Sleep disturbances are very common in autistic children, and can significantly impact their overall well-being and daily functioning.
This is especially true during the summer season. Summertime can disrupt sleep patterns, and exacerbate existing challenges.
If your child has been struggling the last few weeks, there are 4 things that you want to be mindful of. Understanding these factors can help families be proactive and problem solve strategies. And, this will promote better sleep hygiene and well being during the summer season.
The summer season brings significant changes in the environment, which can affect an autistic child’s ability to get a good night’s rest. Increased daylight hours can disrupt the body’s internal clock. Unfortunately, longer days can confuse the body’s sense of time, making it more difficult for your child to fall asleep at their typical bedtime.
In addition, higher temperatures during summer can make the sleeping environment uncomfortable. Children with autism often have to cope with heightened sensitivity to heat. The hotter temperature along with the increased humidity can lead to feelings of stickiness or excessive sweating, preventing deep sleep and a sense of comfort even further.
With this comes changes in clothing choices due to the warmer weather, which can also contribute to sleep disruption in situations where certain fabrics may cause discomfort and sensory hypersensitivity. Yuck!
This is why I recommend making your child’s room dark and cool. This allows your child to sleep more comfortably and get to bed at their usual times. And, you’ll be able to keep the same PJs, blankets, sheets, etc. that your child prefers.
Need help figuring out how much darker your child’s room needs to get? Download this Bedroom Darkness Scale – you’re looking to land between 7-10 on the scale.
For temperature, try to keep the room between 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit (20-22 degrees Celcius).
Changes in Routine and Structure
Once summer rolls around, schedules and routines are thrown off due to summer vacation. The ripple effect is that sleep patterns are disturbed. The transition from school to summer break, adjusted therapy schedules, etc. can lead to a loss of the familiar structure provided by the regular weekly schedules.
The absence of a consistent routine can lead to increased anxiety over certain expectations of what the day to day will look like. This is what causes difficulties falling asleep and sleeping well through the night.
In addition, the lack of organized activities and increased leisure time can result in less or imbalance of physical and mental stimulation during the day. Reduced physical activity can be a huge factor in a child’s overall ability to fully rest and relax overnight.
When this is paired with less cognitive stimulation, it’s more likely children will have more nights of tossing and turning. For some children more downtime is just what they need to recoup from the school year. But for many kids on the spectrum, structured days provide a sense of security and predictability.
Similarly, traveling vacations exposes children to new or changing sleeping environments, such as different beds at grandparents’ house, needing to sleep in a hotel room, etc. Unfamiliar sleeping arrangements can create anxiety, discomfort, and make it more challenging for autistic children to settle into sleep like they do at home.
Our recommendation? Try to write out a simple schedule each day so your child knows what to expect. You can also get a visual schedule like this one to make quick changes. In addition, make sure your child is getting out for a walk at least for 20-30 minutes daily. Walking helps burn energy, improve mental focus, relieve anxiety and more.
Traditional Summertime Activities and New Environments
Children with autism tend to experience sensory processing challenges, and the activities that traditionally come with summer can intensify these issues. Outdoor activities, like trips to crowded beaches, amusement parks, or community events, can expose children to high levels of sensory input.
The combination of unpredictable noises, lots of background chatter, dealing with sunscreen application and sandy skin, novel foods, bright lights, and overwhelming crowds can lead to sensory overload, making it difficult for them to self-regulate at night.
An important thing to note related to sensory overload is it isn’t always obvious as an outburst, or crying etc. subtle signs such as tuning out or not listening, withdrawing, and hyperactivity are cues that may signal sensory overload as well.
This is why it’s important to incorporate calming, sensory activities in the bedtime routine. In my experience, this helps to “slow” the wheels down a bit, and allows your child to fully relax before bedtime. Check out this post to learn more about these activities.
Summer is prime season for allergies. Many children with special needs, including those with autism, may have compromised immune systems. They are usually more susceptible to environmental triggers. Summer allergies tend to peak in June and July, with allergens like pollen, dust mites, ragweed and more. These potentially cause nasal congestion, itchiness, and respiratory discomfort, which all play a role in sleeping troubles. These allergic reactions can impact nighttime breathing patterns, leading to snoring, mouth breathing, or even sleep apnea.
It’s a bit harder to control these environmental factors, as your kid wants to go outside! But, make sure to run air filters and air conditioning in the home environment. In addition, try to stay away from foods that cause inflammation in the body. With inflammation, this can make tonsils and adenoids swollen. These are the foods to try and avoid, if seasonal allergies is a problem for your child.
Summertime sleep problems in children with any neurodevelopmental diagnosis can be for a variety of reasons. Environmental changes, changes in routines, sensory overload, and allergies all play a significant role in disrupting sleep patterns.
Recognizing and addressing these factors can help families develop proactive strategies to support their autistic child during the day. This will encourage better sleep at night. Creating a calming, cool sleep environment, developing consistent summertime routines, managing sensory stimuli, and addressing allergies can contribute to improved sleep quality and overall well-being for autistic children during the summer season and beyond.