Why Autism Can Affect Your Child’s Sleeping Habits
Takeaway: Autism is a developmental difference that gives your child a unique set of traits — some empowering, some challenging. Often, the more challenging traits can disrupt your child’s sleep which in turn magnifies those traits in a vicious cycle. The great thing, though, is that there are things you can do at home to help your child sleep better. And for more severe sleep issues you can consult a child psychologist, who’ll have a whole different set of techniques to work with.
Do you struggle to put your child to sleep every night? Perhaps spending hours winding her down?
Babies slip into a regular sleep-wake cycle within the first few months of their lives. They spend longer stretches of the night sleeping and gradually nap for fewer hours in the day. But for some children, this rhythm never really sets in. Some parents might start winding their child down by 8 PM, but it’s past 1 AM by the time she finally sleeps! And this is despite having a well-planned wind-down routine. The interesting thing is that many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have this problem. They might have trouble falling asleep, may not get much restful sleep, or might wake up too early every morning. And these sleep disturbances can be quite challenging, especially if your child starts playing in the middle of the night!
So, why does autism spectrum disorder often cause poor sleep? Let’s explore some autism basics, first.
Autism spectrum disorder is used to describe a difference in the way your child’s brain develops. Because of these differences, she experiences the world uniquely. For example,
- She’ll likely love order, predictability, and routines — she’ll want the same meals, clothes, walking routes, etc.
- She’ll likely be confused by social interactions and emotions. So she might find it harder to communicate.
- She’ll likely be highly sensitive to sensory input like light, sound, touch, etc.
- And she’ll likely be able to hyper-focus on things — for example, knowing everything there is to know about the topic of ‘dinosaurs,’ spending hours spinning the wheels of her favourite toy car, or creating great art.
It’s these ASD traits that often lead to sleep disturbances.
- Her love for routine might mean that if she’s in a new house (while on holiday, for example) or there’s a change to her wind-down routine, she’ll struggle to sleep.
- Her confusion about social interactions might mean she misses many of the social cues to sleep. For example, noticing that her siblings are winding down. These are often just as important as noticing it’s dark outside or that she’s tired. Also, since she finds it hard to communicate, she might be kept awake by something but not be able to tell you what.
- Her heightened senses might mean she gets easily disturbed by sounds like a door closing or floorboards creaking. And if she’s overwhelmed by her senses, she might get restless or emotional.
- But psychological and biological factors probably play the biggest role. For example, children with ASD often have a lot of underlying anxiety and hyperactivity. Both these get in the way of good sleep. Also, some studies show that children with ASD might not release melatonin (the ‘sleep’ hormone) at the right times — another quirk of her biology.
The thing about sleep disturbances is that they magnify the ASD traits that cause them. So, it can become a vicious cycle.
We covered how underlying anxiety and hyperactivity are often root causes of your child’s sleep differences. Well, poor sleep makes these worse. She might now feel extra anxious and need even more routine and order to calm down. She might start withdrawing further from stressful social situations. And it’ll likely make a lot of her autism-related repetitive behaviour worse. (This behaviour is called ‘stimming’ or self-stimulation: e.g., finger flicking, hand flapping, etc.). And that’s just the effects of anxiety. If her hyperactivity gets worse, she’ll struggle to pay attention to things or listen to instructions. And, as with any child, poor sleep means irritability, mood swings, and tantrums.
So, what can you do to help your child with her sleep? Here are three useful first steps.
1. Figure out how much sleep she should be getting.
The bottom line is that if her sleep habits are tiring you out, she’s probably not sleeping enough. But to be a bit more objective, here’s a rough idea of how many hours of sleep she needs:
- If she’s 1-3, she’ll need about 12-14 hours of sleep per day (naps included)
- If she’s 3-6, it reduces to 10-12 hours of sleep per day
- From 7-12, it becomes 10-11 hours of sleep per day
2. Make sure she’s got good ‘sleep hygiene.’
There are some general sleep strategies all children can do with. And you’re probably using many of these already. But let’s double-check.
- Set a regular bedtime for your child. It should be when your child usually gets sleepy but before she gets too
- Have a rewarding wind-down routine. You might read her a book, give her a back massage, or play soft music. This helps her mentally prepare for bedtime and is relaxing, too. You can trigger a wind-down routine by using a specific cue — for example, a picture of her asleep in bed, with you watching TV in the next room. Using a picture as a cue is useful because children with ASD are often visual learners. And as a bonus you can take it with you when you’re travelling with her.
- ‘Settling’ her repeatedly. If she is agitated and gets out of bed, gently put her back in. Keep repeating this every time she gets up.
- Calm her senses by playing relaxing music and using heavy curtains to block out all light. Use thick carpeting to absorb sound, oil door hinges so they don’t creak, and make sure the room isn’t too hot or cold. You could also wrap her snugly in a blanket to help her feel more comfortable.
3. Track her sleep patterns by keeping a sleep diary for a week.
Here, you’ll track aspects of her sleep so you have an objective measure of things. Many free sleep apps can help you do this. And here are the some of the things they’ll track:
- When does she sleep and wake up?
- Does she snore or changes her breathing pattern? Does she struggle to breathe at any point?
- Does she toss and turn much while sleeping?
- What’s her behaviour like the day after a particularly bad night of sleep? How much better does it become if she sleeps well?
Good sleep hygiene is useful, but for more persistent sleep issues you might need a professional’s help.
The strategies above should work in a week or so. But if your child’s sleep issues stay for longer, it’s worth taking her to a specialist. A child psychologist, for example, can help her tackle any underlying anxiety. It could be something as simple as learning to recognise anxiety as it arises (sweaty palms, heart beating faster, etc.) and practise calming techniques like taking deep breaths, counting slowly to ten, or going to a quiet part of the house. Or it could be a bit more complex like using visual-learning techniques like a ‘visual schedule’ — i.e., a set of pictures showing the different activities she’ll be doing on any given day. That way, she can ‘see’ what’s going to be happening over the coming week and that’ll help calm her (remember, children with ASD are often great visual learners).
Think you might need help handling your child’s sleep difficulties? Consider consulting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
You might also be interested in some of our other posts.
- Your Child as a Neurodiverse Learner
- Autism Evaluation – What Should It Look Like?
- Questions to Ask Paediatricians About Your Child’s Development
- Auditory Processing Difficulties: When Your Child Listens But Can’t Understand
- Supporting the Emotional Needs of Children with Learning Difficulties
- Developmental Language Disorder (DLD): Why Your Child May Be Struggling to Communicate
- What You Need to Know About Dyspraxia (Or, Developmental Coordination Disorder)