Parents know all too well that one of the most tiring aspects of raising a child with autism is the sleep deprivation. Research suggests that sleep disorders are more common in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It is estimated that anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of children with ASD have difficulty falling asleep. Failing to get a good night’s sleep not only affects the child but everyone in their family.  

Generally, the biggest sleep problems among children with autism are as follows:
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Inconsistent sleep routines
  • Restlessness or poor sleep quality
  • Waking early and waking frequently

Lorna Jean King, the founder of the Children’s Center for Neurodevelopmental Studies in Phoenix, Arizona once stated that, in her experience, “children with autism usually have some sleep pattern problems. Some ‘go till they drop,’ then sleep very soundly all night, and are difficult to get started in the morning. Others have great difficulty getting to sleep and may wake often, or be very restless, winding themselves up in the covers, or even ending up on the floor. The child who gets a restful night of sleep will be less hyper-irritable in the morning. The ‘go till you drop’ child will be easier to awaken in the morning and is likely to be in a better mood if he can get to bed and to sleep before the stage of complete exhaustion.”

It’s no secret that not getting a good night’s sleep can have a serious impact on a person’s life and overall health. This is especially true for all children. Research cited by WebMD has shown that, in children with autism, there is a connection between lack of sleep and the following characteristics:
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased behavioral problems
  • Irritability
  • Poor learning and cognitive performance
If your child with autism is struggling from multiple sleepless nights, there are some lifestyle changes that you can try for a better night’s rest. As King says, “no single suggestion will work for all children, but there are some strategies that have proven effective in many cases.” These are her suggestions:
  • Eliminate television (and computers) for one to two hours before bedtime, as the programs children like are often over-stimulating. If the family has a video player, this may be made more palatable by showing the “essential” program for viewing at another time.
  • Rough or rowdy play should be eliminated for one to two hours before bedtime; no tickling, wrestling, etc. Quiet activities such as drawing, looking at books, or playing with puzzles or construction sets are more suitable activities for a period before bed.
  • Avoid giving your child stimulants such as caffeine and sugar before bed.
  • Establish a nighttime routine: give your child a bath, read a story, and put him or her to bed at the same time every night.
  • If a bath or shower is an evening activity, follow with five minutes of a towel “rub-down,” being sure to use downward strokes in the direction the hair grows. A rub-down with lotion may be used to add to the length of this activity. Pressure touch is calming.
  • After the child is in bed, a back-rub may also be soothing. Again, be sure to start with the neck and go down to the base of the spine. Use slow, rhythmic strokes; when one hand is at the base of the spine, start at the back of the neck with the other hand.
  • Using a soft musical background may help some children to relax and drift off to sleep. It is important to choose the music carefully. It should have a definite, predictable rhythm (not too much syncopation). Orchestral music is preferred to singing, in general.
  • Reading to the child once he is in bed may be calming. Reading poetry with strong rhythm and rhyme is usually more effective than stories.
  • Because pressure touch and neutral warmth (the body’s heat retained) are both calming, a sleeping bag may promote calm, restful sleep. A “mummy bag” which fits closely around the body is preferable to a loose one. These are easily constructed. If you “sell” this as “the way cowboys sleep” or “the way astronauts sleep,” it will probably be accepted.
  • Remember, the child on the autism spectrum uses tremendous amounts of energy and needs more sleep than the quiet child. Many seven- and eight-year-olds will operate better on 10 to 12 hours of sleep than on lesser amounts.
  • Prevent sensory distractions at bedtime by putting heavy curtains over your child’s window to block out the light, and install thick carpeting in their room to make sure the floor doesn’t squeak. Also, make sure the temperature of the room and bedding choice fit your child’s specific sensory needs.

King reminds parents that, “the time you invest in promoting sleep now will save you many, many hours in the long run and you won’t have to do it forever. Once the patterns are established, you will be able to reclaim a large part of your evening for yourselves.”

If you find your child regularly has difficulty falling asleep or wakes up repeatedly throughout the night, it might be a sign of a sleep problem. To know for sure, make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. They may refer you to a sleep specialist or an ear, nose and throat doctor. Before your child’s appointment, keep a sleep diary for at least a week. Track when and how much your child is sleeping. Include things like snoring, changes in breathing patterns, strange movements, or breathing troubles. Write down observations about your child’s behavior the next day. Sharing your notes with your child’s doctors can help with diagnosis and proper treatment, getting you on track for a good night’s rest sooner.