Around 80% of autistic people with autism have bad sleep issues. If your child is one of them, chances are you’re not getting enough sleep either. I know from experience just how big of an impact sleep deprivation can have on our ability to function at an optimal level. I have learned many things along my parenting journey that may just help you and your child get that restful night of sleep you need. Because this is such a deep and intensive topic, I will be covering this in a two-part series. This is part 1 which explores three main underlying causes of sleep disturbances. In Part 2, we discuss strategies to get good sleep!
Underlying medical issues
There are a number of medical conditions that are relatively common among people on the autism spectrum that can contribute to sleep disturbances. For example, gastrointestinal problems such as constipation and acid reflux can lead to pain and discomfort that makes it difficult to fall and/or stay asleep. Seizure activity, iron deficiency, sleep apnea, and food sensitivities are among the other medical factors that can contribute to a lack of sleep.
If your child is suffering from a chronic lack of sleep, it may be helpful to take note of any other symptoms you’re seeing and then to share your observations with your child’s doctor. This is particularly important if your child is not able to clearly communicate what they may be feeling in their body.
Medications and Supplements
If your child takes medications or over-the-counter supplements, discuss with their doctor whether or not any of these could interfere with sleep. Since some medications and supplements can be excitatory and some can be calming, sometimes simply changing the time of day you’re giving them can make a big difference. It is always important to discuss any changes to your child’s medication routine with your doctor first, however, since some medications are given at certain times of day for specific reasons.
Since some medications and supplements can be excitatory and some can be calming, sometimes simply changing the time of day you’re giving them can make a big difference.
In addition to medications your child may already be taking, you may also want to consider adding something specifically for the purpose of helping with sleep. This could be either a medication or a supplement, such as magnesium or melatonin.
Here is a very interesting study from 2018 about the potential benefits of using melatonin for children with autism spectrum disorder. It highlights the exciting possibility for melatonin use to positively affect areas other than sleep which are common for children with ASD. Again, any changes should always be discussed with your child’s doctor first.
Bad sleep due to sensory issues
Because sensory issues often go hand-in-hand with autism, it’s important to take potential sensory issues into consideration when it comes to sleep. For example, could your child’s room be too hot or too cold? Are their pajamas itchy or too tight? Is their bed too high off the floor for them to feel comfortable and secure? Are there sounds they can hear from their room that are keeping them awake? Is the color of their walls too excitatory or is their room filled with too many visually stimulating decorations?
The list of possible sensory concerns is endless and will vary from child to child, so it’s helpful to become a detective and really try to explore your child’s sleeping space from their perspective.
I hope this article gives you some ideas on how to manage the underlying causes of sleep issues. Read part 2 of this series where I discuss strategies to improve sleep!
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