Maintaining optimal sleep is vital for all, but most importantly for children across the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In typical development, sleep is important in impacting children’s growth associated with both emotional and behavioral growth. Therefore, sleep disturbances may severely impact ASD symptoms. Fewer hours of sleep has been shown to correlate with social skill deficit, communication impairments and stricter adherence to non-functional routines. In addition, sleep difficulties have also been shown to be associated with aggression, non-compliance, and irritability. Generally 50% of parents of children on the spectrum report their child has sleeping difficulty. One in four indicate that it is severe. The most common problems parents indicate are:
- Refusing to to go to bed/needing the caregiver to be present to fall asleep
- Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
- Sleeping for short periods of time
- Daytime behavior problems associated with insufficient sleep at night
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Chronic Sleep terrors
When first meeting with your pediatrician, they may suggest a change of medication/dosage decrease, and behavioral therapy (Gavidia, 2020). Medications can oftentimes affect sleep patterns. For example, children that are also diagnosed with ADHD may take stimulants that are known to cause insomnia (Furfaro, 2020), which is why a change of medication dosage may benefit the child.
Sleep problems in children have the potential to impact the entire family dynamic and other members’ sleeping habits as well. Incorporating the family into the new behavioral plan for the child may be beneficial. “Evidence supports the use of behavioral interventions in children with ASD who have sleep problems. For example, training parents to develop appropriate bedtime hygiene for their affected child.” (Tilford, 2015) Sleep hygiene may include consistent bedtimes, implementing a bedtime closer to when the child is restless, and implementing a “no electronics before bed” rule. “The sleep hygiene approach focuses on changing the environment in order to promote regular sleep-wake cycles” (Cohen, 2014) The use of FDA approved melatonin, weighted blankets, and aromatherapy may also positively impact your child’s sleeping habits and aide in creating a positive sleep environment for your child. Since the correlation between lack of sleep and daytime behavioral problems is greater in children across the spectrum, one of the most effective ways to develop a positive sleeping experience for this child is to create appropriate bedtime hygiene!