Autism Sleep Challenges: Strategies For Better Rest

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Parenting a child with autism often comes with unique sleep challenges. Many parents are left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. However, prioritizing sleep is crucial for our physical and mental well-being. In this post, I am sharing some sleep strategies that have worked for us, and I hope they can help you, too!

What Causes Sleep Problems in Autism?

Children with autism often face unique sleep challenges, impacting their overall health and daily functioning. Sensory sensitivities, anxiety, and difficulties with communication can cause sleep problems in children with autism. Sensory issues may make certain textures or sounds in the sleep environment uncomfortable. Anxiety or hyperarousal can keep their minds active, making it hard to wind down. Additionally, communication difficulties may prevent them from expressing discomfort or fear. Understanding these factors is crucial in addressing and managing sleep issues in children with autism, helping them achieve better rest and improved quality of life.

Autism-Related Sleep Patterns

Children with autism often experience unique sleep challenges that can impact their overall well-being. These challenges can manifest in various unusual sleep patterns, such as:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Frequent night wakings
  • Early morning awakenings
  • Irregular sleep-wake cycles
  • Inconsistent sleep schedules
  • Shorter total sleep duration
  • Lower sleep efficiency

Our Sleep Story

My daughter Elizabeth is almost eight years old, so I have been exhausted for nearly a decade! Elizabeth was diagnosed with autism at two years old and ADHD at five years old. I have finally figured out a solid sleep strategy for the entire family. Previously, we would frequently wake up in the middle of the night to Elizabeth talking, scripting, squealing, and crying in her sleep.

Toddler sleeping on a gray sofa
Elizabeth Sleeping

Elizabeth’s Sleep Challenges

Sometimes, it felt like she was almost trance or sleepwalking. One night this last year, she woke up disoriented and in a trance. She was scripting from some cartoon she had seen earlier that day about farm animals. She said, “And the cow goes moo, and the duck goes quack,” probably 1,000 times! It was borderline scary because I felt like she couldn’t snap out of it. Unfortunately, it was 3 am, so what was I supposed to do? Should I take her to the emergency room and say, “My daughter won’t stop mooing and quacking?”

I knew we could no longer live like this. My husband and I were beyond exhausted, and our tanks were empty. I had been reading many holistic medicine articles and following local mom groups on social media for tips. So these are some of the tools and strategies I gathered and used to help everyone in our family get to sleep and, more importantly, STAY asleep!

Setting Up a Bedtime Routine For Quality Sleep

Maintaining consistency is vital to improving sleep habits for children with autism. Better bedtime routines and sleep schedules can help regulate the body’s internal clock and promote better quality sleep. Preparing for sleep hours before bedtime can help with relaxing and winding down, making it easier to transition into a restful state.

Our Sleep Schedule

Our bedtime routine is straightforward. I close any blinds and curtains about 2 hours before bedtime in the summer, so her body starts signaling that it is nighttime. Then, about an hour before bed, I dim all the lights in the house. Elizabeth does not like complete darkness, so dim lighting works best for us. I usually play one of her favorite cartoons on TV and keep the volume low. I give her something to drink and let her settle down on the couch with one of her favorite blankets.

Luckily, Elizabeth doesn’t mind going to her bed. I walk her to her bedroom, and she usually does not protest going to bed. One of her requests is for me to “sleep” as well. I turn off the lights entirely and will cuddle with her for about 5 to 15 minutes, depending on her level of restlessness. I usually do deep breathing while we cuddle; her breathing syncs with mine. This breathing technique helps her regulate. Once she is calm, I leave her room. If I stay any longer than 15 minutes, I will fall asleep too, so I can’t stay any longer than that!

Autism Sleep Solutions for Better Rest

Using Visual schedules or reward charts can be valuable tools for creating and reinforcing bedtime routines. Tools make transitions from one activity to the next more predictable and manageable for kids on the autism spectrum. I have used simple picture exchange communication systems (PECS) before, and they worked well when she was younger. Her receptive communication has vastly improved, so we rarely use them anymore.

Maintaining a sleep tracker or using journaling apps can help parents track their sleep patterns and identify underlying issues affecting their rest and their children. I have been tracking my sleep statistics for years, and they help me be more aware of my stress levels and are good indicators of my overall health.

Another common sleep challenge for children with autism is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night. We went through years of Elizabeth going to bed just fine, but after being asleep for maybe 4 hours, she would be wide awake! On nights when Elizabeth stayed in bed, I could still see how restless she was on our video baby monitor. Every time I checked in on her, she was in a completely different position than the last time I looked at the monitor. This child was never entirely at rest. She NEVER stopped moving.

Video Baby Monitor

Using weighted blankets or sensory-friendly pajamas can provide comfort and promote relaxation, making it easier for children to fall asleep. We have seen positive changes by wearing a heavier blanket and comfy pajamas. Some little kid clothes are not ideal for sleeping. Little girl clothes seem to have so many embellishments. Even though it is fun to buy cute clothes, it isn’t worth sacrificing your sleep. In the winter months, it is also beneficial to put a humidifier in your child’s room. Since many children on the spectrum have communication challenges, it is essential to anticipate their needs. Sometimes, the reason for children not sleeping can be resolved with straightforward changes.

Autism Sleep Remedy

The other life-altering change we made was giving Elizabeth a magnesium supplement at night. We checked with her developmental pediatrician first and have used it ever since. We saw results literally the first night. (Note: You should always check with your physician before taking any new supplements)

Previously, we were up until 3 am before she started taking magnesium, which resulted in everyone being exhausted and missing school and work. She has slept through the night every night for the last six months! She stopped waking up in the middle of the night and no longer thrashing around. Our sweet little girl is FINALLY getting the rest she needs and deserves.

Calm Kids Magnesium Supplement Drink Mix

Consistency Is Key!

Coping with sleep challenges as an autism parent requires patience and persistence. Incorporating some of these tips may create a supportive sleep environment for the whole family. Remember, improving sleep habits takes time and experimentation, but the benefits of restful nights are well worth the effort.

This blog post may contain affiliate links. If you click on these links and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products or services that I use and believe will add value to my readers. Your support helps keep this blog running, and I appreciate your trust in my recommendations. Please note that I am not responsible for the content, privacy practices, or services of external sites linked within the blog post.

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