Getting any child to sleep is difficult in its own right, but getting an autistic child to sleep poses a bigger difficulty due to autistic traits, including sensory sensitivities. Here are seven strategies to get your autistic child to sleep.
How to get your autistic child to sleep
Autistic people need routine, because it helps them to function. Even if they take a nap during the day, your autistic child needs a predictable, expected time dedicated to sleeping.
Ensure the bed is only used for sleeping or calm activities like reading. Everything else should be done off the bed, either on the floor or in a chair. Knowing that the bed is only for sleeping or relaxing will help the mind to wind down later when it’s time.
2. Music or sleep sounds
Music and sleep sounds can help fulfill auditory stimulation or sensory input. Auditory stimming is perhaps more recognizable when autistic people listen to the same song on repeat for hours, but the same concept applies here.
If you have an Echo Dot, the SleepSounds.io app has a lot of calming sounds to choose from. Other options include classical music, instrumental versions of pop songs, and whatever song your autistic child loves listening to on repeat.
Night lights help kids, and even adults, who struggle to sleep in complete darkness. However, they’re not the only option. Some people need more light to fall asleep, whether because of safety and comfort or just because the darkness is too loud. Visual sensory input is important, and things look different in the dark in a way that is unfamiliar and unpredictable.
Desensitizing the darkness would help your child long-term, but they also may grow out of it on their own without your help. A simple exercise to desensitize the darkness might include sitting in the dark bedroom with a flashlight and playing I Spy. This is a game that they could even play themselves, while trying to fall asleep.
4. Light snack & drink available
Falling asleep when you’re hungry and autistic is next to impossible. The sensory input of a hungry stomach feels uncomfortable to the point of making you sick. Even if you fall asleep, you find yourself waking up hours later starving.
Sometimes, having a light snack before going to sleep makes a world of difference.
While your instincts may jump to offering a healthy, protein-filled snack, this is going to wake your child up. Instead, consider a safe food, dinner leftovers or a fruit popsicle. Sugar sometimes works as a sedative, which can help your autistic child fall asleep more quickly after enjoying a fun snack.
Keeping a small bottle of water on the bedside table will reduce the distraction of thirst. When you’re autistic and thirsty, knowing you can’t have a drink is less of an excuse to be up and more of an inconvenient destruction.
If your autistic child wets the bed at night, it’s not going to matter that they have water before bed or after a certain time. Restricting water from them to prevent bed wetting is going to serve as a distraction and lead to your own personal annoyance because they will be up asking for water.
5. Stim toys and self-regulatory behavior
Default going to bed behavior is to be still, but who falls asleep by being extremely still? Discourage the need to be still to fall asleep. If your child is extremely active by bedtime, it means they did not release enough of their energy throughout the day.
Self-regulatory behavior, like stimming, releases energy and helps to stimulate the mind in a relaxing manner. Let them take a few stim toys to bed, like fidgets or chewelry, to occupy their minds and distract them while they fall asleep.
6. Sleep aids
Sleep aids can help your child on the autism spectrum fall asleep more quickly and sustainably, if no other option works. However, autistic people react more sensitively to certain aids.
Make sure you talk over with your child’s pediatrician before implementing any sleep aid strategies to ensure your child’s safety. Melatonin can cause serious nightmares, but your child will not have the tools to associate nightmares with melatonin.
If your child responds well to lavender essential oil, which can also make kids angry and stressed instead of sleepy, consider a lavender sleep spray. This is not an option if you have pets.
7. Technology devices
Professionals will tell you not to use electronics in bed, and to especially not let your kids do that. However, autistic people may struggle to unwind or need mental stimulation in order to fall asleep. Despite the recommendations, technology provides that.
Common, soothing games can help quiet and relax the mind — or exhausted to the point that it has no other option except to sleep.
Some sleep-friendly games:
- Bubble Bliss XL
- Crush Rings
- I Love Hue
- Just Jigsaws
- Pixel Tap
- Sand : box
- Triple Town
- Where’s My Water?
At the end of the night, the goal is to get your autistic child to sleep, regardless of whatever is going on in their autistic brain. Their sleep routine isn’t going to look like their not autistic peers because they’re autistic.
What helps your autistic child fall asleep? Share about it in the comments below.