Autism and sleep difficulties!

It was 2am. I had slept for exactly thirty minutes, having spent the evening and half the night getting my five year old son to sleep. I was woken suddenly by a noise downstairs. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs to see my son sat at the kitchen table smiling at me. In one hand he had the large kitchen scissors and in the other a carving knife. In front of him on the table was the pumpkin we had bought that day.  Proud of himself he declared that he was carving it!

The next night, after locking away all sharp implements, I again spent a number of hours putting my son to bed. Eventually he was asleep and I went to bed. Two hours later I heard a noise. I got out of bed and walked into the bathroom. The floor was flooded and my sons pyjamas were soaking wet in the middle of it all! There was toothpaste in the soap dispenser and all manor of things in the sink.
I went to check on my son and found him fast asleep in his bed, cuddling a bottle of shampoo. There was a line of toilet rolls along the wall!

We went through this for many years. Unfortunately everything I tried didn’t work. My son was an escape artist. He could work all stair gates and cupboard locks with expert silence and night, for him, was playtime until Mummy found him! Needless to say I haven’t had  much sleep for the last 11 years!

Even now it takes a long time to get my son to bed. He struggles to fall asleep and says his brain doesn’t switch off. He wakes frequently throughout the night and is often awake in the early hours of the morning. Thankfully after many years of trying I finally managed to get him to understand the need to stay in his room at night even if he is awake!

There has been some research into sleep and autistic children. It is estimated that between 40 and 80% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have difficulty sleeping.

Some will find it hard to fall asleep in the first place, some will wake throughout the night and others will take so long to fall asleep that in the morning they are impossible to wake!

This can understandably cause all kinds of problems for both the children and the parents. 

So what causes these sleep difficulties?

Some thinking is that there is an irregular secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, which regulates sleep patterns.

Other thinking is that autistic children have atypical circadian rhythms which is their body clock.

It could be that children struggle to understand the concept of bedtime and sleep times or that they are so hyperactive they just can’t fall asleep.

Some children, like my son describe it as their brains just wont switch off. This could be to do with all the stimulants of the day still affecting them.

Increased sensitivity to environment and Sensory Processing Disorders can also affect sleep, as can anxiety about sleeping.

What can parents of Autistic children do if their child struggles to sleep?

Avoid sugar and caffeine from a couple of hours before bedtime.

Establish a bedtime routine that is the same every day. Do this at the same time every day. You can make a visual timetable of pictures of each stage of the routine, with the last picture being the child in bed asleep. Do something calming and relaxing as part of this routine such as read a book or give a massage, depending on what your child responds well to.

A social story about bedtime and sleep may help some children to understand.

Try to take away screens an hour before bedtime.

Consider your child’s sensory needs. A blackout blind may help or a relaxing night light. A weighted blanket or comfort toy may work. White noise or relaxing water sounds or even scented creams could help.

Also make sure to focus on safety. If your child does end up waking in the night while you are asleep, think about where in the house they can gain access to and how you can make these areas safe incase they do.

If may be useful to keep a sleep diary. Writing down your child’s sleep patterns and any factors which may be hindering sleep can help you determine how to help. It will also give you a record to show health professionals if everything else fails to work.

You can get sleep medications but these should only be used with children as a last resort and after consulting your child’s doctor.

There are such things as sleep nurses and sleep clinics so if you are struggling with your child’s sleep patterns and they are affecting your child or yourself negatively then you can get help. Talk to your child’s GP or Paediatrician and ask to be referred to someone who can help. 

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. My son used to wake up in the middle of the night as well. When he was small I would have to lay with him in order to get him to go to sleep. As he got older though, and I had another child, the need for him to sleep in his own room became essential. A good sleep time routine is perfect but even then, he had trouble sleeping. Then his younger brother, who has ADHD also developed sleep problems and for the same reason as your son. He just couldn’t turn off his brain. I have the same issue actually. Turning off all electronics at least a half hour before bed (though and hour is the recommendation) helps but eventually their doctor suggested since I am not an advocate for prescription meds that I try over the counter melatonin supplements for them. It’s all natural and what their bodies need. It has worked for years now but even though my oldest is now 16 he still needs it in order to fall asleep at a decent time. Sometimes I’m tempted to take one just so I can fall asleep and I drink sleepy time tea. Maybe it’s a hereditary thing? A lot of people in my family have a hard time with sleep. But whatever works for each family is what I say:)

    1. I am the same actually, I struggle to switch off at night and cant stop thinking and sleep. My daughter just avoids sleep like the plague so doesnt go to bed until a daft hour and then my son wakes up!

      1. It’s crazy how something our bodies absolutely need in order to function is something so many of us struggle with.

  2. koolaidmoms says:

    Oh, I so understand this. My son, now 14, is still a non-sleeper. At most he sleeps about 5 hours a night. Thankfully by the time he was about three we had him trained that he was NOT allowed to leave his room after we put him down for bed until we came to get him in the morning. We used a baby monitor forever in his room to hear him if he called us. He too says his brain can’t shut off. Despite taking Melatonin and working with a sleep specialist on how to sleep he still struggles with this. Some days he sleeps less than 3 hours, does a full day of school and activities and is still up to 1 am! I cannot function with that little sleep. I don’t understand how he can.

    1. My son seems to cope on little sleep most of the time too. Then every now and again he just falls asleep in the day!

      1. koolaidmoms says:

        He has never been a napper but I notice now on the way to his class once a week, we have an hour drive, he naps for about 20 minutes which is huge!

  3. fatamsimth says:

    We’re not there yet, but I suspect this will be next on the list.

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