Children with autism often have trouble sleeping and may find it difficult to fall asleep. There are many possible reasons for sleep issues, from sensory overload to difficulty winding down and irregular melatonin levels. In this article, we tell you more about sleep problems related to autism and offer useful tips to help your child sleep better.
Are Sleep Disorders Common With Autism?
Sleep problems are twice as common in children with autism than among neurotypical children and those with other developmental disabilities. It is estimated that anywhere between 50% and 80% of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder have some type of sleep difficulty, for example:
- Restlessness and poor sleep quality
- Difficulty trying to fall asleep
- Waking early and not being able to fall back to sleep
- Waking frequently during the night.
There are many factors that can cause autistic children to experience sleep problems. Read on to learn more.
What Causes Sleep Disorders in Children With Autism?
As with many other symptoms of autism, the causes of sleep disorders are not well understood. Some possible explanations include:
- Children with autism, unlike their neurotypical peers, don't have the proper social skills to pick up on social cues that indicate when it’s bedtime.
- Autistic children produce less sleep-related hormone melatonin than neurotypical children.
- Children with autism spectrum disorder have atypical circadian rhythms, or the internal body clock.
- Trigger is the sleep environment. Many children with autism have sensory issues, such as sensitivity to certain sounds or white noise. These sounds may be upsetting or distracting and keep your child awake.
- Gastrointestinal problems, common in children with autism, may disrupt sleep.
- Increased levels of stress and anxiety, inability to relax, and ADHD can cause insomnia.
- Epilepsy and other neurological conditions may be another reason behind difficulty falling asleep in children with autism.
What Kind of Effects Do Sleep Problems Have?
Research has shown children with autism who have sleep problems display more severe behavioral and learning issues during the day, such as:
- More pronounced social communication challenges
- More compulsive rituals and obsessive behaviors
- More instances of challenging behavior
- Attention deficit disorder
- Irritability and aggression
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Poor learning and cognitive performance.
Fortunately, there are some tools that may help your child with autism with their sleep issues.
Tips To Help Your Autistic Child Get More Sleep
All children need enough good-quality sleep to develop and grow, and children with autism are no exception. However, your child may need extra support to develop good sleep habits. Here’s what you can do to help:
- Establish a nighttime routine. Put your child to bed at the same time every night and try to stick with the same routine also on weekends and holidays if possible.
- Help your child relax before bed by giving them a bath and a gentle back massage, reading a story, and turning on relaxing music.
- Create a predictable transition from waking to sleeping hours. Give your child a warning 15, 10, and 5 minutes before starting the bedtime routine. You can also use visual timers or auditory alarms.
- Avoid giving your child stimulants such as caffeinated drinks and sugar before bed.
- Switch off the television, video games, and phones at least an hour before bedtime.
- Make sure your child gets enough physical activity during the day.
- Keep your child’s bedroom cool, dark, and quiet in order to avoid sensory issues that may prevent them from sleeping well. Install thick carpeting, hang heavy curtains to block out the light, and set the room temperature to suit your child’s sensory needs.
- Use social stories to explain the importance of sleep to your child. In addition, social stories can also be used to reassure your child that they are safe when sleeping.
- Use visual supports such as schedules and timetables as well as children’s books to explain to your child what they are expected to do at bedtime.
- Consider purchasing products designed for children with sensory issues, such as weighted blankets, soothing pillows, and white noise machines.
In the next section, we list some of the products that may help your child sleep better.
Blankets for Autistic Children
The Dream Weighted Sleep Blanket will keep your child with autism warm and safe at night. The blanket weighs 4lb and offers pressure stimulation to help naturally decrease anxiety, reduce sensory overload, and promote healthy sleep patterns. It is suitable for ages 3+.
The pressure of these weighted blankets offers a reassuring sensation that will help your child release the feel-good happy chemical serotonin and increase melatonin levels for better sleep. Mosaic Weighted Blankets come in several different sizes and a variety of fun patterns for your child to choose from.
SensaCalm is a family company that sells custom-made weighted blankets and other sensory products designed specifically for autistic children.
Other Products To Help an Autistic Child Sleep
Rohm compact portable white noise machine is suitable both for everyday use and for travel. It makes a soothing, consistent sound similar to that of a fan that will mask any disturbing noises and help your child sleep better.
This special twin bed tent that glows in the dark is comforting for children who are afraid of the dark. It can also be used as a play area and a place for alone time during the day. The lightweight pop-up frame is very easy to set up and take down.
ZPod beds are specifically designed to create an individualized enclosed sensory sleep space for children with autism. Each bed features intelligent lighting control, a white noise generator, air filter, room temperature control, and several other functions that will help children find better sleep.
The natural fragrance of these small soothing pillows will calm your child’s mind from the anxieties of the day and help them relax. The pillows are filled with natural lavender flowers and flax seeds come in a variety of colors and textures.