Autism and Sleep

Sometimes, for any number of reasons, a child with autism simply will not sleep. The lights are low, the sun is down, the blankets are piled high, and still no amount of patience or willpower will let them fall asleep for the night. It’s a common problem, and one that can be tricky to solve. Next time you find your child struggling with sleep, give some of the following advice a try.

Nutrition and Food

It’s easy to forget just how much bearing a person’s nutrition has on their sleep effectiveness. It can be tricky to manage a specific diet for a child with autism, as there are some things they simply won’t eat, but a few basic guidelines will make bedtime much easier. Focusing on a diet that is free of caffeine, high-acid foods that might cause reflux, or foods that are known to cause gas before bedtime will increase overall comfort and relaxation.  Consider an early bedtime snack, something that is high in protein and complex carbs and low in sugar, to keep your child from waking up due to hunger or low blood sugar. Lastly, stop eating an hour before bedtime, as eating is a highly stimulating experience.

Schedule and Routine

As with most things in the life of someone with autism, sticking to an established regimen makes even tricky tasks much, much easier. A visual schedule, with pictures to indicate different steps in the bedtime process, can help a child acknowledge the shift from daytime to bedtime. Try to start into your nighttime routine 20 to 40 minutes before actual bedtime, to signal the body to start winding down. If your child responds well to it, consider making a neck and back massage a part of the routine. Remember: try to use the bed only for sleep, not for other activities, and keep the bedtime routine short and sweet! There’s no real benefit to dragging it out too long.

Creative Ideas

One of the key truths about autism is it affects each person differently, so if other possibilities don’t work, a little creativity goes a long way. If you’re looking for ideas, try making your child a “bedtime pass”, a piece of paper they can use once a night if they feel they must get out of bed, be it for water, a bathroom break, parent visits, or anything the child deems necessary. Find an incentive, such as a small toy or a piece of candy, for going the whole night without using the bedtime pass. This will help to form habits and provide your child with some security in case of a perceived emergency. For more creative fun, make constellations on the bedroom ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars. They have the benefit of being a light for comfort while not lasting so long as to be distracting.  A sleep sack can be useful for the child who kicks up their covers while they sleep, and a weighted blanket can provide effective sensory calming to help the brain wind down.


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