When it comes to sleeping, children on the spectrum face some of the same challenges as neurotypical children, but they are often magnified. Autistic children may struggle more to relax and may have sensory issues and anxiety that interfere with getting a good night's sleep. It is estimated that close to half and possibly as many as 80% of children with ASD have problems with sleep.
The Components of Sleep
If you're wondering how to get an autistic child to sleep, you've come to the right place. It can be easier to think about autism and sleep problems and how to solve them by breaking down what constitutes a good night's sleep into three parts. These are the ability to fall asleep, the ability to stay asleep, and getting quality sleep.
Your autistic child may struggle with some or all of these. Identifying which part of sleeping they struggle with is helpful as you try to determine a solution.
Even if your autistic child does not suffer from problems sleeping, the suggestions in this blog are good habits to develop with your child that may reduce the likelihood or severity of those problems later.
Create a Bedtime Routine
Like all children, children on the autism spectrum benefit from a bedtime routine. One big difference for autistic children is they that may not respond to the cues that the rest of the family is also getting ready for bed.
This means you may need to give your child additional reinforcement and support. For example, you could use visual cues, such as pictures showing the routine that you mark in some way as each step is completed. You could also reward the child for each step.
You should follow other standard recommendations for a sleep routine as well. For example, screens should be turned off about an hour before bedtime. You can also turn down the lights in the house and work toward a quiet, calming environment.
Children on the autism spectrum may benefit from taking a magnesium supplement. A magnesium deficiency in children with ASD can affect their auditory sensitivity, which in turn can affect their ability to sleep.
Magnesium is known as the “anti-stress” mineral, and also one of the body’s premiere biochemical enzyme catalysts. It is essential for glutathione synthesis, energy production, cell replication and integrity, detoxification, muscular/neurological function, and maintaining body pH balance. Incorporating Liqui-Mag one or two times per day may help your child get a good night's sleep. We believe it is the best magnesium supplement for sleep.
It has also been theorized that children with ASD might produce melatonin, the hormone that regulate sleep, at the wrong time of day. You may want to look into whether melatonin supplements could help your child.
Avoid Sensory Stimulation
Children who are autistic may be especially sensitive to light, sound and physical stimuli, so you should make an effort to make their bedroom as quiet and comfortable as possible so that they can fall asleep and stay asleep.
Blackout curtains are an excellent way to keep the room dark. You may also want to think of the best ways to reduce noise, such as having thick carpet in the child's room and making sure the child's bed is not next to a wall that will carry sound.
Work with your child to find the bedding and sleep clothes that make them the most comfortable. This might involve cutting tags out of clothing.
If you have children who do not have ASD, you can probably open their bedroom door or pull the covers around them without them stirring. With your autistic child, you need to be much more careful since this can be enough to wake them up.
During the Day
Falling asleep and getting good quality sleep is not just about what you do in the hour or so leading up to bedtime and while the child is asleep. Throughout the day, there are factors that can improve your child's chances of a good night's sleep.
In the morning, exposure to bright light may help stimulate the production of melatonin and better regulate it.
When and what your child eats might also be important. Near bedtime, your child should avoid sugar and caffeine, and if your child suffers from a food sensitivity, you should talk to your doctor. Dinner should be at a time when the child will not be too full at bedtime but will also not be hungry in the night.
Making sure that your child gets some exercise during the day is an excellent way to make a good night's sleep more likely.
Finally, make sure that your child is not napping too much during the day since this can make it difficult to sleep at night. At the same time, you should be aware that autistic children might need more sleep simply because they may find everyday interactions more exhausting.
Putting It All Together
Sufficient quality sleep is a problem for both autistic children and their parents, and a number of negative outcomes can result from a lack of sleep. When autistic children are sleep-deprived, they can be at a higher risk for depression, irritability, aggression and other issues.
Like many other elements of parenting a child with ASD, developing the healthy sleep habits that work best can be a matter of trial and error. Working with your child and your child's physician and trying the suggestions in this blog that are appropriate to your situation can help you establish a healthy routine that will serve your child well throughout their life.