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  • Writer's pictureGray Matters Alliance

Autism and Sleep Disorders: A Survival Guide for Parents

Autism Speaks reports that sleep concerns among children diagnosed with Autism are common; half of children with autism suffer from sleep disturbances, but the organization notes that the numbers could be greater and the struggle far more prevalent. Unfortunately, sleep issues can carry into adulthood.

Accruing the recommended amount of sleep each night ensures that children are ready to handle the day ahead; according to the National Sleep Foundation, younger children and pre-teens (ages 6 to 12) need nine to 12 hours of sleep each night. Teens, however, need to accrue eight to 10 hours. Guiding healthy sleep habits and helping children with autism learn to manage sleep disorders, concerns, and/or restlessness at night is crucial for the self-care of parents, too.

Autism Sleep Aids: Use These 5 Tips to Improve Sleep

Any child or adult can experience difficulties falling asleep. Caffeinated beverages, the blue light from digital screens and televisions, or other issues can contribute to sleep issues. However, children diagnosed with autism struggle more to wind down at night and fall asleep.

When the nightly routine transforms into a battle that threatens to impact a child’s sleep health and wreaks havoc on the sleep of parents, here are five tips to help foster better sleep habits and help children doze off:

1. Keep the Nightly Routine Consistent

Children thrive when schedules remain consistent; a set schedule helps children understand what happens next. The routine offers a sense of security.

For children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, routines may be even more impactful. Often, children on the Spectrum desire routines. When sleep becomes a nightmare, parents can take control by establishing a routine for their child.

Begin a nightly routine about an hour before bedtime (i.e. lights out). This routine could look different for each family or each child. Parents could read books, help children take a bath and brush their teeth, or let them listen to soothing music.

Whatever the routine includes, stick to the same pattern each night. Begin the routine at the same time, too.

2. Chamomile and Lavender Essential Oils Soothe the Senses

Scents can help lull the body into a relaxed state. A few drops of essential oil on a pillowcase could help a child feel slightly soothed. The most relaxing scents include chamomile and lavender. Avoid scents like mint or citrus that could enliven the senses.

3. A Weighted Blanket Benefits Sensory Seekers

Children with ASD often have sensory issues. Some seek out sensory experiences, while others avoid certain sensory stimuli. For ‘sensory seekers,’ a weighted blanket at night could help the child feel comforted. However, parents need to be mindful of the weight of the blanket. The recommendation is that the blanket should weigh about 10 percent of the weight of the individual. A 55-pound child should use a five-pound blanket.

4. Limit Screen Time

When children have difficulty falling asleep, the blue light emitted from technology devices like tablets and smartphones exacerbates the issue. Blue light interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm. For this reason, parents should limit screen time before bed.

5. Be Mindful of Textures and Temperature

As children with autism experience sensory issues, the temperature of the room, lights from the outdoors, and even the fabric on their pajamas all could lead to issues. Children might fixate on the discomfort from these sensory stimuli and be unable to fall asleep. Parents understand their child’s concerns and sensory triggers; be mindful of these details at night, though.

When Sleep Issues Don’t Improve

Parents might try different tactics to remediate their child’s sleep issues without success. If children cannot fall asleep at night and the sleep health of parents begins to suffer, it’s time to reach out to the child’s pediatrician or care team for guidance. There could be an underlying medical issue or other interventions might be warranted. Additional resources also are available via Gray Matters Alliance; sleep monitors and other assistive technology devices allow parents to understand their child’s sleep patterns and habits and help them facilitate a discussion with their child's doctor


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