Autism and Bedtime: How to Get A Good Night’s Sleep

"Awareness simply means to acknowledge that Autism exists; Acceptance is to acknowledge its value."

Sleep deprivation is nothing to mess around with! As any parent with a child with Autism probably knows, sleeping issues are not only common with Autism, they are often an unavoidable part of it. Parents seeking solutions are willing to try anything – and I mean anything – to get their little one to bed on time and to sleep through the night. I’ve heard many clients over the years who’ve tried everything from sleeping in the child’s bed to letting the child wander into their room in the middle of the night to sleep. These strategies may work in the short-term but are reinforcing all the wrong behaviors and causing further sleep issues. Sleep disturbances not only wreak havoc on staying awake throughout the day, they can create bad moods, increase maladaptive behaviors, and increase the risk for health issues down the road.

There are several types of sleep disorders associated with Autism. Knowing which one (or ones) that your child may have is important to a proper sleep behavior plan. Some common sleeping issues include:

  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Trouble staying asleep
  • Trouble getting back to sleep

Rule Out a Medical Condition. The first thing to do when considering a sleep behavior plan for your little one is to rule out a possible underlying medical condition. Some kids have a medical condition that makes sleeping difficult or even scary. Speak to your child’s pediatrician and once you’ve been told your child’s health is fine, then it’s time to get your behavior plan going!

Have a Nighttime Schedule. This is the most important part of creating a conducive sleeping pattern and sticking to it. The schedule should include everything that you and your child typically do each night, starting with dinner, chores, bath-time, etc. Be as creative as you want on the schedule, however, it is recommended to keep it to 6-8 tasks for convenience and structure.

Try a Little Essential Oil. I have used it for years with my own kids to help promote sleep. I diffuse a few drops of lavender essential oil in a cool air humidifier (great for those sticky summer nights) and let the aroma move through the air. Lavender has a therapeutic, calming effect on the body and is great for promoting a sound night of sleep.

The Sleep Room Checklist. The following list can be used to help promote a restful night’s sleep, as well as a calming room for your little one.

  • Use a cool/pastel color themed room (seafoam green, light blue, soft yellows, beiges, etc).
  • Stuff the room with oversized pillows in different shapes, sizes, weights, textures and soothing colors.
  • Try a nightlight that gives off a soft glow and ditch the bright overhead lights.
  • Invest in a ceiling fan, or large sturdy wall fan. The white noise of the fan helps promote sleep.
  • Calming plush toys, music, essential oils.
  • Try a warm bath with a capful of calming bubble bath for kids.
  • Limit pictures, paintings or artwork on the wall as this can be stimulating.
  • A relaxing foot or back massage as you tuck your little one in for the night.

What Not to Do at Bedtime: At the same time a sleeping schedule and calming environment are being added to your child’s nighttime routine, it’s equally important to remove and/or eliminate the following:

  • Ditch the electronics at least 2 hours before bed and stick to the nighttime schedule. Electronics have a stimulatory effect (anyone who’s still up at 1am on their iPad knows this!)
  • Discontinue fluids 60-90 minutes before bedtime to help prevent accidents or trips to the bathroom
  • Avoid loud television, music, or electronics from other rooms that may disturb or stimulate your child
  • Limit sugars and sweets after dinner and opt for fruit, grains or warm milk based on your child’s dietary needs from his/her pediatrician
  • Keep pets out of your child’s room to prevent over-stimulation

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Miano, S., Giannotti, F., & Cortesi, F. (2016). Sleep disorders and autism spectrum disorder, May, 2016. Psychiatric Symptoms and Comorbidities in Autism Spectrum Disorder, pp. 111-128.

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