April is National Autism Awareness Month. Not long ago I was a guest speaker on It’s Your Health Network to discuss the impact of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) on a child’s sleep. Here are some of the key points:
Children with ASD experience difficulty falling asleep as well as staying asleep. These children may wake throughout the night, and/or wake very early in the morning. In addition, they can experience physical and environmental issues that can make getting a good night’s sleep even more difficult. Like all children, a lack of sleep can cause negative behavioural effects during the day, as well as have an impact on the sleep patterns of the parents.
Establish a bedtime ritual:
Fortunately, there are several ways that parents can help improve the sleep of children with ASD. Bedtime rituals are important for all children, but especially so with children who have ASD. Such rituals include relaxing, predictable activities that prevent heightened stimulation for the child, that may otherwise make it difficult for them to fall asleep. A recommendation I give to my parents, is to create a visual bedtime schedule for the child that includes details such as:
- When to say goodnight to everyone
- When to close the curtains
- When to pull up the covers
Because autistic children are visual learners, the visual bedtime schedule can include images of each bedtime activity for the child to follow along. I also recommend that you begin to remove objects that create stimuli prior to bedtime, by turning off the computer or television one hour before. It is important that family members incorporate these bedtime rituals into their evenings as well. The home should become a calming environment around bedtime to help promote sleep. Parents and other siblings can help the ritual by turning down the lights before bedtime, which helps to induce the production of melatonin-the sleep hormone.
Create a calming environment:
With the increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli for children with ASD, I have some recommendations that may help children have an easier time fall asleep and stay asleep. It is important to note, that not all children will react the same way to triggers, and you may need to try a few alternative methods.
- Carefully moderate the temperature of the child’s room as their child may be sensitive to being too warm or too cold
- Children with ASD are sensitive to touch, therefore try a footed pajama or bare feet to see what suits them best
- There can be a sensitivity to seams in clothing or bedding, so ensure pajamas and sheets are extra soft and not irritating
- Children with ASD may be irritated by tight fitting clothing, so try pajamas that are loose and not too clingy
- Music or white noise can help some children settle into sleep. Alternatively, if noise is an issue for your child, you may try ear plugs or headphones to block out sound
- Smell can bother children, so avoid scented candles, strong smelling fabric softeners, or cleansers.
- A weighted blanked is helpful, as the deep pressure can help to relieve anxiety and calm children with ASD. However, weighted blankets can only be used by older children, as they are a hazard to a younger child. Please check with the manufacturer of the blanket before proceeding
As children move through the many ages and stages of development, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy sleep pattern. For children who suffer from the symptoms of ASD and are overly sensitive to outside stimuli, proper sleep hygiene can be challenging. But no matter what your child’s background, the common theme is that sleep is vital to healthy development and overall well-being.
Thanks to wonderful organizations that have developed over the years to help increase awareness and understanding of ASD, parents now have many resources to help ensure that their child achieves the highest quality of life. If your child is having sleep issues which is making their symptoms worse, I am able to help you implement a sleep plan that will get your child sleeping comfortably, and improve the quality of their life and yours. For more information on my services, please check out my Sleep Success Plans to see if there is one that fits you or feel free to contact me directly.
Please let me know if you found this information helpful!
Angela Walsh is a Family Sleep Institute, Certified Infant and Child Sleep Consultant and the founder of Babes in Sleepland. She helps sleep deprived babies, children and families, get back on track and get the sleep they need and desire. To learn more about Angela and how she can help you, visit her website: babesinsleepland.com. Also get sleep tips, the latest research on baby and child products, and be part of her weekly Q and A at her Facebook page: Babes in Sleepland.