According to a 2020 study, as many as 86% of children with autism have various sleep problems. The most common autism sleep issue is insomnia, whether it’s difficulty falling asleep, sleeping too little, or having trouble staying asleep.
Autism sleep issues are exhausting for them and you as a parent. Not to mention, poor sleep habits often result in learning problems and behavioral issues like aggression, inattentiveness, and aggression. Research shows that children with autism and sleep issues have more behavior issues than those with ASD who sleep well.
Why Children with Autism Have Sleep Problems
While the reasons why children (and adults) with autism have more trouble sleeping are still unknown, there are several possible causes.
- Sensory issues: Many children with autism have sensory issues which could harm sleep. Too much light and noise, the room’s temperature, and uncomfortable sleeping attire or blankets would cause sleep disruptions for anyone, but especially for children with autism.
- Low melatonin: Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone produced by your body to help you fall asleep. Some studies indicate people with autism tend to produce less melatonin which means they’re less likely to feel sleepy at bedtime when melatonin production is at its peak.
- Genetics: Studies suggest genes may link insomnia to autism. These studies show that people with autism may have gene mutations that disrupt the sleep-wake cycle. That means autism sleep problems include trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up feeling refreshed.
- Physical illness: People with autism are more likely to suffer from physical ailments like sleep apnea, acid reflux, and seizure disorders. These can have a disruptive effect on sleep.
- Mental illness: Children and adults with autism may also be more prone to mental conditions like ADHD, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Not only can these illnesses themselves disrupt sleep, but if your child is on medication to treat a mental illness, it may have a negative impact on allowing them to fall asleep.
How to Help Your Child Sleep Better
We understand having a tired kiddo can be stressful and, out of desperation, you may want to put them on sleep medication so you and your child can get some rest. But before you discuss that option with your child’s doctor, you should first consider making some lifestyle changes and looking into natural sleep aids to combat insomnia in autism.
- Establish a bedtime routine: Children with autism already love routines, so this should be one you can easily stick to. Make sure you start a regular bedtime routine at least one hour before it’s time for your child to go to sleep. You can even create a visual chart for your child to refer to when getting ready for bed.
Starting with turning off all screens (blue light is not conducive to falling asleep), you can create a bedtime routine that fits your family’s lifestyle. It could include things like reading books, getting pajamas on, brushing teeth, taking a bath, or whatever else works for you and your child.
Bedtime routines are most effective when used regularly, even when you go on vacation and the weekends. (We know that can be tough! But it’s so worth it!)
- Create a comfortable sleeping environment: This goes hand-in-hand with sensory issues. Try to make your child’s room as cool, dark, and quiet as possible to avoid autism sleep issues. You can use blackout curtains, make sure their bedding is clean and comfy, and install thick carpeting to absorb sound. If your child can handle a white noise machine, that’s an excellent tool for blocking noise from entering your child’s room.
- Melatonin supplements: As stated earlier, melatonin is a natural hormone your body creates more of when the sun begins to set. This helps you feel sleepy. Talk to your child’s doctor about whether using a melatonin supplement is a good idea for your child. Many parents of children with autism love using melatonin supplements and say they work wonderfully!
- Create a predictable transition process: Not only do autism sleep problems cause life disruptions, but difficulty handling transitions is another challenge for many children with autism. To help your child transition easily from waking hours to sleeping hours, develop a predictable transition process, so your child knows what to expect.
For example, you can give your child bedtime warnings 20, 15, 10, and 5 minutes before it’s time to start their bedtime routine. This is another excellent use for a chart your child can use, so they know when and what’s coming next in their transition and bedtime routine.
- Help your child learn to sleep without you in the room: We understand. This can be an extremely stressful and tedious process as some children with autism and sleep issues don’t want to sleep without you. But in the long run, it’ll help them by teaching them how to fall asleep on their own, and they won’t be scared if they wake up and you aren’t there.
How ABA Therapy Can Help You Fight Insomnia in Autism
Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) itself doesn’t address autism sleep problems directly. But when your child is enrolled in a high-quality ABA Therapy program, they can learn how to effectively communicate their feelings and frustrations about not being able to sleep. ABA therapy can also help you and your child learn how to work together more harmoniously, not only at bedtime but all the time!
As one of the most studied and proven forms of autism therapy, ABA and your child’s board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) can work with you and your child to develop a solid bedtime routine and learn how to handle challenging behaviors at bedtime.
Help Your Child With Autism Achieve Their Full Potential at The Autism Therapy Group
Our team of autism therapy experts at The Autism Therapy Group is ready to help your child work on their communication, behavior, self-care, eating, and social skills. What they learn through their customized therapy program can help them socially with friends, at school, and out in public. But it’ll also help create a more peaceful environment at home, including around bedtime.
Contact us at ATG today to see how we can help!