Autism Spectrum Disorder has been known to disrupt sleep in nearly 75% of children. I would personally wager that number is higher, as I haven’t met too many families that claim their child has it easy in the sleep department. The problem with this, is these are children, whom we have expectations of during the day. We want them to learn and grow, and to modify their behavior just like any other kiddo. Fat chance of much of this happening, at least to your liking, if your child is constantly running on empty. And, if you could for just a moment, try to consider that this little one probably wants to sleep, but simply cannot. When I work with these families, I am always sympathetic, but also optimistic. I know almost with certainty we can make some strides and they should expect some improvements, but I also know the journey is often long.
Many children on the spectrum have a challenging time winding down for the evening and are plagued by frequent night wake-ups. But, guess what? This is also going on in many non-ASD households near and far. The difference is that children with Autism most likely have more factors keeping them up or prohibiting them from falling back asleep. Once a child stirs from a sleep cycle (every 90+ minutes), they have two options. Either stretch, yawn, and roll over to return to sleep. Or, fully wake. It goes one of two ways, all night long. What tends to happen, is a child starts by stirring, then becomes more and more awake or stimulated, reaching the point of really disrupting sleep further. Once a child is excited, curious, and alert, it is then nearly impossible for them to simply shut down and return to slumber. I find that many children with ASD wake at first without a parent’s knowledge, but before long, they are humming, yelling, or even running about the room. Cue further stimulation. Once children reach this point, their internal systems become a bit confused. Hormones aren’t quite sure how to respond: is it time to sleep, or is it time to go for a run? By the time a parent intervenes, it is often too late, to no fault of their own. Don’t worry, I have something practical that can help.
I have a secret weapon for children with ASD, and at first glance, it may seem so basic: a night light. Thankfully, the sleep market is constantly evolving and continues to merge with technology. I don’t typically like the marriage of those two fields, but in this case, they’ve hit a home run. I suggest to families to try an innovative night light to help improve sound sleep. There are several options that fit the bill, and I will discuss a few here so you can check them out for yourself. One is this owl; a recent Indiegogo favorite. This little guy helps your child distinguish whether it is time to wake or time to sleep through color coding. The owl is set to one color for night sleep and then changes to the second color at an appropriate time to wake. Why is this important, and how can it help? This isn’t the end all, be all to your child’s sleep issues, but it helps set him up for success with at least understanding how he should be responding to a wake-up. Instead of wondering with excitement whether it is time to start his day, the color of the owl will signify that it is time to return back to sleep.
Additionally, another product I love is the Magic Light Smart Bulb. This is a similar concept to the owl mentioned above. It syncs to your Smart Phone (how cool is that?) and you determine the colors and also the time to make the switch! You can use the bulb for other routines in your child’s day, such as nap time, school work, or other consistent routines. I recommend a dim red for periods of sleep, as it won’t be too intrusive and this color is one of the few colors that actually promote sleep! If you haven’t figured it out by now, both of these lights provide teachable moments for you as a parent. Your child will likely still wake the same as usual for the first few nights. It is going to be up to you, to show your child what this light means. I would calmly approach your child as soon as you notice the wake-up, and explain that the color of the light does not mean it’s time for play, or talk, and instead he should try to return to sleep until the light turns green (I always love setting the color to green for the morning wake-ups, to indicate go-time)! Be sure, when your child does have his first (and all) successes to reward him with high praise for his achievement. You may have to start small and adjust your goal over time. For instance, if you child typically wakes for the day at 4:30 am, I would not set the light to change at 6:30 am, even though that is a perfectly acceptable long-term goal. If you notice your child is an early riser (like clockwork), I would set your color to change slightly above their usual wake time (in this example, I would start with 4:45 am, for a consistent 4:30 am riser). Every few days, you can bump your time up by 10 minutes or so.
If your child is unable to handle all of this receptive language that comes with these examples, that is perfectly fine! Pair it with a color-coded chart next to their bed. It could indicate the two colors, with an equals sign, and a picture of what that color means (pic of child sleeping versus pic of child playing). Perhaps you may want to include a reward chart or token system based upon your child’s success! Like everything else, this will take a bit of work. I know that many children have various other issues working against sleep goals, but this is a nice way to help distinguish the behavior piece from the rest. Kids will be kids after all, and I have the same conversations with all the families I work with: ASD, ADHD, SPD, or none of the above! For more details on helping your child get the sleep they deserve (and you), visit Baby Sleep Central.
Amy Douglas is a Certified Sleep Consultant at Baby Sleep Central. Recently named as one of the Best Sleep Consultants in the United States, Douglas works with parents of children from Birth – Age 6. Help your baby, toddler, or child sleep more independently, starting tonight.