Autism And Sleep In Children: Finding The Root Cause

What is it about Autism in children that causes a disrupted sleep routine?

Lauren Wilkinson from Lullaby Bear Sleep Support joins us for this article to share how finding the root cause can help.

Lauren is a mum to two boys (aged 1 and 3) and when the two of them struggled with sleep, she was inspired to become a baby, child and autism sleep coach for children aged 0-10 years. She work with families 1:1 to create bespoke sleep plans to help them achieve their sleep goals. And she joins us today to help share her expertise, sharing the importance of finding the root cause for why a child with autism may be struggling to sleep.

Thanks Lauren for your help!


Autism And Sleep In Children: What Are Some Of the Common Signs?

Autism and sleep challenges can often come hand in hand. This is not to say that if your child has Autism, that they are going to have sleep troubles, but there can be a common link. 

Sleep challenges that are regularly seen in children with Autism include but are not limited to:

  • Frequent night wakings
  • Struggling to switch off for bedtime
  • Late bedtimes
  • Early wake ups 
  • Prolonged night wakes. 

Sleep challenges for any family can have a huge impact on not just the child but the other family members too. 

When it comes to helping resolve these sleep challenges, parents will frequently turn to their friends and family or Google. The advice given is very well meaning but it doesn’t always work. Traditional sleep support methods are on the whole not suited to children with Autism. We need to find the root cause for the sleep disruption which involves looking at their day as a whole. Let’s look at the different areas that can cause sleep problems for children with Autism. 

autism and sleep in children - image shows a child sleeping in their bed.

Melatonin

Firstly, I would just like to just briefly cover a topic that I am frequently asked about and that is melatonin. The hormone melatonin is also known as the “darkness hormone”. This is because it aids us in falling and staying asleep. 

Children with Autism have been found to have lower levels of melatonin so they can find switching off in the evening difficult. A medical professional can prescribe a melatonin supplement, but it is important to note that this is just one part of helping your child with their sleep. 

You can explore further causes of why your child is having disrupted nights sleep, for instance they may be struggling to also wind down in the evening if they are experiencing anxiety or if their sensory needs are not being met in the day. Both of these areas will also be explored in this article.

Bedtime Routine

It is important for all children to have a consistent bedtime routine in place no matter who is doing bedtime. Constant changes to the routine can make it difficult for them to know when it is bedtime and also what is expected of them. It can also contribute to anxiety at bedtime, as they are unsure of what is going to happen next. 

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A bedtime routine does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as bath, pjs, drink/milk, teeth, story and then bed. It is important to note that if you find certain activities, like bath time, too over stimulating for your child, you may want to consider moving bathtime to another time of the day. 

Something that can really help keep you and your child on track at bedtime is having a visual bedtime routine set up. You can make cards with your child to support this i.e. cartoon images of different parts of the bedtime routine, or your child may prefer to have actual pictures of their bed, toothbrush etc. It is best to keep it as simple as you can, so you may only have 4-6 cards. When it comes to introducing the visual routine, model using it yourself and reduce the demand on them by just casually sliding the card to them and see how they react before talking through the next step. It will take time for them to get used to the visual aids but consistency is key.

autism and sleep in children - image shows a father telling their son a bedtime story.

 Meeting their Sensory Needs

It is important to consider whether your child’s sensory needs are being met in the day as this can have a huge impact on their sleep. If they are at school or nursery, are they being given chances to self regulate during the day? Before bedtime, are they being over-stimulated by certain activities? It is important to look at the day as a whole. You could start a log to note if there are any patterns to activities during the day and their sleep being impacted.

Sleep Environment 

When it comes to your child’s sleep environment there are multiple things that can cause sensory triggers which can make falling and staying asleep very difficult for your child. 

Here is a a list of the areas you can explore when working on your child’s sleep:

  • Noises: Are there any noises in your child’s room that could be triggering them? For instance a buzzing noise from an appliance? Are you playing white noise? White noise can be too over stimulating for your child. A nice alternative is using a fan or a meditation track. 
  • Smells: Is the smell of dinner trapped in the bedroom? Are you using a strong smelling laundry detergent?
  • Clothing and bedding: Are there buttons or labels on their clothes that could feel uncomfortable? Consider the material of their pjs and bedding. They may feel scratchy or too tight for your child. 
  • Lights: Are there any lights on the appliances in the room? Is there a lot of light being let in through the curtains/door?
Autism and sleep in children- image shows a children's bedroom

Anxiety

One of the most common causes of bedtime disruption for children with Autism is anxiety. Anxiety could be caused by events during the day, not having enough time to self regulate and by the bedtime routine itself. This is why it is very important to consider all the areas that have been outlined already as just by implementing a visual routine or removing a sensory trigger from the room can reduce their anxiety greatly. 

Expressing emotions can be incredibly difficult for a child with Autism. When working on expressing emotions it is best to start off with just 2 emotions; happy and sad and then as they grow more confident you can add in more complex emotions such as worried, scared and angry. You can introduce visual aid cards so they can show you their emotions without verbally having to tell you. Once again, like with the bedtime routine visual aids it is good to model using the emotion cards yourself.  

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Other uses for Visual Aids

Visual aids have many uses and can be adapted to the needs of every child. They are a great way to help build your child’s confidence and their independence. As spoken about previously they are very helpful when it comes to the bedtime routine but you can also use them for other times of the day, for instance the morning routine or getting ready for school. 

Another great visual aid is a “Now and Next” board. This is perfect if your child struggles with transitioning between activities. These could be used alongside a visual timer. 

For older children, a “To Do” board can be very effective at helping them feel a sense of achievement when it comes to completing those everyday jobs like homework and tidying their room. It helps them visually see what needs to be done and they can tick it off as they go along. 

Starting your own visual boards for your child can feel overwhelming at the start. But keep it simple and be led by them on the images. You can also find many templates online. 

As you can see there are a lot of different areas to look at when it comes to sleep and Autism. You may be thinking, where do I start? Take it one step at a time and remember any change you make will take time for your child to adjust to and for you to see an impact. Patience and consistency are key but remember to celebrate every step of progress on the journey.

Finding Support For Your Children – Autism And Sleep

If you are looking for Autism support in your family, we recommend consulting your GP or contacting an organisation who specialises in the subject. The NHS has a list of recommendations that could help.

Thanks so much to Lauren Wilkinson for offering her advice on the subject! It really is useful to find out more about this subject from an expert.

Check out Lullaby Bear Sleep Support, Certified Baby, Child and Autism Sleep Coach (0-10 years old) through her website or follow her on Instagram.

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If you found this post useful, you may also like:

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This blog was written by a guest author. That means it was either created by an industry expert, medical professional, or someone from within the parenting community. You will be able to find out more information about them within the blog. Thank you so much for popping in to give it your support!

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