Strategies for addressing sleep problems and autism

Brian Field


Parents with children on the autism spectrum frequently are frazzled by unpredictable sleep patterns. Often times, these children are up at all hours – going to bed late in the evening and sometimes up throughout the night. The result of this erratic sleeping produces parents who are distressed and irritated from sleep deprivation and can also heighten the child’s sensitivities – where the child has sensitivities to noise, to touch, tendencies to become distracted easily – these consequently are exacerbated. It becomes a tortuous cycle for both parent and child.

The following are some suggestions as provided by our autism support community to help your child -- and you -- get better and more restful sleep.

Provide activity in the waking hours: Has your child been physically active enough during the day? Providing the opportunity for vigorous physical activity during the waking hours not only helps provide a natural chemical balance within the body through the release of endorphins, but also facilitates healthy exhaustion helpful in inducing sleep. This vigorous activity should be 2-3 hours prior to the planned bedtime.

Decaffeinate and curb sugary foods: Is your child having caffeinated drinks or sweets in the evening? If so, try eliminating these or at least keep them in the earlier part of the day. If you serve them, keep deserts for dinner to more natural sugars such as fruits. Proteins are also recommended for the evening meal rather than high starch foods; try to avoid additives such as MSG too.

Try melatonin: Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by animals and humans. Most frequently used by adults for jet lag, melatonin supplements help adjust the circadian clock to environmental cycles and is commonly used to regulate the sleeping patterns of many children with ASD and ADHD as they frequently don't seem to produce enough naturally for themselves. While not an FDA-approved drug, it can be found in most health food stores and is frequently recommended by naturopaths.

Wind down the “noise”: Calming down the environment in the household can also help transition to child to bed. An hour before bedtime, try shutting down some of the stimulation that excites: turn of the television and video games, put on some calming music or no music at all. Turn off some of the lights – signal that a time for rest is coming.

Give a warm bath: They’re not just for “Saturday nights” these days. Try making a warm tub part of the pre-bedtime routine. This too can have a calming effect.

Establish a routine and stick to it: Taking lots of naps during the day? While a brief controlled nap (20 minutes or so, but not longer) is okay, try to limit longer naps and napping close to bed time. Establish a routine using the aforementioned tactics, set a regular bedtime – and then stick to it. This helps set an expectation and regularity that children in general, and those with ASD in particular, can find comforting.


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