Growing up, I often awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of feet shuffling on the other side of my bedroom door. I heard cups and plates being moved, liquids being poured, and squeals from my brother. My brother has nonverbal autism.
Autistic children and adults have higher rates of sleep disorders and disturbances. People with autism often struggle to filter out all the noise of the world around them, making sleep infrequent and fragmented.
Naturally, this impacts the parents’ sleep cycle, too. I remember sensing the exhaustion in my parents. It was difficult for them to be fully invested in their work, activities and their other children’s lives.
Tips to getting your child to sleep
There is no magic pill for getting an autistic child to sleep. Getting your autistic child to sleep will take repetition, perseverance and grit. Following are some helpful and proven tips.
Establish a Sleep Routine
It is important to establish a routine to make your child feel safe and allow for stronger emotional and behavioral development. These routines can range from a simple bath time regimen to something more elaborate such as reading them to sleep, giving a hug before lights out, or simply laying with them with the lights off until they fall asleep.
Create a Sleepy Environment
Take away screen time one hour before bedtime. One key unhealthy sleep habit to crush is screen time before bed. In a meta-analysis about screen media effects on sleep, researchers found that screen time within one hour before bed was associated with delayed sleep and poorer sleep quality. This may be difficult for children with autism, as tantrums may occur if you attempt to take away their screen time.
If this is the case, create a sleepy environment around the screen – turn off the light, turn on a humidifier, play sleepy music, or turn on a fan. If possible, limit screen time more and more each day to a point where your child is looking at a screen less than before.
Finally, Seek Help
If all else fails and your sleep cycle is hitting desperation, there are agencies that offer caregiver and nurse aides at night hours. KanCare, the Medicaid program for Kansas, offers caregiver/nurse hours for up to $2,000/month. There is no shame in needing help and, thankfully, there are willing caregivers out there who are trained and able to take care of your child while you sleep.
A note to keep in mind when adjusting your child’s sleep schedule, is that some autistic kids require different amounts of sleep. My brother, for example, functions with 4-5 hours of sleep each day. I have worked with and have met children and adults who function with less than 3 hours of sleep. This could be the most difficult sleep hurdle to overcome. If you sense that your child may require less sleep than you, establishing a routine for them to quietly play by themselves, continue to lay down, or for a caregiver to come in at the early hours to help your child will also help you sleep more. The main key to getting your autistic child to sleep is perseverance. Don’t be afraid to seek help from your child’s doctor. Also try new things to get your child to sleep; it will benefit you and your child in ways that are immeasurable.
Sydney Walls is a Masters level journalist in health communications at the University of Kansas.