How does autism affect sleep?

Autism is a spectrum; this means every individual with autism is different. Currently in the UK 1 in 100 people are living with Autism, although it is not an illness their brains work differently.

It is extremely common for autistic children to suffer from some form of a sleep disorder & additional medical problems, these can include:

  • Insomnia

  • Hypersomnia

  • Sleep Apnea

  • Epilepsy

  • Anxiety

  • ADHD

The main sleep issues to arise are settling and waking issues. It can take hours to settle a child to bed and once they wake in the middle of the nights it’s nearly impossible to get back to sleep. Due to the irregular or no melatonin production this is a difficult obstacle for parents to overcome, in addition prescribed medication can cause some sleep disorders.

Autistic children need routines and structure as this helps their brains comprehend what is happening around them to feel in control. A sleep diary and chart system can help their bedtime routine and reinforce the action and result logic while they remain in control.

It is important to create a routine which can be used every day to remain consistent. To avoid potential issues down the line during holidays or any time away from your family home it is best to keep the routine portable too.

Some sleep issues experienced will be due to autism however it is still possible for autistic children to develop behavioural habits which affect their sleep also.

I have compiled a list of my top bedtime tips to help your child adjust better to bedtime and hopefully give yourself solid stretches of sleep:

Tips for bedtime:

  • Routine needs to be consistent each night from timings to actions so your child knows what to expect and what is happening next

  • Star chart and reward system for more able children

  • Relaxing can be difficult for your child so using lavender oil during bath time may help relaxation levels

  • Black out blinds to block any outside light

  • Turn off all electrical points that radiate any lights e.g tv, computer, toys, clock

  • Use ear plugs on your child if needed to block out sound

  • A weighted blanket can be used to offer deep pressure stimulation which will calm your child

  • If your child relaxes with certain sounds try replicate that sound where possible

  • Avoid giving your child stimulants before bed such as caffeine and sugar, remember caffeine can be found in chocolates and fizzy drinks

  • To prevent sensory distractions during the night ensure the floor is heavily carpeted and their door doesn’t creak when opened. It is a natural instinct for parents to check on their children before going to bed themselves, this action may cause the child to wake up abruptly and remain awake for hours. The carpet will block the sound of feet entering the room.

One final tip:

It is important to check your child's medication to see if they include stimulants which cause disorders such as insomnia, if so speak to your GP to discover what non-stimulant medication is available.

Reading social stories to your child can also help your child digest information. Social stories were created by Carol Gray in 1991. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.

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