythm: Autistic children may have irregularities in their circadian rhythm, which can throw off sleep cycles and lead to insufficient sleep.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Autistic Children
sleep is tough on anyone. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flat-out fatigue. For autistic children, these issues can be amplified.
Autistic children without enough sleep may feel more distressed or anxious. They may struggle more with behavior at school, home, and social situations. With sleep deprivation, autistic children who may already be struggling with behavior may exhibit more aggression and hyperactivity.
Continued sleep difficulty may indicate a sleep disorder such as insomnia, which is common in autistic children. Other common sleep disorders for autistic children include parasomnias such as nightmares, night terrors, and bed wetting.
How to Help Autistic Children Sleep Better
Use these tips to alleviate sleep difficulties in autistic children.
Talk to your child’s doctor about medications
It’s possible your child’s autism medications are negatively influencing sleep, so talk about side effects with their doctor. It might make sense to try another medication that isn’t known for causing insomnia or disrupted sleep.
You may want to discuss sleep medications, but these typically aren’t recommended for autistic children. Melatonin or dietary supplements may be recommended.
Follow a regular sleep schedule
Children and especially autistic children thrive on routines. It’s comforting for them to be able to predict what’s coming, so following the same sleep schedule, each night and day can be helpful.
A consistent sleep schedule can also help train the circadian rhythm to recognize when it’s bedtime and time to start feeling sleepy.
Go through a bedtime routine
In addition to a regular sleep schedule, a consistent bedtime routine can help children feel more comfortable and help them wind down at night. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just consistent.
Consider reading a book, brushing teeth, and singing a song before lights out. It’s best not to let bedtime drag out, so keep it short and sweet. Some autistic children benefit from a visual schedule of bedtime activities
Plan nighttime activities with relaxation in mind
Evenings should be relaxing for children, so slow down on stimulating activities such as television or video games before bed. Make sure screen time stops at least one hour before bed,
Consider light therapy
Autistic children who struggle to maintain a regular sleep and wake cycle may benefit from light therapy. Light therapy, which involves exposing them to bright light early in the morning, can help align their circadian rhythm and make them feel sleepy at night, but alert during the day.
Offer a comfortable sleep environment
As sensory issues can be a problem for autistic children, make sure they feel comfortable where they are sleeping. Choose a mattress that meets their needs and
Strategize sleep during the day
Daytime activities can influence nighttime sleep. Encourage autistic children to exercise during the day, and offer foods such as turkey, nuts, leafy greens, and dairy that can support healthy sleep. Help them relax not just at night, but during the day with relaxation techniques.
Help Your Autistic Child Have The Correct Amount of Sleep
Though sleep can be a challenge for autistic children, parents can offer support. Talk to your child’s doctor and consider how you can help them get better sleep at night so they can have better days.