As I write this, my little Jason is tucked and sound asleep in bed, but that wasn’t the case three months ago. We have come a long way, but I guess that’s the struggle for every other parent with a child with autism.

As a parent, a significant battle is how you can help your kid to sleep better. Anything short of this would leave you feeling inadequate; like it did to me. I kept wondering, “Why does it have to be like this?” My little Jason was always exhausted, and I was overly stressed.

Why do autistic children experience sleep difficulties?

The first thing I did like every other worried parent was to research. I found out that about 40 to 80 percent of autistic kids have trouble sleeping. The problems include waking up frequently in the middle of the night, daytime sleepiness, erratic sleep patterns, and sleeping for short periods.

Here are the potential causes I discovered:

– Unable to perceive social cues – Most fundamentals of sleep hygiene are based upon the body’s natural sleep cycle. Observable changes such as reading bedtime stories, switching off the lights and going upstairs are subconscious signals that it’s time to sleep. However, autistic children have difficulties interpreting external signals.

– Irregular cardiac rhythms – The cardiac flow is our bodies’ natural sleep cycle. Kids with sensory processing challenges, such as those with autism, may not get sleepy when it’s night time.

– Physical discomfort – kids who suffer from constipation or reflux but are unable to express their medical needs may struggle to find sleep, especially if they don’t have a caregiver.

– Hypersensitive sensory system – A sensory alert system makes it possible for one to perceive changes in the surroundings effectively. Squeaky doors, tight leaks, airflow and other household stimuli may pose a challenge.

– Insufficient melatonin production – If the body is unable to make melatonin, which is a hormone that stimulates sleep, the child might have difficulty sleeping.

Here’s what I did to help Jason sleep better.

1.    I kept a sleep diary

Keeping a sleep diary enabled me to keep track of Jason’s sleeping patterns. I also identified the factors that may have inhibited his ability to sleep. I would show the diary to his pediatrician and doctor, and they advised me on the steps to take. That way, I had an easy time figuring out what changes to make to help my son to sleep for a more extended period than he was.

2.    I harnessed the benefits of weighted blankets

When I read all the scientific studies that support the use of weighted blankets, especially on autistic children, I knew it would benefit Jason, and I bought it right away. I liked the idea that I didn’t always have to lie with him because the blanket kept him warm. It also increased pressure and made Jason feel like I was lying next to him and holding him. 

3.    I made the bedroom comfortable

When I learned that autistic children like my Jason had sensory differences, I knew that the bedroom had to be comfortable enough for him to sleep. I blocked out the light using blackout blinds and dark curtains. I also bought headphones for my boy so that he could block out all noises. I removed labels from nightclothes and bedding. I also removed all toys from his room to get rid of distractions.

4.    I changed his diet and sought natural remedies

By keeping the food diary, I noted the foods that gave Jason stomach upset and consequently made it difficult for him to rest. I cut off these foodstuffs from his diet and introduced the ones that the dietician advised me to. I limited his caffeine drinks and stopped feeding him on sugary foods close to bedtime. I asked my doctor to prescribe some natural remedies that he thought would improve Jason’s sleep patterns, which he gladly did.

5.    I set up a routine

Before I put my child on a sleep routine, I used to find this cliché and didn’t think it would amount to much. It was not until my doctor advised me to try setting a schedule that I did. She informed me that if an autistic child doesn’t feel right, they won’t sleep. I ensured that the plan was predictable, reliable, and within my control.

I am happy that Jason can now sleep better. Since his sleeping patterns improved, I get enough rest, and I am rarely stressed. I hope other parents can find the kind of relief I found.  

Story Annabelle Short