When we talk about insomnia, we typically focus on adults. But for the 1 in 68 youth with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), insomnia is a way of life. In fact, according to a 2009 study in the Sleep Medicine Reviews, between 50% and 80% of autistic children suffer from some form of sleep disorder. This is a greater portion than is found in both typically developing children and children with non-ASD developmental disorders.
What’s preventing autistic youth from getting to sleep and how can we help them get some much-needed rest? New work by psychiatrists and behavioral experts, as well as insights from parents and autistic individuals, can help these kids turn in for the night.
Spot The Causes
In order to minimize the symptoms of insomnia among those with ASD, the first step is to identify the primary causes – and there are plenty of options to choose from. Gastrointestinal problems are common in this population, while many others experience high anxiety or an elevated heart rate. This can lead to a state of hyperarousal when the individual should be sleeping.
Autistic individuals also seem to share a propensity towards ‘clock gene’ mutations, which alter the body’s day-night cycle. Essentially, the pineal gland doesn’t respond properly to natural light signals. This can result in daytime sleepiness or internally pushed back bedtime until hours later than it should be, a schedule incompatible with day-to-day lives.
Emphasize Sleep Hygiene
Of all the ways to diminish insomnia, the most reliable is something called “sleep hygiene.” Sleep hygiene is fundamentally about establishing a routine, which is ideal for children on the spectrum, but it also integrates other common insomnia-fighting recommendations.
For example, GoodZing’s insomnia-busting tips include avoiding stimulants, using herbal remedies, and reduced screen time in the hours before bed. All of these activities, but particularly eliminating stimulants and reducing screen time, are part of good sleep hygiene.
Anyone with an autistic child is likely to spot some problems with the sleep hygiene proposal immediately. First, a significant proportion of those on the autism spectrum also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is treated with stimulants. Parents should carefully monitor what time such medications are given to reduce their impact on sleep, and consider reducing the dosage as much as possible in consultation with a doctor.
The second obvious problem has to do with screen time. Whether your child uses a device to communicate or simply prefers videos and computer activities to other games or toys, taking away devices can cause a meltdown – and that defeats the purpose when it comes to getting your child to sleep. To mitigate the effects of blue light, which can keep the body alert, look for blue shift settings on tablets and computers and download programs that include calming sounds, images, or meditations.
Establisher Sensory-Friendly Space
Sensory processing issues are part and parcel with ASD, and uncomfortable pajamas or blankets can leave kids tossing and turning. By creating a sensory-friendly environment for sleep, though, parents can diminish this issue and help children settle their bodies down for sleep.
One way to reduce hyperarousal and create a calm sensory environment is by using a white noise machine. White noise blocks out distractions and stimuli such as cars outside, people walking around the house, or a TV in another room. Consider getting a machine with multiple sound options and test them out during the day to see what your child prefers.
Another popular sensory aid embraced by the autistic community is the weighted blanket. Weighted blankets provide deep proprioceptive input, which can help children better sense where their bodies are in space and offer a feeling of security. Additionally, many find the sensation of a sheet or other light blanket unsettling because it moves against the skin too much, while a weighted blanket holds the body in place.
Stick To The Schedule
Most adults can maintain good sleep hygiene without a strict routine, but for autistic youth scheduling is everything. Create a visual routine depicting the evening schedule. This will help your child understand the steps and predict what is coming next. Avoiding surprises is important to reducing hyperarousal and creating a smooth transition into bedtime.
Sleep shouldn’t have to be such a fraught issue, but many parents of autistic children find it to be a key source of stress. It’s time to stop the endless battles and make your nights restful again. While autistic individuals may face a lifelong struggle with sleep, creating healthy sleep habits in childhood can provide benefits that last well into adulthood.