I’ll admit – this is a little of a loaded question. For some parents reading this, it feels like the “chicken or the egg” question.
Your personal experience might be that your child was diagnosed with autism. Then, sleep started to become an issue. Or, your child experienced a massive sleep regression seemingly out of nowhere. And, it started that longer search for answers and then…your child got the diagnosis.
You are a parent searching for answers for your kiddo. You want a better understanding of your child and how they are individually wired. And, you’re probably searching for some advice about your autistic child’s sleep problems. My guess is it’s about 2:30am or so…
First off, let’s quickly answer the question: What is autism?
Do a quick search of this question and you’ll find loads of sites that describe autism as a disorder. Some sources will define autism as a neurodevelopmental or even neurobehavioral disorder which can affect speech, social interaction, and more.
But, the key part of these definitions is “neuro”
Yes, “neuro” which is the root for brain. And that’s because the brain is our command center. If things are not running smoothly and efficiently, it is going to affect how we function.
If a child has difficulty with communication, sensory processing, regulating their behaviors, it is because the brain is disorganized.
Many different regions or areas of the brain are affected because of the lack of connections or mixed signals. This is why autism is unique to the individual and can be on the spectrum. Different regions of the brain are affected. For example, that’s why some children are not verbal yet, and others can talk their heads off!
Why is this definition important?
It’s important to understand that regardless of how your child developed their current sleep problems, sleep is an incredibly complex function of the brain. When we sleep at night, our brain is going through an ongoing process of cleaning, organizing, strengthening, and more.
So, when a child has neurodevelopmental issues, this is what can throw a wrench in the works. When there’s already chaos in “command center” it means that the functions we cannot see will be hindered, too.
So, it’s not autism that is causing sleep troubles for your child. It is how their brain functions which is causing the sleep issues. When this is properly addressed, the brain is able to do what it needs to at night more and more efficiently.
And think about it, if autism caused sleep problems wouldn’t everyone with autism sleep poorly?
So, why can’t my autistic child sleep?!
Over the last 6 and a half years, what I’ve learned working with hundreds of kids on the spectrum there are a few major reasons why good quality sleep is hard to come by:
Sensory processing issues
When the brain is not getting enough stimulation or gets too much stimulation it will be agitated. The most common issue for these kids are those God awful middle of the night wake ups.
This is the child that is up anywhere between 1-4am and just won’t. go. to. sleep. despite everything that you do. Parents will tell me that they can see their child is exhausted and wants to go to sleep. But, they just can’t do it.
Nutrition and health issues
Many children I’ve worked with are incredibly picky eaters, so it means that they’re not getting the vital nutrients they need. Picky eating is very often a sensory issue.
If your child is not getting enough animal protein, calcium, and Vitamin B6 their body will be unable to produce the melatonin it needs to go to sleep and maintain sleep at night. In addition to this, if your child is a picky eater chances are that they have irregular digestion as well.
Whether it’s constipation or diarrhea, that’s certainly not going to feel comfortable to them. And, we’ve all been there! We know that discomfort won’t necessarily mean we’ll be able to rest easily.
Not able to self soothe or self settle
In addition to the issues listed above, most of the children I’ve worked with are unable to self settle. Often, this is related to sensory issues. For example, some kids need the tactile pressure of someone lying with them. Or, they need to have a bottle or breastfeed in order to regulate.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of a child not being able to communicate what they need or want. When your child lacks the language to say that “I’m hungry”, or “I need the bathroom” isn’t it just easier to have a parent there? Maybe your autistic child also struggles with anxiety. Again, it’s easier to have someone there to help regulate and calm.
(P.S. – Need more guidance? This blog post takes a deeper dive into sleep problems for kids on the spectrum)
How do I get my child with autism to sleep?
First, I strongly recommend starting with the 5 Tips for Better Sleep. These are the foundation of what my team and I teach our families day in and day out.
By following these, this sets your child up for success when it comes to falling asleep better regulated, satiated, and more. We have had dozens and dozens of parents see almost immediate changes just with these tips alone.
If you know your child has any kind of sensory processing issue, your occupational therapist may be able to guide you on a sensory diet that you can do at home. Or, if you know nutrition is a concern, consult your pediatrician or local nutritionist for recommendations.
My team and I understand that to get lasting results in a child’s sleep, it’s important to get down to the root of the issues. Again, it is not “autism” that causes sleep problems, it is the disorganization in the brain that affects the sleeping process.
Each and every one of us are trained in sensory techniques, nutritional changes, sleep hygiene, and gradual sleep training to help your child thrive and grow with a great night’s sleep. The journey to a great night’s rest is not going to be a short one. It takes patience, consistency, and the right plan to help a child like yours sleep well. And, we’re here to help.