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Autistic children and sleep problems (and solutions!)

“Luke was always high functioning,” says Michelle, a 32-year-old hairdresser and mom to 8-year-old Luke, who was diagnosed with autism when he was four. “He was verbal really early, always really affectionate, and is probably a lot more like his typical siblings than he is his autistic peers at his school.

“Where we have always had recurring issues is at bedtime. To this day.”

Many autistic kids have problems with bedtime: falling asleep, staying asleep, and even other things like bedwetting, snoring, restlessness or nightmares and night terrors. Some of these sleep problems do need the assistance and guidance of a professional, but some can be minimized by altering bedtime routines and managing daytime habits.

While any child, even one without autism, can have problems getting to sleep or staying asleep (especially in the digital age, when kids are so connected to their devices), autistic kids in particular can have sleep and settling difficulties, like irregular waking patterns or wanting to get up and play in the middle of the night.

Experts agree that some of these problems are definitely related to what kids do before bedtime and even once they get into bed, so examine the following possibilities:

1) Is your child exposed to a lot of excitement and activity before bedtime?

2) Does your child have a routine at bedtime?

3) Is your child accustomed to falling asleep in the same spot every night, or are they permitted to fall asleep anywhere, like in the living room or play area, for example?

4) Is your child’s room’s temperature set at their comfort level? Is it too hot, too cold, too noisy, too bright?

If your child hears and feels a lot of excitement at night – like a TV blaring or music playing – it can be hard to even just want to go to sleep, let alone try to stay asleep. Reduce your child’s activity, and all activity in the household, so that they recognize that bedtime is the time of day to find calm, peace and rest.

A routine is so important for all times of day for an autistic child, and no less at night. If they’re doing different things every day before bed, it can be hard to recognize those cues that it’s time to go to sleep.

Falling asleep in the same place every day is part of that routine, so even if they’re really tired, try not to let them fall asleep just anywhere in the house. Make sure you give them ample time to do all the things one needs to do before and at bedtime, like brushing their teeth and getting in their pajamas, and then it’s off to their very own bed, every single night.

Finally, check the comfort level of your child’s room. When a bedroom is too hot, it can be uncomfortable (a cooler room is easier to fall asleep in). If it’s too bright, it can signal to your child that it’s still daytime and playtime.

During the day, you may also discover some culprits responsible for a challenging bedtime. It could be that your child is taking too many naps during the day (or one really long nap). It could be that they eat dinner at a time that’s so early they’re hungry again by the time they go to bed, or so late that they’re uncomfortably full and need to get up to go to the bathroom. It could be that they’re not having enough physical activity that’s tiring them out by the end of the day.

If your autistic child is anxious at night and is scared to fall asleep without you, refrain from talking about what scares them at night – this might actually just make them more worried, and trying to fall asleep with scary thoughts hardly is the remedy you’re looking for. Talk about what they’re worried about during the day, when you have time to chat and ease their fears.

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