How To Help An Autistic Child Sleep

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Parents of children with autism often say their children have trouble sleeping. Those claims are backed up by research which tells us that, compared to typically developing children of the same age and background:

  • Children with autism have a harder time falling asleep.
  • Children with autism wake up earlier.
  • Children with autism wake up more often.
  • Children with autism have a harder time getting ready for bed.
  • Sleep issues for children with autism become more pronounced between 18 and 42 months of age.

Why does this happen?  The answers are not completely clear, but according to several studies there are a few possible culprits:

If your autistic child is having a tough time sleeping, you may not be able to fix the problem altogether - but there are some steps you can take to improve the situation.

  1. Start with recording the problems you observe, along with information about just what is and has been happening in your child's world. For example, you may notice difficulty falling asleep after particular foods, when certain events are going on in your home, at certain times of year, etc. 
  1. Also note your child's actual behaviors. For example, if he is pressing himself against the bed or couch, he could be experiencing stomach cramps. If he is unwilling to stop playing, he may be having a difficult time with transitions.
  2. Create a consistent bedtime routine which includes preparation for a transition. Many children with autism have a tough time with a quick change in activity from TV or play to bed. Social stories or visual schedules can ease the process by helping your child to anticipate what's coming next. A bath, story, or other routine can help make bedtime a predictable part of the day.
  1. Remove sensory and other distractions. Few young children sleep easily when electronics and favorite toys are in the room.  If your child goes to sleep before dark, use light blocking shades to be sure the room is really dim.  Once your child goes to bed, do what you can to lower the amount of ambient noise in the house (turn down the TV, avoid loud voices, etc.).
  2. Ask your pediatrician about giving your child melatonin as a sleep aid.

Knowing that your child really does have -- or may acquire -- serious sleep issues is the bad news. The good news, however, is that good sleep hygiene, combined with melatonin, a sleep-supporting supplement, can make a tremendous difference in your child's ability to fall asleep and sleep through the night.

Sources:

Andersen IM, Kaczmarska J, McGrew SG, Malow BA. Melatonin for Insomnia in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. J Child Neurol. 2008 Jan 8.

Krakowiak, Paula et al. “Sleep Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Developmental Delays, and Typical Development: A Population-Based Study.” Journal of sleep research 17.2 (2008): 197–206. PMC. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

Humphreys, JS, et al. Sleep patterns in children with autistic spectrum disorders: a prospective cohort study. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 2013; DOI: 10.1136/archdischild-2013-304083.Malow BA, Marzec ML, McGrew SG, Wang L, Henderson LM, Stone WL. Characterizing sleep in children with autism spectrum disorders: a multidimensional approach. Sleep. 2006 Dec 1;29(12):1563-71.

Xue Ming , Brimacombe M, Chaaban J, Zimmerman-Bier B, Wagner GC.Autism spectrum disorders: concurrent clinical disorders. J Child Neurol. 2008 Jan;23(1):6-13. Epub 2007 Dec 3.

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