Top 3 Things I’ve Learned about Autism and Sleep

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In the world of special needs, I find that there’s a huge focus on sleep and kids with autism (ASD). And, it makes sense! Depending on what journal, study, or blog article you’re reading, poor sleep affects anywhere between 4080% of kids on the spectrum.

That’s a whole lot of kids who don’t sleep well.

Having worked as a sleep consultant for kids with special needs, there have been a lot of new and interesting things I’ve learned about this group of kids and their sleep. Now, that being said…

Every kid is different.

No question, there is never two kids that are quite alike. When it comes to getting a child to sleep better, the approach is always going to be different. But, there are some “common trends” that I want to share so that you can learn just a little bit more about your own child’s sleep.

1. LONG wake ups at night are really, really common.

This sleep issue fascinates me. Over the last 3 years, this is one common struggle that my families will tell me about. And, I still don’t know 100% for sure why it happens, but this is what I’ve found:

  • This long wake up happens anywhere between 1-3am
  • Kids with autism can wake up and stay up for up to 4 hours (on average, I’d say it’s around 2.5 hours).
  • These kids really want to go back to sleep, but they literally can’t.
  • It’s exhausting for everyone…

And, it’s super frustrating for parents! When you can see on your child’s face that they’re desperate to get back to sleep, that would make any parents worry. And, guess what? It’s not because your child just doesn’t need as much sleep, it’s not because that’s your child’s most active time of day.

There’s some very important shifts happening at night.

And, for kids on the spectrum that shift is really, really hard to navigate. At night, our sleep starts off deep and restorative. But, around that 1am time sleep changes. A different part of the brain is working, and we are spending more time in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

Because it’s not quite as deep, a child who has heightened senses has a harder time coasting through that change. And, for kids who need parents with them to go to sleep this restlessness at night is even more extreme.

2. Taking hours to get to sleep is not uncommon, either

And, I realize that this may not be earth shattering. However, I find that most kids who take a really long time to get to sleep are:

  • Seeking stimulation that they didn’t get enough of during the day
  • They’re super overtired (yes, they’ve got all sorts of sleep debt).
  • Maybe they need a different sleep schedule.

And, many parents will tell me that their child gets TONS of activity. But, they still need to jump, bounce, run, leading up to bedtime.

Kids with on the spectrum need to have certain cups filled in regards to sounds, touch, balance, physical activity, etc. Some children need more of one thing, and less of the others. Chances are, you already know what those needs are. Most conventional therapies don’t address those needs enough and parents do need to do more at home.

On the flip side, there can be too much of a good thing.

Too much stimulation can also make the brain really disorganized before sleep. So, it’s a matter of finding a good balance.

In most cases, kids have some lingering sleep debt and that shows up at bedtime. When kids are overtired, the area of the brain that control sleep are completely out of whack. Unfortunately, the areas of the brain that control balance, coordination, language, behavior, sensory regulation, are all next door neighbors to the sleep areas. So, for kids on the spectrum sleep debt can feel like a double whammy.

When sleep debt is addressed, in the majority of cases falling asleep becomes significantly easier.

3. Sleep issues can be resolved very quickly

One thing that I love about working with kids with autism is they learn fast! Whether a child has only been dealing with sleep issues for a few weeks, months, or in worst cases — years, they respond really well when sleep is made priority.

It’s not easy work. There’s a lot of things that parents need to put in place to make sure that their child learns to sleep better. It takes a lot of work to stay consistent, and staying on top of it can be a challenge to anyone. But, boy — the work pays off.

And, I think this simply stems from the fact that these kids crave routine. Very often, they end up loving bedtime routine, and will ask parents to go to bed! Yes, it’s a possibility.

If parents outline exactly what’s going to happen, what changes they’re going to make, and stick with it, these kids can become champion sleepers! And, that ultimately is the biggest benefit of having a sleep coach. Having a customized plan for that addresses all of a child’s needs, sleep habits, and more helps parents feel at ease and empowered to get their child resting easier.

Photo by Anna Kolosyuk on Unsplash