According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, chronic long-term sleep disorders affect around 40 million people in the United States. The incidence of sleep disorders in autistic children is particularly high, with as many as 83 percent of these children suffering problems with sleep. If your child has autism, learn more about the link between the condition and sleep disorders, and find out how you can help your son or daughter sleep well.
Why autistic children suffer with sleep problems
Researchers aren't yet sure why autistic children are more likely to experience a sleep disorder, but several theories exist. Some researchers believe that the problem relates to the body's natural circadian rhythms. These rhythms are natural physical and mental changes that your body experiences over a 24-hour period.
External signs and signals can also influence changes in these rhythms. Parents can get children into bed by using various social or environmental cues. For example, turning the light off or allowing a child to see his or her siblings getting into bed can often encourage kids to go to sleep. Unfortunately, autistic children often find it hard to interpret these signals and cues, which can make it harder to fall asleep.
Other potential causes of sleep disorders in autistic children include:
- Hormone imbalances at night
- Increased sensitivity to sound elsewhere in the house
- Certain medications
In some cases, several factors combined can cause the sleep disorder. Autistic children respond well to routines, but if you break regular habits, you can easily disrupt a child's established schedule.
Sleep disorders that affect autistic children
Children with autism often have trouble falling asleep, and they may also wake up more often than other kids. It's sometimes more difficult to establish good sleep routines with autistic children, and sleep quality is may be poor. Of course, these problems can affect all kids, but children with autism are more likely to experience these issues.
Autistic children also sometimes sleep fewer hours than their brothers or sisters. They may also get up in the middle of the night and disrupt their siblings by making noise. Autistic children are more prone to sleep excessively during the day, too.
What parents should aim for
Parents should aim to make sure that autistic children sleep for the recommended hours each night, as often as possible. The National Sleep Foundation recommends:
- 11-13 hours for preschool children
- 10-11 hours for school age children
- 9.25 hours for adolescents
Sleep disorders sometimes relate to behavioral problems that you are already dealing with, and dealing with sleep problems can take a long time. Autistic children often can't understand what you want them to do, so you'll need a lot of patience to develop the right strategy.
Don't try to cope alone. Talk to a healthcare professional or sleep disorder consultant for expert advice.
Strategies parents can develop
Parents of autistic children can develop various strategies to deal with sleep disorders.
To start, remember that good sleep routines and habits are essential. Try to develop a positive bedtime routine that you can repeat wherever you are. This routine could include going into the bedroom with your child, a short period of quiet play together and a cuddle and a kiss before bed. Autistic children respond well to these positive routines, and you can repeat them in any bedroom.
Additionally, set an appropriate bedtime for your child and stick to it. Give autistic children plenty of notice before bedtime. They can respond badly if you just suddenly announce they must go to bed. To develop the right routine, always use the same cue, too. Some parents use a picture, a book or a certain toy. Again, you should aim to choose something you can take with you to a hotel or family member's home.
Finally, it's important to make sure your children learn to fall asleep in bed. Don't allow your son or daughter to sleep on the couch or in a comfy chair. You should also try to find ways to show your child that he or she must fall asleep alone. You can develop cues that reinforce this. Even a simple picture or illustration can do the job.
Sleep disorders affect many autistic children, and parents must work tirelessly to help these kids develop good sleep routines. With the right bedtime strategy, you can help your child get the sleep he or she needs.