How to help your child with autism get a good night’s sleep

How to help your child with autism get a good night’s sleep

According to WebMD, significant sleep problems occur in 40 – 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder. If you are a parent reading this right now, you are probably a card-carrying member of the sleep-deprived-parents-of-an-autistic-child club. Guess what? I am a long-time member, too.

I fulfilled my qualifications for a lifetime as a member of the club on a cross-country train trip from Dearborn, Michigan to Los Angeles, Calif. My husband, Ken, and I, had this not-so-bright idea, shortly after Scott was diagnosed with autism at the age of 3 ½, that a train trip would be stimulating and fun for Scott. NOT!! He screamed from Dearborn to Chicago, then continued the wailing from Chicago all the way to Los Angeles. We were in a deluxe bedroom in the lower level, somewhat isolated from the fellow passengers, thankfully, but I am sorry to admit that I fantasized about what would happen to me if I opened the window of our bedroom and threw him out.

The nightmare continued in our hotel in Las Vegas (a college buddy of my husbands lived near there), where we were not so nicely informed by hotel management, after four hours of his constant screaming, at 3:00 a.m., that it was time to pack our bags and leave the hotel. My husband, at that point, took him out to our rental car and drove him, still screaming, until the sun came up, at which time he FINALLY fell asleep!

We tried every trick in the book, he lived, and we all survived with sanity somewhat intact into his adulthood. Through all of my experimentation, I finally found some ideas that actually work!

The road to a good nights sleep starts with parental planning and adherence to a schedule. Your autistic child will actually help you with this, because they love schedules! The key is for you to take charge of the process, and stick with it!

1.  Structure your child’s day

Structuring your child’s day will help them to sleep better at night. An active day will make them more tired. It is very important to limit their computer and television time. Monitor the shows they watch (no violence!), put filters on the computer if necessary, set a timer, and ENFORCE it! Don’t let them just sit around if they are not very active. Get them outdoors, if at all possible. Go for a walk, head to the park, go bikeriding, shoot some baskets, play catch… get the idea. An active child always sleeps better at night, and is healthier. You will sleep better, too, if you get more exercise. Our son, Scott, sleeps much better now than when he was younger because he is a distance runner, and when nighttime comes, he is TIRED!

2.  Limit Exercise 1-2 Hours Before Bedtime

An important point about exercise – do not let your child engage in strenuous exercise within a few hours before bedtime. The adrenaline which is released during strenuous exercise will make it difficult to sleep.

3.  Restrict Television, Video Games or Cell Phone Usage 1.5 Hours Before Bedtime

No television, video games, or cell phone use 1 ½ hours before bedtime. This is a rule that needs to be strictly enforced. You will probably get some temper tantrums on this one, but you need to be steadfast. Your child will test you, but it is important that you win. If you are firm and unyielding, they will eventually get the message. If you have a television, computer, or any other electronics in your child’s room, take them out. It needs to be very clear to them, and anyone else in the family, that bedrooms are for sleeping, reading, and quiet time. Anything else is too stimulating.

4.  Don’t Give Your Child Foods With Sugar or Caffeine After 7 p.m.

Do not give your child any foods with sugar or caffeine after 7:00 p.m. They will cause great difficulty with sleeping. (This rule applies to adults, too! If I drink a cup of black tea or eat chocolate or any sugary desserts before bedtime, I am staring at the walls counting sheep all night long)

If your child is hungry at bedtime, there are several excellent snack options that you can give them that contain a substance called tryptophan. You have probably heard your mother or grandmother talk about drinking hot milk at bedtime. There is a good reason for that. Milk contains tryptophan, which is known to be a calming agent. Heating the milk releases the tryptophan, and helps with sleep.

You don’t necessarily have to follow your Mom’s advice, but here are some snacks which contain tryptophan: cashews, turkey, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and yogurt. Our son, Scott’s, favorite is cashews.

5.  Bedtime Ideas
When it is time for bed, here are some proven suggestions for your nightly routine:

Make bath time a relaxing time. Add a few drops of relaxing aromatherapy oils to the bath water, and/or light a candle if you like. According to WebMD, lemon balm and lavender oil are excellent for relaxation. In addition, they have the added benefit of making your bathroom smell great! When Scott was younger, we always used the oils with great success. Now that he is older, he showers on his own. The whole family knows when he is relaxed and all is well, because he sings his favorite songs in the shower at the top of his lungs. My problem now is getting him out of the shower. My husband, Ken, has a unique solution for THAT problem – he turns off the hot water heater. That solves it in a hurry.

Use bath time to calm your child’s senses. The stimulation of the day often causes sensory overload, which can be helped by using a wonderful tool called a sensory therapy brush. These are very inexpensive, small, hand-held brushes recommended by sensory integration therapists that you use on your child’s back, stomach, and arms. Most children with autism have something called tactile defensiveness, which means that touch is painful for them. Sensory therapy brushes are used to train their senses to accept touch more readily. They calm the nerves which control their senses. I highly recommend them for use in the bathtub because of their calming properties. Our son, Scott, actually would ask us to brush him if he felt he needed it. You should have several of these little wonders. Mom, carry it in your purse. Keep one in the bathroom, and another one in your child’s bedroom. .

Make sure that your home is relatively cool. Around 70 degrees is best. Also, keep your child’s room dark for sleeping. If your room is too bright for your child to easily sleep, consider sun-blocking drapes, available at most stores.

Make bed time into story time. Lay down with your child, and tell them a non-stimulating, fun story. If they are non-verbal, that doesn’t matter. Even though they can’t respond to you with words, they are understanding more than you know. Typically, the receptive (understanding) speech of an autistic child is much better than their expressive (spoken) speech. You can read them a book, or tell a story that you make up yourself. If they are able to articulate their desires, and tell you that they want to hear the same story over and over again, don’t sweat it. Repetitiveness is part of the journey with all kids! My youngest son asked for the “Tacky the Penguin” story until I was so sick of it that I thought I couldn’t bear another telling. Story time can be your special time together, and will help both language and reading skills to emerge. Reading to your child is one of the best things you can do for their overall development. Make it fun, relaxing, and educational. The biggest problem I frequently had with reading to Scott at bed time was that I frequently fell asleep, too.

Try to end each day in a loving, positive way. Even if you are completely exhausted and at your wits end with your child, find something positive to say about them. Did they do a better job than they usually do following your directions that day? Did they say a clear, new word that you never heard before? Did they give you better eye contact than usual? There is always something good that you can say, if you think hard. Even if your child is non-verbal, a hug and a positive word will be understood, and could both relieve a little of their anxiety (which robs autistic children of sleep) and make you feel better about this long, sometimes very difficult journey of life with autism.

Consider using a weighted blanket.  If your child still has problems falling asleep, there is a wonderful invention, very helpful for those with autism and related sensory difficulties, called a weighted blanket. For some reason, the pressure of a weighted blanket has a calming effect on the central nervous system. There are many children with autism whose parents have tried everything, and were at their wits end. Then, they found the weighted blanket and it made a significant difference in their child’s life. Many adults, who like to sleep with heavy blankets, also get a better nights sleep with a weighted blanket. For more information about weighted blankets, visit .

I hope that these suggestions will help consistently send your child into dreamland, and that you, too, will finally get the rest you so desperately need!


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