Promoting sleep in children with ASD

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 (Cohen, 2014). In addition, sleep difficulties have also been shown to be associated with aggression, non-compliance, & irritability (Cohen, 2014). Generally 50% of parents of children on the spectrum report their child has sleeping difficulty. One in four indicate that it is severe (Durand, 2002). 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

There are a few proven tips to help your child sleep.

1. Check to see if medications are interfering with sleep schedule.

Medication can sometimes impact your child’s sleeping habits. For example children who are also diagnosed with ADHD, may be medicated with stimulants that induce insomnia in some cases. A change of medication or decrease of dosage may be the fix your child needs. Please refer to your pediatrician

2. Incorporate behavioral interventions that promote healthy sleep schedules.

Behavioral interventions from the parental side increases family involvement and gives parents more confidence and competence in intervening. One example of behavior interventions is implementing bedtime hygiene. This may include: 

  • Routine bedtime schedule
  • Enforcing no electronics rule before bed 
  • Setting bedtime closer to when child gets restless

3. Creating a soothing environment can also aid in helping your child get a good night’s rest.

Creating a soothing environment will promote consistent sleep and decrease sleep difficulty. A few examples of how to create a soothing environment include:

  • Aromatherapy
  • Weighted blankets
  • Light therapy
  • Relaxation music

4. Short-term use of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, Melatonin, is also a new tool used in aiding parents help their children sleep.

Melatonin is an over the counter or nonprescription hormonal medication that promotes sleep. The body naturally produces melatonin to induce sleep a couple hours before bedtime due to the 24 hour internal clock (circadian rhythm), but oftentimes the clock has been interrupted and needs repair. Melatonin helps with this by administering the hormone into the stream. It is most commonly used for patients suffering from insomnia. The drug has been thoroughly researched and is proven to be safe for children’s short term use. Please consult a health care provider before administering, as the interaction with other medications can have negative results.