Most studies indicate that between 40 to 80% of children with autism have sleep disorders. This means that an autistic child might have problems falling asleep, waking too early, or wake periodically in the middle of the night. As a parent, you are aware of these issues as well as the fact that no one really knows why autistic children have trouble sleeping.
What researchers know is that it can seriously hamper your child’s health…as well as your own. On average, a 3- to 6-year-old child needs approximately 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Many children with autism do not get the requisite hours of sleep, whether it’s due to an inability to read social cues (such as their siblings getting ready for bed); or may it’s because children with autism have a different internal clock.
Perhaps it has to do with a deficiency in melatonin production within the body due to low serotonin levels—there are currently a number of studies researching how melatonin affects the sleep patterns of children with autism. To date, the studies are encouraging but hardly all encompassing. Other reasons for an inability to fall asleep (or stay asleep) may relate to an autistic child’s sensitivity to outside stimuli or even a child’s reaction to that stimuli resulting in anxiety.
How, then, can you combat these forces which at times seem overwhelming? As any parent with an autistic child well knows, there are no easy answers. While autistic children might have similar characteristics and behaviors, and respond similarly in like situations, there is no one cure-all. However, there are quite a few techniques that might be able to help.
Some children crave the touch of a human being. It might be worth your while to take the time to give your child a massage, beginning with the legs and arms and moving on from there.
As mentioned before, some children with autism go to sleep more easily if they take melatonin shortly before bedtime. Consider starting off with 1 mg and working your way up. Of course, consult with your child’s doctor before giving your child any new over-the-counter medications.
Many children with autism need some sort of stimulation to help them negate unwanted outside stimuli. To this end, you might try getting a therapy ball and bouncing him or her, or try gently rocking back and forth.
Playing soothing music (perhaps Mozart or classical guitar) softly in the background might also help your child to go to sleep and stay asleep.
As you know, there is almost never just one panacea. More than likely you will have to do two or more of these and other little tricks to get your child to sleep well and stay asleep. Also, it is very likely that none of these tips will work immediately. You might find that you need to do each, some or all of the tips given to you over the course of 10 to 14 days to start to see the effect. Make sure that you give these tips the appropriate time needed to work for you and your autistic child.