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My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do??

Welcome back to Best Case Parenting. Parents of autistic children can come across some pretty unique and sometimes challenging situations. Today, we will be looking at what to do when your autistic child refuses to sleep.

The fact of the matter is autistic children are more prone to sleep disorders due to their very makeup. To help reduce the impact of this on an autistic child, try some commonly used methods (such as a well-thought-out and consistent bedtime routine). Failing that, you can consult a doctor to see if there is a medical solution.

How can I help my autistic child sleep?

You have probably experienced the inability to get a good night’s sleep at one time or another yourself. Recent studies, however, indicate that sleep problems can be more prevalent in people diagnosed with ASD, or autism spectrum disorder.

Sleep deprivation used to be an overlooked issue when it came to raising children with special needs. Times have changed, and sleep concerns now top the list of the most urgent concerns for parents grappling with autism.

More and more people are realizing the significant role sleep plays in the behavior, attention, learning, mood, and overall functioning of autistic children.

It may seem confusing when your autistic child never seems to get sleep. They may act out and require extra attention from you during bedtime. Moreover, they may exacerbate certain features of their condition that may make falling and staying asleep even more difficult.

Considering the challenges children with autism already face, it is important that they get the right amount of sleep.

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The good news is that there are some tools for helping children with autism with sleep problems. With a little bit of dedication and awareness, you can set your autistic kid on a healthier path, which will make everything much easier for everyone.

We hope we can give some relief to parents of autistic children that are experiencing this problem!

How Common Are Sleep Problems In Autistic Children?

If you have a child with autism who experiences trouble falling or staying asleep, you are not alone. Autism is nearing endemic proportions with 1 in 45 children now diagnosed with this neurological disorder. Statistics show that over 50 percent of children with autism have one or more chronic sleep problems.

These autism sleep problems pose serious challenges, both for the parents/guardians and for the autistic kids themselves. They tend to interfere with learning, worsen behavioral challenges and affect the overall quality of life. If you’ve had a newborn in your home, you have some idea on the importance of sleep. If you are a parent of a child with ASD, you most likely know what I’m talking about.

What Are The Most Common Sleep Problems For Kids With Autism?

Allergies, sensory issues, and all sorts of things can cause your autistic kid to be up more than his or her peers. Autistic children tend to have insomnia (difficulty settling and delayed sleep onset). It takes them approximately 11 minutes longer than the general population to fall asleep.

That’s not all; most wake up during the night mutiple times (frequent and prolonged night waking). Some autistic children have sleep apnea, a condition that affects their breathing severally during the night. Autistic kids also spend 15 percent of their sleeping time in REM stage, unlike neurotypical kids that spend almost 23 percent of their nightly rest in this stage. REM (rapid eye movement) stage is vital for learning and retaining memory.

Other common sleep issues include problematic sleep routines, early morning wakes and short sleep duration.

What’s The Link between Autism and Sleep Issues?

Restful slumber is critical for helping children grow and develop. As mentioned above, over half of the kids with autism have trouble falling and staying asleep, and some studies suggest that the figure may go beyond 80 percent. For normal, healthy children, the figures range from a mere 10-16 percent. This comparison shows that there is a strong correlation between autism and sleep problems in children.

Why children with autism struggle with sleep issues is an ongoing discussion, studies continue to be carried out on the matter. Most of the studies point out that these specific challenges converge from various biological directions, just like autism itself. Various medical problems affecting children on the spectrum may play a role. Keep reading to understand how.

Children with autism tend to suffer from sleep challenges for a number of reasons. There is mounting evidence that the behaviors exhibited by autistic children are the very reasons that affect their sleep patterns. These behaviors can include compulsions, hyperactivity, obsessive rituals, inattention and physical aggressiveness. Lack of enough sleep can amplify autism features. It’s almost like a vicious cycle.

A study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology pointed out that kids with autism who had sleep issues experienced more severe learning and behavioral problems during the day. Kids who didn’t have enough sleep had poor social skills, particularly problems with peer relationships. They had a tougher time making and maintaining friends than other kids.

The researchers also linked sleep disturbance to more instances of attention deficit disorder, challenging behavior, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Unfortunately, autism sleep problems don’t disappear as your kid grows up, but they may improve.

Let’s jump straight into the top causes of sleep problems in children with autism:

Abnormal Melatonin Regulation – according to some researchers, unlike neurotypical children, children with autism produced less melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring, sleep-related hormone responsible for regulating wakefulness and sleep cycles.

Heightened Sensory Experiences – most autistic kids are hyper-responsive to sensory input. What this means is that they struggle falling or staying asleep, as they can’t effectively block out sensations and noises that disturb their rest.

Genetics – this is pretty much self-explanatory. The genetic causes of autism itself may affect the ability of autistic children to either fall or stay asleep. 

Mental/Physical Illness – besides the factors mentioned above, most autistic kids have other mental and physical illnesses that their neurotypical peers often lack (certainly in such frequency). These illnesses can make it difficult to sleep. They can include ADHD, OCD, gastrointestinal problems, seizure disorders, anxiety and acid reflux. 

Lack of Bedtime Routine – Allowing time for winding down and relaxing before bed helps promote sleep.

What Should I Do to Improve My Autistic Child’s Sleep

There are several sleep strategies for children of all needs, but this article will focus on kids with autism. A decent night’s sleep is not an impossible dream for kids with sleep problems related to autism. You’ll be glad to know that most of the tips to improve your autistic kid’s sleep are the same used for neurotypical kids. We consulted widely to give you 8 of the most effective techniques right now! Note that no single suggestion will work for all children, so try each strategy until you find ones that work for your particular child.

1.Establish A Regular and Calming Bedtime Routine
An established routine is helpful to anyone as it signals the body that it’s time for bed. A bedtime routine should be in a specific order and begin at least an hour before bedtime. Some of the suggested activities include brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, reading bedtime stories together, or any other activity that is most relaxing to your autistic child. For best results, the routine needs to be clear and repetitive. It’s crucial that you know what works best for your child. For instance, some kids prefer a snack before bedtime while others are good with a warm, cozy bath. You can incorporate toys into the routine; the most important detail is to stick to the routine even when you are on vacation.

Do autistic toddlers like to be held?

I would also recommend coming up with some type of visual cues (usually a series of pictures) for your bedtime routine. As well as many autistic children responding well to such visual cues, it will also help you make sure the routine is consistent every time. 

2.Prepare The Bedroom Accordingly
As you probably know, sensory challenges in autistic kids may make sleep difficult. It is vital that you create a cozy environment by keeping the bedroom as quiet, dark and cool as possible.

Surround your child with things they love. Eliminate screen time by ensuring all electronics including TVs, laptops, iPads and smart phones are turned off. Here’s why: the light from the screens hinders melatonin production and also keeps their minds active. Upbeat music or dim light may sound like a good idea, but you should do your best to keep them to a minimum. Try soothing sounds to help your kid fall asleep. If your child loves music, you can set it to continuous play. If he or she wakes up, the familiar calming music will help them fall back asleep. 

3.Come Up With A Predictable Transition
Your autistic child needs to be ready for the bedtime routine, and nothing will prepare them better than creating a predictable transition. Ensure that they have adequate warning that bedtime is approaching. You can incorporate auditory alarms and visual timers, whatever works best for your child. All these will put your child’s body and brain on a schedule that makes sleep more reliable. By the time their sleep routine starts, they should be mentally ready.

4.Monitor Your Child’s Bedtime Behavior
You may want to keenly observe and record your kid’s bedtime response to specific exercises and foods. Does your kid struggle to sleep after taking particular foods? Does exercising make him or her sleep better? According to your findings, you can then proceed to adjust your routine. Exercising during the day, for instance, can be very beneficial. You can exercise together and make it fun by including rewards on completion. You can have your kid jog, walk, ride a bike or jump rope. Avoid intense exercises at night. 

5.Eat And Drink Right 
Responsible eating habits before bedtime can really help your kid sleep throughout the night. Remove caffeine from the diet. Note that caffeine is not only found in coffee but also chocolate, tea and some sodas. Sugary snacks right before bedtime can also make it harder to fall asleep. Most kids, however, react well to a healthy snack an hour before bedtime. Opt for a combination of healthy carbs, complex carbs and proteins so that your child doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night because of low blood sugar. A healthy snack has a chemical called tryptophan that induces sleep naturally. Ensure your child drinks enough water during the day as drinking water just before bedtime may necessitate a bathroom break later on. 

6.Cater to Sensitivities
Kids with autism sleep problems can wake up at night because of the tiniest change in humidity, temperature or sound. The market is flooded with products from different brands, all geared to people with different sensitivities. You can experiment with these, to find out what factors and sensitivities are effecting your child’s sleep. If you are interested in the products below, simply click the image to view them on Amazon.

If your child has trouble sleeping because of sound, consider
buying him or her a white noise machine.

This gadget is designed to make a consistent, sound-blocking sound that will calm your child right down.

My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 1My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 2

A weighted blanket is another thoughtful addition that will help your kid soothe themselves to sleep. This blanket helps the brain to release neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that encourage relaxation and improve mood.

My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 3My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 4

A baby monitor can monitor the humidity and temperature levels too. Before you settle for a particular product do extensive research to purchase one that is best suited for your kid’s unique needs.

My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 5My autistic child refuses to sleep! What to do?? 6

7.Use Medication When Necessary
If you autistic child suffers from low melatonin, you can incorporate low doses (1-3 mg) of melatonin supplements to their bedtime routine to help them fall asleep faster and enjoy better-quality sleep. Some autistic kids may require larger doses to support sleep. Before using any supplement, it is best you consult a pediatrician first. For serious problems such as sleep apnea, you can use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or if the doctor recommends surgery, go for it! Anything to ease your child’s sleep problem.

8.Support Groups/Parent Training Programs 
A problem shared is a problem (at least half!) solved. When you join other parents with autistic children, you can share experiences and difficulties you encounter raising your kids. These forums can help you zero in on specific sleep problems and come up with ideas for directly addressing them. Ask your local hospital or clinic if they have such a program.

​I recently reviewed a product called Autism Parenting Magazine. This would be one example of a great way to access advice and help from a dedicated autism related community. They even have a dedicated Facebook group for subscribers.

9.See A Doctor
If the above techniques don’t work on your child, maybe he or she has severe sleep issues, and this may be an indication that you need to see a physician. A sleep study may help indicate issues related to your kid’s sleep cycle.

Polysomnography is the most common sleep test that will track your child’s breathing patterns during sleep, as well as eye and limb movements and brain waves to assess autism sleep problems. The test may uncover underlying sleep disorders such as periodic limb movement disorder, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome that may be treated accordingly.  


A good night sleep is not guaranteed for anyone, but it’s downright elusive for most children with autism. For the kid with autism, sleep problems can make everything else more demanding, night and day.

If sleep issues are not addressed appropriately, they can become an endless cycle for you and your little one. Better sleep may not cure autism, but with a fuller night of rest, your child will be less irritable, learn and perform better academically and have fewer problems. Unless your autistic child is one of the minority with no sleep problems, try the above-tested methods to help them snooze through the night.

We appreciate the fact that you have read right to the end of our article! We would also like to hear from you. So, if you have your own experiences with autism and sleep problems, we would love to hear all about them in the comment section below.

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