One of the biggest issues that those with autism face is sleeping problems. This is actually very common autistic children and adults and if fixed, can have a positive affect on a lot of aspects of their lives.
We all know how we can become irratable when we don't get a good night's sleep. Now, if your autistic child is continously having trouble falling and staying asleep, think about how that affects their behavior every single day!
With that in mind, we wanted to write the ultimate guide on how to get your autistic child to sleep better. We cover why sleep is important for your special child, what sleep medications can help, and how to set up a routine for success!
If you have any questions or comments to add, please let us know in the comment section.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that preschool children receive 11-13 hours of sleep each night, school age children (10 -11 hours) and for teenagers (8 - 10 hours). Because the recommended sleep time decreases with age, the recommendation for adults is 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
If your child is not getting the recommended amount of sleep, the effects can compound and sleep deprivation can result.
Side effects of sleep deprivation can include:
TheNational Sleep Foundation reports that only 35% of American adults qualify their night’s sleep as “good.” When sleep issues manifest for a sustained period of time, a more clinically diagnosed sleep disorder may be to blame. While the most common sleep issues reported are related to falling and staying alseep, there are a number of ways to characterize asleep problem:
Unfortunately, for children with autism, these sleep problems occur more frequently are compounded by some of the stressors that are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism Speaks estimates that over 80% of children with autism have sleep problems. Researchers are working hard to uncover exactly why the incidence of sleep disorders is so high in autistic children: Does the neurological and genetic makeup of the autistic brain and body contribute to sleep issues? Or, are issues with sleep contributing to commonly observed symptoms, behaviors, and learning difficulties associated with autism?
In a study published in the Archives of Disease Control, it was reported that children with autism, aged 30 months to 11 years old, slept for 17-43 minutes less per day than their peers. The shortened sleep times were attributed to later bedtimes, earlier wake times, and night awakening (3+ times per night). As the age of the research participants increased, the problems with night awakening increased as well (11% of children with ASD versus .5% of children aged 6.75 years). Sleep deprivation is thought to exacerbate some of the social, behavioral, and cognitive skill issues associated with autism.
Research has also indicated that children with autism spend less time in the critically-important REM sleep cycle than other peers (15% compared with 23%). Since this is the restorative phase of sleep where the day’s information, experiences, and memories are consolidated, researchers are examining the role this lack of REM-sleep plays in the learning difficulties associated with autism.
Another common sleep problem with children with autism is difficulty falling asleep. Each of our bodies has a 24-hour sleep-wake pattern called a circadian rhythm. These circadian rhythms are controlled by the hypothalamus of your brain and are essential to falling asleep and waking in a regular timeframe. The hypothalamus controls the brain’s release of melatonin, which helps your body become tired.Research has found that people with autism have elevated melatonin levels during the day, and lower levels of melatonin at night - this is the opposite of what should be the case. This dysregulation of melatonin levels can contribute to a disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm, meaning parents have to work extra hard to make a non-drowsy child ready for bed!
Additionally, researchers are examining the role that genetics plays in the autism-sleep relationship. Recentresearch has found more than twice the genetic mutations of circadian genes in people with autism. Scientists continue to explore what mutations are indicators of sleep disorders and whether or not these specific mutations are unique to autism or found in other neurotypical sleep-disordered people.
If you haven’t realized by now, there is no easy answer for figuring out the origination and/or solutions for sleep disorders! To further complicate the issue, children with autism have additional considerations when looking at what could contribute to sleep disturbances:
Some doctors and parents are combining behavioral approaches to sleep issues with over-the-counter melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland during the sleep cycle and it has been used as a supplement to treat sleep disturbances in kids with ADHD and autism. A study in the2008 Journal of Child Neurologyresearched the effects of melatonin in the treatment of insomnia in children with autism and found that 60% of parents reported improved sleep. The2006 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reports that long-term melatonin treatment was effective overall and no safety concerns were found for continuing melatonin treatment.
As with all over-the-counter medications, you want to ensure the correct dosage for your child. Believe it or not, melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so the dosages vary by manufacturers and medication form (pill, liquid, dissolvable lozenge). Because some children with autism are also on psychotropic medications, finding the right dose of melatonin can be a tricky task so it’s best to work with your pediatrician to consider all of the variables that are specific to your child.
The desperation of sleepless parents is a reality that forces many families to resort to co-sleeping with their child in a last-ditch effort to get some shut-eye. If your child is known to climb out of his crib in the middle of the night or wander around the house while the rest of the family is fast asleep, co-sleeping offers peace of mind and an element of safety. It’s an understandable and common adjustment that families often make out of resignation and frustration.
If you choose a family bed, keep in mind that your sleepless child with autism will soon become a teen... and then an adult! It will get more difficult to accommodate a larger body in bed with you, especially if behavioral issues associated with sleep disruptions escalate over time. Consider consulting with a behaviorist who can come into your home and work with your family to identify alternate solutions or a way to move from the family bed to another sleep setup. Sometimes recommendations are made for a cot, sleeping bag, or mattress placed adjacent to the parent’s bed to transition the child to a more independent sleeping arrangement in a gradual way.
Finding the right combination of tools, strategies, and routines will take some trial and error. As you trial sleep tools and make changes to routines and environments, be sure to keep a sleep log or sleep journal. Subtle changes can have drastic effects on your child’s behavior, so keep track of your observations by writing it down. Consider jotting down diet changes, bedtime adjustments, frequency of wake-ups, wake-up times, and behaviors completing the bedtime routine. Even small changes can add up to a big difference over time and it’s too easy to lose sight of your efforts without the written log.
If you are interested in seeking more information about exactly what your child’s sleep patterns are, there are sleep centers that will conduct sleep studies. While these tend to be more invasive and a last-resort for families, they do offer helpful insight and possible additional solutions.
Sleep is a complex issue that doesn’t always have an easy one-size-fits-all solution, especially when you’re a child on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, there are many sleep-specific resources and products available to help you create your own sleep tool-kit. Finding your just-right sleep solution might be a lot like picking out your new mattress though -- you may have to try a bunch before you find the right one! Let us know what sleep strategies work for you.
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