My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old. I always suspected something was not quite right, but I convinced myself that whatever it was, he would grow out of it. By the time he was diagnosed, his speech and language skills had not yet developed to those of a typically developing 2-year-old. It broke my heart as a mom, but I love him and wanted to take care of him in the best way I could.
By the time he was 4, he developed hyperactivity issues and experienced frequent bouts of anger. In the same year, he started having sleep issues, which resulted in more behavioral and learning problems.
To tackle his sleep issues, I tried various remedies — including a daily injection of melatonin — and consulted with a sleep therapist. After trying several different approaches, we finally discovered some useful sleep management strategies that have helped my son sleep better and improved things for us as a family.
Invest in weighted blankets.
Harkla weighted blankets were first recommended to me by a friend who has an autistic child. Weighted blankets give your child the feeling of being hugged or comforted, which can help calm them and hold them in one position. Think of a weighted blanket as a teddy bear that cuddles you all night. I initially thought these blankets would be uncomfortably hot and heavy, but they worked really well for my son.
Set and keep to a routine.
I learned that individuals with autism spectrum disorder show resistance to change; they prefer repetitive patterns of behavior and activities. My son needs routines and requires everything to be in order, e.g. we have a routine where I place my son’s toys in the exact same place every day.
By following a routine every night, my son is able to slowly recognize that it’s bedtime. In the past, he would get angry and start throwing things at bedtime, but now he enjoys the routine and packs his toys away to prepare for bed. During the day, I ensure he follows a routine, too. Research shows that routines can help everyone, especially people with autism, maintain a normal circadian rhythm.
Prioritize relaxing activities before bed.
My son starts putting his toys away one hour before bed. He then changes into his pajamas and brushes his teeth. I always ensure that he is in bed for at least 20 minutes before sleeping to allow enough time for a story, a light massage or music. Finding the right music was important for us. My son hates noisy music, instead preferring melancholic tunes, which seem to calm him.
Identify potential health issues.
Teeth grinding was a major issue for my son and the resulting pain affected his sleep. He was in discomfort but unable to express it, so I needed to be extra observant. We solved his teeth-grinding issues with a custom-made mouth guard and it has helped enormously with sleeping.
Avoid sensory distractions.
I keep my son’s room dark at night and use blackout curtains to keep out the light. His bedroom is far from the living room and kitchen so there is minimal noise to disrupt his sleep. I have placed his bed facing away from the door to ensure no distractions when I go to check on him at night. The room has a minimalist design; there are no large wall hangings and his toys are kept in another room. Keeping his space quiet and free of visual distractions and clutter has helped a lot.
If your child is coping with ongoing sleep issues, you may need to test things out and find strategies to address the problem. Restful sleep can lead to a peaceful home environment, which will benefit the entire family.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2019, and updated in April 2023.