Autism is a complex disorder of the brain that often occurs in conjunction with other issues. One of the most common co-existing conditions to occur in children with autism is a sleep disorder. Children with autism often experience difficult sleeping, which can exacerbate their autistic issues. What can you do to help your child get a good night of sleep when he or she has autism?
Why Are Sleep Disorders So Common for Autistic Children?
Most kids have issues with sleeping at one time or another. In many autism-free homes, bedtime is still an adventure. However, children with autism tend to experience continuous problems with sleeping. Some research shows that as many as 80% of children with autism experience sleep disorders.
Insufficient sleep is a problem for anyone, but when a child has autism, it can play a major role in his ability to function. Parents with autistic children experiencing sleep challenges describe an escalation in negative daytime behavior, which is further exacerbated by the fact sleep issues are probably affecting everyone. If your child is not sleeping, neither are you, nor anyone else in your home. When everyone is sleep deprived, it results in heightened irritability and creates a cycle of disruptions, stress, and poor behavior.
Why Do Children with Autism Tend to Have Issues with Sleep?
In addition to the usual environmental causes of sleep disturbances, and the discomfort and fear some children fear when alone at night, children with autism face additional sleep-related challenges. Some research shows autistic children experience a greater risk of disturbances in their natural circadian rhythms. They might also experience abnormal melatonin regulation. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and if out of balance, it affects a persons ability to fall asleep and remain asleep during normal nighttime hours.
Children with autism are also prone to a variety of medical problems that can affect sleep. For instance, allergies, sleep apnea, nightmares, and esophageal reflux are all common for people with autism. Children with autism also experience a great deal of anxiety, which can also disrupt normal sleeping patterns.
What Can You Do to Help Your Autistic Child Get the Sleep He Needs?
There are several things parents can do to help their autistic child sleep well. First and foremost, explain the issue to your childs pediatrician, so he or she can rule out specific medical issues that might need treatment beyond your ability.
Once you know there are no illnesses unrelated to autism at play, you can develop a sleep treatment plan. Begin by keeping a sleep journal with details of your childs sleep habits. Track your childs bedtimes and onset of sleep, his hours of sound sleeping, times he awakens during the night, and time of awakening in the morning. A sleep journal allows you to compare sleep patterns to other aspects of life, including food, behavior, household environment, and other factors.
It is also important to create a bedtime routine. Routines at night help your child settle down and prepare for sleep. Bedtime needs to be stress-free and routine. A routine is especially important for autistic children because it helps them function. Talk to your child about the routine, give verbal warnings for bedtime preparation, and walk your child calmly through a consistent routine each night.
An example of a good routine might be to give your child a verbal warning about 15 minutes in advance that he will need to brush his teeth, put on his pajamas, and prepare for bedtime soon. A short time later, repeat the warning. At the assigned time, help your child with bedtime preparations, and then reward a positive response. Performing this same routine or one that works for your child each night makes bedtime easier and can help your child sleep better throughout the night.