Kids with autism often have problems falling asleep and may wake often during the night. Once their sleep is disturbed, they can stay awake for long periods of time before falling back to sleep. An article from Exceptional Parent magazine, published on the WebMD website, reports that 40 to 80 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders have problems related to sleep. Chronic sleep problems can affect an autistic child’s behavior, making existing challenges more stressful.
Autistic children often have medical conditions that interfere with their sleep. Gastroesophageal reflux, epileptic seizures or sleep apnea, conditions that commonly coexist with autism, can cause frequent disruptions in sleep. Anxiety and depression also affect sleep by keeping the body alert and awake. Antidepressants, stimulant drugs and other medications your child takes to treat coexisting medical problems can make your child more alert so that it’s hard for him to fall asleep. Lack of sleep can lead to inattentiveness, learning problems, hyperactivity and other behavior problems, points out Dr.Carin Lamm, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorder Center at Columbia University Medical Center, in an article for Autism Speaks.
Establishing a regular bedtime routine can help an autistic child develop better sleep patterns. Keep the same schedule every day for putting your child to bed and waking her in the morning. A predictable routine in the form of a visual schedule lets your child know what to expect each evening before bed. Relaxing activities such as reading, listening to soft music and coloring or drawing for about a half hour before bedtime can help her unwind from the day’s activities and prepare her body for sleep. Watching television, playing electronic games or being on the computer before it’s time to go to bed are stimulating activities that can make it harder for her to fall asleep.
While sensory issues make it more difficult for an autistic child to sleep, being chronically fatigued makes it harder to deal with sensory problems. Providing relaxed sleep surroundings can help improve the quality of your child’s sleep. You may have to take additional steps to accommodate a child with sensory issues that make him especially sensitive to noises, light, darkness, smells, room temperature and textures. Dim nightlights, a white noise machine, weighted blankets and bed linens and nightclothes washed in unscented laundry detergent can help reduce disturbing environmental stimuli that disturb your child’s sleep.
When medication is needed to treat an autistic child’s insomnia, doctors often recommend the dietary supplement melatonin to promote sleep. Although melatonin does not have the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, several small studies related to its use in children with autism spectrum disorders show few adverse effects and improved sleep, reports the Interdisciplinary Council on Developmental and Learning Disorders. Melatonin has a sedating effect and is usually given to a child 30 minutes before bedtime. Although it is available without a prescription, you should give the supplement only under the direction of your child’s pediatrician. Children with coexisting epilepsy or bipolar disorder who continue to have sleep problems sometimes benefit from mood-stabilizing anti-epileptic medications because of the sedating effect. Certain antidepressants also promote sleep.