Many autistic children and adults struggle to fall asleep, so it’s no surprise that this is one of the most frequent queries we have from exhausted and stressed parents. So what causes this? The answer is usually a combination of many factors which all vary in degree, from person to person, and at different times during their life.
Factors which can cause and result in poor sleep include:
- An inability to “switch off” their active mind or relax enough.
- Worrying about what could happen tomorrow or about a certain situation.
- Constant replaying or processing of stressful incidents that have happened that day or, in some cases, even weeks or months before.
- Feeling anxiety about what they have to do tomorrow.
- A disruption to their routine.
- Feeling unwell.
- Medical experts suspect that autistic brains have different circadian rhythms meaning they don’t need as much sleep or have a different body clock meaning they want to sleep at different times.
- Some autistic people don’t produce enough melatonin, or secrete it irregularly, so they don’t feel sleepy.
- Sensory sensitivities – although we may strive for quiet at bedtime, a silent room can enhance other noises which otherwise might be blocked out…a ticking clock, hum of electricity, a dripping tap. Many may find it hard to relax if they feel overloaded with the heightened sensory information around them when they’re in bed and there is less background noise/activity.
- A physical reaction to the food/fluid that they have consumed, especially if it’s just before bedtime.
- A confusion or lack of understanding about the benefits of sleep on health and wellbeing.
Whilst you may never know the cause of the sleep issues, there are a number of things you can do to help promote natural sleep habits and patterns. Try to be consistent and develop a routine.
Here are our top 10 tips to getting a better night’s sleep:
1. Bedtime Routine
Where possible try to stick to the same bedtime routine every night. This will make your autistic person feel calm and easier to manage. Using a visual timetable will reinforce this.
2. Screen Time Cut Off
Agree a no screen time rule a few hours before bedtime. Whilst you will no doubt be very unpopular, most autistic people find it hard to “wind down” and “shut off their brains”. Having access to social media hinders this process so you are helping them develop good habits.
3. Black-out blinds
Our brains need a dark room to produce melatonin which helps us feel sleepy. Having black-out blinds helps create the perfect environment for sleep, regardless of the season.
4. Lavender oil
Using a few drops of organic lavender oil in their night-time bath followed by a few drops on their pillow will aid the onset of sleep.
5. Weighted blankets
Some autistic people like the feeling of pressure and it makes them feel safe and calm, which can help with the onset of sleep. These should be used with caution and we suggest that the advice of an occupational therapist be sought first to ensure it is right for your child.
6. Factor in physical exertion
During the day before the bedtime regime. A physically tired body is more likely to be able to relax into sleep.
7. Explain to your child
What the benefits of sleep are, how sleep helps the body and brain work better and grow stronger, and why children need to be in bed earlier than adults.
8. Give them a wake up strategy
What can or can’t they do when they wake up? what do they have to do when they wake up? Where are they allowed to go? What time are they allowed to wake up parents? Are there any exceptions to the rules? (eg. they need the toilet or feel unwell or upset)
9. Natural soft glow lights
Can help by gradually lowering the light output to indicate that ‘time to go to sleep’ is coming. This can help to create a predictable, familiar and gentle countdown to ‘lights out’.
10. Make sure the bed linen is comfortable
Consider your child’s sensory profile. It’s a good idea to avoid strongly scented washing powder, scratchy pillow cases and covers as many autistic children will find it very difficult to sleep if their senses are overstimulated and the feel uncomfortable.