Sleep Difficulties in Children with Autism
Children with Autism often have unusual sleep patterns. Some children appear to require little sleep and others may refuse to sleep alone. These issues may relate to sensory sensitivities such as fear of the dark or over-sensitivity to household and external noises. They may also resist the change from sleeping close to parents as a baby to sleeping alone in a room. As with many skills, for a child with Autism, it may be necessary to teach sleeping skills and/or to modify the environment to establish a routine that will accommodate the whole family’s needs at night time.
- Routine is extremely important for a child with Autism and therefore setting a consistent bedtime is imperative. Use a visual system to show your child what activities build up to bedtime i.e. bath time, story, then bed. Make sure you show the pictures and cover them or take them away when they are done, so that finally your child can see the picture for ‘bedtime’.
- Environmental/behavioural strategies. Try to create a calming atmosphere. If your child is sensitive to environmental noises perhaps use calm music; play a soothing CD, not too loudly ie situated underneath the bed. To eliminate daylight or streetlights, black out blinds can be useful. However, if your child does not like the dark, it may be more appropriate to use a night light or a sensory light (Argos sell some simple Fibre optic lights from £5.99, which children can find calming to look at). These strategies are essential even if medication is implemented
- Five minutes of blue light (ordinary bulbs!) interferes with the natural production of melatonin - red light, whether bulbs or shades, does not!
- Weighted blankets may help some individuals, but in group studies there is minimal evidence to support their effectiveness
- For a child who insists on a parent sleeping in the same bed, the adult should insist on the child being on their own bed, with the parent gradually moving a little further away each night (you may find it helpful to use an inflatable mattress on the child’s floor and then move it further towards the door each night).
- Melatonin may be effective for some individuals if diagnosed by a doctor, but is limited to helping to settle to sleep, there is no impact on length of sleep and often results in earlier waking so may be a trade-off for parents - evening or early morning!
As a parent, it can be frustrating, as you may have other children and jobs to do during the evening. However, it is important to stay calm yourself. Be persistent and consistent. Make sure that what you are doing with your child is shared with other adults who put him/her to bed so that the same routine is carried out nightly.