I say these are the top 10 strategies to help your Autistic child sleep; however, in actuality there are way way more than 10 strategies in this episode! 

In this episode, I will talk about why sleep is so important, why your child might be struggling with sleep, and strategies to support your child and their sleep (and in turn, your sleep!)

This episode is planned to come out right after Christmas and that is definitely on purpose!  The holiday season can be a very difficult time for so many Autistic children.  Which in turn, means it can be difficult for lots of parents. 

Being wound up and having a harder time sleeping can affect the whole family.  Lack of sleep doesn’t just happen around the holidays though, it is often a constant area of difficulty for so many families that have Autistic children.  Now that the holidays are coming to an end, I thought that it would be a great time to try to get to a better place with our child’s ability to get a good night’s sleep and in turn for us to get to a better place with our sleep!

Before we get to how to help your Autistic child sleep, let’s start off with these thoughts…

When you don’t get good sleep, how do you feel?  My guess is that you don’t have to think very hard to think about a time when we didn’t get very good sleep, am I right? I know personally, tend to feel groggy, don’t feel like talking to a lot of people, I am basically just trying to survive my day and am not really enjoying it. 

Really I am missing a lot of the things that are actually really great about my day, because I’m just too tired to actually notice them.  I also have a much harder time remembering things, learning new things, and handling stress.  Being super flexible and knowing the difference between a “big deal” and a “little deal” can be really difficult for me as well. 

In short, I am not able to be the thermostat for my family.  What I mean by that is, instead of responding to what my children do or what events unfold in my day, I react in less than ideal ways in most cases.  Obviously, I am aware that it is super important for me to get enough sleep and restful sleep.

In fact, I want you to imagine this….you just got a new job and you start tomorrow.  You are so excited and nervous about it at the same time that you toss and turn most of the night. 

The next day when you are trying to take in all of the new information that you need to know for your new job you are struggling to even keep your eyes open.  It really is so hard to think of appropriate questions to ask and even harder to remember all of the important information. 

This is such a difficult situation to be in…a new environment with different demands and we really struggle in those situations.  This is a small glimpse into the reality that our Autistic child is experiencing most days.  

With that being said, let’s shift gears to now talking about what it is like for your Autistic child and when they don’t get enough sleep.  Essentially, our children will experience the same feelings when they are not sleeping well or getting enough sleep. 

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Their attention will be affected, they will have negative behaviors, have a harder time learning and remembering things.  They are also less likely to want to engage with others if they are tired, as well. 

Their brain’s ability to process information is that much harder too!

So, let’s think about that a little more.  We are already aware that our Autistic child has a harder time processing sensory information (aka: all of the information that they are given through their senses).  When something is harder for our brain to do, it takes more energy. 

So on a day that our Autistic child gets good sleep, their brain is using a ton of energy to help our brains process that information and make sense of it.  When you really stop to think about it, it really is amazing that our children function as well as they do most days. 

The other point I really want to make here is that since we know sleep is such a foundational piece of our child functioning well, then that means we really need to try to do what we can to support our Autistic child to get the best sleep possible.  

Why is My Autistic Child having Such a Difficult Time Sleeping?

Studies have shown what we already know as parents.  Autistic children have a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep when compared to other peers.

There can be a number of reasons that your child doesn’t sleep well and it is important to understand what might be contributing to your child’s difficulties.  If you have been listening to the podcast for any length of time, you know my biggest thing is to try to understand your unique child. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but some food for thought to help you try to determine what you can do to support your child’s sleep.

  1.  Does your child have GI problems?  For example, is your child constipated?  Is your child still wetting the bed and waking up because of that.  Both of these difficulties were true for our son and we had to work with his doctor to address his constipation.  We also had to work on integrating one of his reflexes to address his bedwetting (a whole nother episode all together!)
  2. Does your child have mineral and vitamin deficiencies?  Many of the vitamins that our bodies need to help us sleep well and keep our minds from racing are deficient in a vast amount of Autistic children.  This is another area to definitely talk about to your doctor or a nutritionist that specializes in Autism, because it really can make a huge difference!
  3. Do they have a hard time shifting between nervous systems?  This is a resounding yes for our Autistic kiddos.  Essentially, if you picture our nervous system as a coin that has two sides, one side, or the parasympathetic nervous system is the “rest and digest” side of our nervous system.  This branch of our nervous system is involved when our heart rate is lower and our body more relaxed, which is what we want when it is time to sleep.  The other side of the coin, the sympathetic nervous system, is the nervous system that is turned on when we go into a “fight, flight, or freeze” response.  Essentially when there is some kind of a stressor.  This part of our nervous system helps us to survive to respond to stressful situations, but all too often this is by far the dominant system in our Autistic children.  This fact also ties back into our children having GI problems and not processing their nutrients properly

Strategies to Support Better Sleep

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For purposes of this podcast, we are going to go over 10 recommendations. These are going to focus on helping our Autistic child move out of that “fight, flight, or freeze” part of their nervous system. And instead into the “rest and digest” branch to support sleep.  These are mainly going to be thinking about how their brains are processing sensory information. It will how we can reduce the amount of stress that they are experiencing and give them tools and strategies. These strategies can be used into adulthood.

  1.  Sleep in your child’s room for a night and think about these things.
    • Are there strange shadows, objects, or shadows in the room that might scare your child?
    • Are there a lot of visuals in the room?  If your child is easily overstimulated by visual information this can make a big difference. Keeping their room simple with a minimalist type of design might surprise you!
    • What is the temperature of the room?  Typically a cooler temperature in the low to mid-’60s is the ideal temperature for sleeping.  Is the room drafty?
    • What are the sounds that you can hear?  Does your child seem to pick up every sound that is in the environment?  If so, what can be changed?  Does your child need some white noise so the other noises don’t affect them as much?
    • What is your child’s bedding like?  Is it warm, cool, soft?  Are these textures, feelings that your child does well with?  Keep in mind that you and your child’s favorites when it comes to textures might be different. 
    • What is the lighting like?  Is it too bright or too dark for your child?  Could you use an adjustable nightlight or even try different colors of nightlights?
  2. Have a cold smoothie with a straw before bed 
    • The coldness of the drink helps calm down the body. The use of the straw mimics deep breathing which is also very calming.
  3. Use deep tactile input to help calm your child’s body.
    • Weighted blankets
    • Lycra sheets
    • Squeezes with a towel when getting out of the bath
    • Hugs in your lap while you read a book
    • Tight compression pajamas
  4. Utilize meditation apps
    • Can also do rocking movements during meditations to further support relaxation
    • Doing body scans
    • Sitting like a Frog
  5. Do a massage
    • Qigong Massage is an instructional book that teaches parents how to complete the massage
    • Cranial Sacral Therapy
    • Vibration pads
  6. Take a nice bath with epsom salts
  7. Use relaxing essential oils either in a diffuser or roll ons. (make sure to educate yourself on how to do this safely)
  8. Do some deep breathing and visualization before bed.
    • So many of our kids are very shallow breathers. This is because they are in the “fight, flight, or freeze” part of the nervous system so often. Learning how to breathe is essential.
    • For example, have them picture a balloon getting filled in their stomach. Then have them hold it before slowly breathing it out like they are blowing out a candle.
  9.  Do activities that help them relieve stress throughout the day.
    • Plan margin into your day
    • Have time for physical movement and outdoor play
  10.  Have a regular bedtime routine that helps with their body recognizing that it’s time to wind down.

There is no magic bullet that will make your child always have a good night’s rest; but, there are things that you can do to help your child function and have the room to grow and learn with greater ease.  

Don’t forget that these strategies don’t just work for your child, but they can help you sleep and take care of yourself as well.

Many hugs and hopes of sweet dreams for both you and your child.

Candice Curtis is a licensed Occupational Therapist and the founder of Integrate Family. She is passionate about helping and empowering parents and their children.  Candice has advanced postgraduate training in theory, assessment, interpretation and treatment in Ayers Sensory Integration.  She is a Certified Autism Specialist with expertise in sensory processing, coordination disorders, learning disorders and executive functioning.  Candice also has 2 boys of her own at home, one of which has a developmental disorder. Learn more about her here.