Sleep & Autism

Posted on: February 23, 2012

We all love our sleep, we rely on it to have enough energy to face our day ‘recharge our batteries’ …

The amount of sleep we all need varies from person to person.

When I was younger I always had some sort of anxiety about being asleep, I would always over think the situation. When I was 5 years old my Mum left home and I think that’s where my anxieties began, I would wake several times through the night to check that my Dad hadn’t left, for years I wouldn’t sleep alone and I did sleep-walk on numerous occassions.

Luckily as I’ve grown into adulthood, I don’t sleep walk anymore & my anxieties have more or less gone.

Some children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder have unusual sleep patterns, with some appearing to need very little sleep and some refusing to sleep alone.

I am lucky, A has always been a very good sleeper.
But we did have problems at one stage getting him to sleep.
I can’t remember how it started but when he was around 9 months old I would cradle him in my arms until he went to sleep…sometimes it would take a few minutes, others it would take an hour or even longer. It was very frustrating and I’d feel so angry that he wouldn’t go to sleep. I’d be thinking, I’ve looked after you all day, I’ve played with you, fed you, changed you, you’ve been awake for hours, why won’t you go to sleep? Sometimes I’d cry – out of frustration.
– This continued until he was about 2 years old, picture that – cradling a 2 year old to sleep…it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy!
Then we put him into his own room & to our surprise after ‘chatting’ to himself for about half an hour each night he fell asleep – by himself.

Then came the phase of him waking up everyday between 3.30am & 4.30am and when he wasn’t waking early he was awake for sometimes hours through the night – this was around the time he began displaying Autistic Traits, I would be up from this time everyday and then having to occupy him from that time until bedtime & he didn’t even nap some days. It was exhausting, he wasn’t interested in anything, he would be climbing all day, not eating his meals, flitting from one end of the room to other, stimming & his behaviour was challenging. – luckily he grew out of waking up at this time, but we always had to have music playing in his room.

The underlying cause of sleep related behaviours may be sensory sensitivities such as fear of the dark or over-sensitivity to external noises or just due to a lack of understanding of the bedtime routine.
Resistance to change may mean that your child is reluctant to move from a cot to a bed, or from sleeping near parents to sleeping alone.

You may need to teach sleep skills, such as making sure they are aware its bedtime at a certain time – maybe using visual support.

Modifying the childs room so that s/he can be safely left to play in it should they be awake during the night, won’t stop your child waking up but may help the rest of the family to sleep undisturbed.

If your child responds well to routines, you may try establishing a bedtime routine, through using visual structure that minimises stimulation & helps settling them to sleep.

FEAR of the dark may be helped by a nightlight or a torch

EXTERNAL sounds may be masked by quietly playing some favourite music

THICK curtains or black-out blind can help keep the room darker (I used to dread when the clocks changed which would mean lighter nights)

SOME children can be soothed by being swaddled in heavy sheets and blankets, rather than lighter duvets. Alternatively, children who are over-sensitive to heat may need their bedroom radiator turned off and only a light sheet – even in winter.

IF your child insists on you sleeping next to him or her, gradual change can help, by first sitting on the bed, then a chair nearby, eventually sitting in the doorway or just being upstairs until they fall asleep.

Most sleeping issues relate to children who sleep too little. Sleep deprivation for parents and sometimes siblings is physically and emotionally exhausting. In some severe cases, it may be necessary to seek medical advice and medication considered.

I asked a couple of parents I know who have experienced sleeping problems different to my experience to help you understand just how hard it is.

Parent of a son (7) and daughter (12) both on the Spectrum.

“My daughter who is 12 years old has only just started sleeping through the night within this past year. She would on average wake up 4-5 times per week and need to come downstairs with me. Most nights she would remain awake for the rest of the night-even if she had woken up at 1am.
My son, who is 7 has never really been a great sleeper and wakes during the night 6-7 times per week. He will also not settle in his room so I come down with him. More often than not-he will eventually fall asleep on the sofa but this can be hours after we come down.
I also have never needed much sleep so providing I get 4+ hours I am fine (I’ve had to be, its been happening 12 years) however, when I haven’t had enough/any I do struggle the following day and feel that everything is a chore and I have to try so hard to not get snappy with the children. My son seems to know when I am not feeling 100% and tends to misbehave and makes a hard day 100 times harder! I am usually always tired and really struggle through the day.”

Parent of 3 boys 1 with Cerebal Palsy and 1 with Aspergers & ADHD (14)

“He is nearly 14 years old, has very deprived sleep which means some days he stays awake for 23 hours a day, we work Full time both of us, my husband is up early in the morning, so I do the getting out of bed every night to try to get him off his Xbox, mobile phone, laptop, on a good day he will be in bed by 2am , then I’m up at 6 for work. His attitude is disgusting as he is so sleep deprived , so then it effects his schooling as he falls asleep in class, so gets detentions, and we get calls from his teachers which are rude and arrogant, so a vicious circle everyday for us.
Doctor’s won’t give him sleeping tablets as they are addictive, so have to do the best we can. He has ADHD and Aspergers syndrome.”

As always please share your experiences below in the comment box.

L x


6 Responses to "Sleep & Autism"

I had the exact same problem when K was young. I would have to cuddle him until he was fast asleep until he was 7 years old. Then hubby would carry him to bed. If we were lucky he stayed asleep, but most of the time he would wake up when put in his bed. When that happened we had to start the process all over again. K had no concept of self soothing. Hubby had to modify his bed with guardrails so he wouldn’t crawl out in the middle of the night. Once K was a little older we tried a more strict bedtime routine but he would still crawl out of his bed and start walking around the house. That is when he would get in trouble by raiding the fridge or trying to get out of the house. Now that he is a teenager I have no problems putting him to bed, but he still wakes up in the night.

R didnt sleep a wink for the first 9 months of his life. He snoozed for maybe 10-20 mins at a time inbetween feeds but then screamed for the rest of time! At around 10 months he settled down and started sleeping a bit better, but never a full night though.

We went through a very bad patch a year ago when he was 4. He has a bedtime routine that he observes all the time and will usually be in bed and asleep by 8pm. He would then wake up around 12am-1am and start screaming and shouting wanting the whole house to be awake with him. He would get very aggressive and hit both me and his mother. This was very stressful having to deal with his behaviour and a serious lack of sleep. In the end his consultant put him on Melatonin. This helped calm him down but has not put a stop to him waking up.

Now when he wakes up, either me or his mother have to go into his room and stay with him the rest of the night, this allows one of us and his sister to get a semi decent nights sleep. You do not get much sleep with R whislt in his room with him. He will climb on top of you, squeeze you, force his chin into you (usually your head and face), and continually ask is it time to get up. These are all sensory seeking behaviours and it will go on until around 6am when you can take no more!!!

We have tried reinforcing is bedtime routine to include an alarm clock so that when it goes off it is time to get up but this has not worked so far.

We are used to this now but would love just for him to sleep a night through.

My son still has sleeping issues, he’s 12 now and has ASD and ADHD. It would (and still does) take him hours to fall alseep, then he would wake up at 2.00 am and that would be him, wide awake, nothing would help him get back to sleep. He’s better now during the night, but still struggles to settle, and can be awake early (although not quite 2.00 am anymore, more like 5.30/6.00). We have heavy duvet covers, even in summer, as he needs to feel a weighted pressure, it does help him. We tried melatonin too when he was younger, and it would help him settle better, but he’d still wake up. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, as he’s got older, it’s a lot better now. Thanks for such an informative post, as sleeping can be such a difficult issue for people with ASD. 🙂

Fab blog! Really great to see others experiences too!
We too have problems with our 7 year old son! Recently got melatonin which has been great and we’ve played around with it to try and get it right, as giving it to him at bedtime only kept him asleep until about 3am. Then we tried giving him it when we took him to the loo at 10pm (hoping he might sleep through if he didn’t need to go in the night), again he would wake by 3. So now we give him 4mg at 10 and then we save 2mg in case he wakes in the night. This often helps him sleep until around 5 – which is a big improvement on up all night or up 5 or 6 times a night! It’s only been working for a few weeks so far, but fingers crossed it continues! It was my god sons mum who suggested trying different timings with it. My godson is 15 and has autism and has had real problems sleeping, her dr said melatonin only lasts for 30 minutes once it’s in the system – just long enough to get them to sleep, so even if it’s 4am we can give our son a small dose! I didn’t know this, don’t even know if it’s true, but it’s certainly, finally helping us to get a bit more sleep!

This will be a great help to many people. I wish I had this information 13 years ago. Wonderful post. Thanks.

Sleep disturbances are fairly common in autism. An evidence based natural medicine approach is use of melatonin. It obviously is well known for its effect on sleep. Little known fact is its effect on digestive system and of course GI problems are also fequent in ASD.

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