Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Free guide for parents of autistic children who have trouble sleeping

Sprout Therapy have created a free guide for parents of autistic children who struggle to fall and stay asleep at night, providing various methods which could help to improve overall sleep time and quality.

Sleep problems are very common among autistic people, with one study finding that 80% of autistic pre-schoolers live with sleeping difficulties.

Although research is rapidly progressing, Sprout estimate that sleeping therapies for people with autism are likely to be years or even decades away. Because of this, they have created a guide to help autistic children get a better night’s sleep.

Always speak to your doctor first

Before trialling the following techniques, the guide suggests visiting your child’s doctor. This is because sleep problems are often tied to stimulating medications or underlying health conditions. A doctor should therefore investigate these issues before you try anything else. 

If a doctor is unable to help, Sprout suggest trying Melatonin – a natural substance associated with deeper sleep. However, before your child starts taking Melatonin, you should talk to your doctor about dosing, side effects (feeling groggy the next morning), and any safety concerns.

Secondly, the guide suggests adapting your child’s bedtime routine. This includes staying away from screens before bed and instead trying out some soothing activities such as taking a warm bath; listening to quiet, relaxing music; or some gentle reading with a suitable book. This routine should be kept relatively short – around 20 minutes should be long enough to prepare the mind for rest.

Because many autistic people crave consistent routines, a sleep schedule could be a good way to prepare your child for a good night’s sleep. Sprout say that parents should choose a time where your child is typically sleepy, but not overtired, and stick to it. Parents should then mention bedtime a few minutes before it arrives using a cue, like a clock or a picture, and continue using that prompt every evening.

Therapists can boost verbal skills and teach relaxation techniques

Diet can also affect quality of sleep and therefore should be considered if your child is experiencing sleeping difficulties. Experts say avoiding drinks with caffeine, foods with a high fat content, and large evening meals and drinks two to three hours before bed could improve sleep time and quality. 

Preparing your child’s bedroom for sleep can also help them to drift off easily and stay asleep for longer. To do this, experts recommend blocking out any form of light with blackout blinds or dark curtains, using noise dampeners (such as rugs or thick carpets), adding soothing smells (such as oils), and removing any distractions such as bright posters, paintings or photographs.

If all else fails, Sprout suggest talking to an autism therapy specialist. Therapy can aid better sleep as it opens up a deeper understanding of the disorder and can boost verbal skills, allowing your child to explain what is needed to ease the path to sleep. Therapists can also teach relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, to make sleep come more naturally. 

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