Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have a significantly higher rate of sleep problems compared to typically developing children. These issues include trouble falling asleep, waking throughout the night, restlessness and discomfort while sleeping, and waking too early.
Doctors aren’t sure why sleep issues are more common for kids with autism. Some theories point to biological brain differences, sensitivity to stimuli, higher rate of anxiety and related disorders, and difficulty following cues associated with sleep.
Why sleep is so important
Good sleep is as essential to keeping children healthy as are nutrition and exercise. It’s also crucial to a happy and well-functioning family life. Lack of sleep is not only bad for development and functioning, it can lead to more problem behaviors. Although correcting sleep issues can be difficult, there are many steps you can take to improve your child’s sleep patterns.
Start by learning the correct amount of sleep your child needs according to her age. If your child is having issues reaching the recommended amount at first, that’s OK. You’ll know what you need to work toward.
Sleep hygiene and autism
Sleep hygiene is a skill that you can teach, just like hand hygiene and personal hygiene. It consists of habits and practices that help your child sleep well on a regular basis.
This starts with establishing a place that’s favorable for good sleep. Make sure that your child’s sleep space can become dark, even when the sun is still out. However, a nightlight may be used if your child is scared of the dark.
The sleep space for kids with autism should not have a computer, a tablet or other screens, which can be distracting and emit lights that have a negative effect on sleep. Certain fabrics and textures can be uncomfortable for some kids with autism. Be sure that your child’s bedding and pajamas don’t irritate her. Since children with autism can have more difficulties blocking outside stimuli, it’s important to help eliminate as much noise, light and other distractions as possible.
Start a sleep routine
The next step of sleep hygiene is developing a consistent bedtime routine. It’s important that you stick to the routine every night, including during weekends, holidays and vacations. If your child uses a social story or picture schedule, incorporate the bedtime routine into those.
The following are suggestions for a healthy bedtime routine that are helpful to good sleep hygiene:
- Make sure you child is tired at bedtime. Allow your child to get ample amounts of physical exercise and time outside in the sunshine during the day.
- Make sure you child is full at bedtime. A healthy and filling dinner will eliminate the possibility of your child waking from hunger.
- Limit screens at least one hour before bedtime. Computers and other screens can be overstimulating and distracting for children.
- Have your child take a warm bath or shower. Warm water is relaxing, and being clean at bedtime can help your child fall asleep.
- Read or have a quiet conversation with your child in her bed. Reading books, singing a favorite song or having a comforting conversation can help ease your child into relaxation.
- Use a sound machine or soft music to block disruptive sounds. Some children benefit from using a white noise machine or listening to lullabies to fall asleep and help drown out sounds that might wake them.
If your child still has trouble getting to sleep or sleeping through the night, speak with a healthcare professional to rule out any underlying medical issues.
Visit choa.org/sleep for more information about physicians, treatments options and ways to work on sleep hygiene.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of these articles may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.