Autism & Sleep Problems
All parents expect a degree of disturbed sleep when they have young children. However for many parents of children and young people on the autism spectrum such problems can be extreme and can persist indefinitely.
Sleeping difficulties are very common in people on the autism spectrum. Disruption to sleep can arise for many reasons. Some examples are, anxiety, the need for a more predictable routine, confusion re time concepts, a poor understanding of the concept of sleep and confusion resulting from busy or cluttered sleeping environment.
Not all individuals on the autism spectrum will have sleep difficulties however many do. Some examples include difficulties settling to sleep, staying asleep, waking during the night, going back to sleep, child in bed with parent's and / or waking very early.
Our experience of working with families where a child or young person is having sleeping difficulties tells us that there are solutions to many sleep difficulties. However things do not generally get better without focused attention. In our experience, children on the spectrum are less likely to “grow” out of these difficulties. Targeted and consistent support is likely to be needed in order to address understanding and to develop positive sleep routines and habits.
It is beneficial to all in the family if sleep difficulties are discussed professional/ support agencies contacted and solutions sought as quickly as possible.
Although it is advisable to intervene as early as possible in sleep issues the resilience of the family needs to be considered. Sleep is one of those areas where things can feel they are worse before they get better. It is therefore important that parents and other family members who may be willing to support parents feel ready to take it on. A contingency plan to ensure you get some rest, or that you have someone on hand to support you with other daily tasks is helpful and will allow you to focus.
If you have any concerns contact an appropriate professional agency experienced in sleep and the specific difficulties associated with the autism spectrum. Examples include Health Visitor, Sleep Scotland, and Scottish Autism (trained by Sleep Scotland).
It is critical to initially identify what the exact sleep problem is. Sometimes someone out-with the family can help with an objective opinion. When you are tired you can become overly focused on the impact of a problem rather than the root of the problem.
Each family circumstance is unique. Individualised sleep programmes should reflect this and should always take into account the needs of the individual that are associated with the autism spectrum. You therefore need to consider if you can follow through. It would be very unusual for any approach to have an instant effect so you need to feel you can commit.
There is no single solution to sleep difficulties. There are some principles that can support sleep such as:
A planned nightly routine. These benefit all within the family to make night and bedtime predictable.
Exercise and other highly stimulating activities should not be undertaken in the hours just before sleep. Children on the spectrum often have difficulties with self regulation. This means that if there has been vigorous or exciting activity they may need support to return to a more relaxed, quiet state.
Think about communication relating to sleep and the night time routine. Using the individual’s communication system to support their understanding and expectations of sleep routine/ bedtime.
Keeping a detailed sleep diary can help. This should be kept for a fairly significant period e.g. 2- 3 weeks. The idea is to record key information such as, what the child did before bed, when they went to bed, how long did it take to settle, did they wake, how long for, did they resettle, etc. By keeping the diary for a prolonged time you can then begin to look for patterns. E.g. it may be that it is on a particular day of the week that most problems occur therefore there may be something concerning the child.
Solving Children's Sleep Problems: A Step-by-step Guide for Parents [Paperback] Lyn Quine (Author)
Sleep Better!: Guide to Improving Sleep for Children with Special Needs [Paperback] V.Mark Durand (Author)