Despite the fact that so many children with autism have trouble sleeping, there seems to be little attention paid to the adult population. Though my son is now 23 years old, he still from time to time cannot sleep through the night. While we are now better able to cope with his nocturnal wanderings, we still need to practice what we preach and adhere to the following tips.
These strategies are not meant to be a substitute for medical help. I am a parent and hope that you can benefit from our experience.
Follow Your Natural Rhythm
From the time my son was 12 months old, I vividly remember him never falling asleep before midnight. It was like his biological clock just didn’t wind down until 12:30 am. Unfortunately my clock would wind down at 10:30 pm so we were quite the mismatch. Getting him ready for school in the morning felt like being sentenced to hell. For both of us.
Instead of fighting his biological clock, we switched his schedule around. So instead of getting up at 7:30 am, he now sleeps until 9:30 am. The change in his quality of sleep and mood during the day has changed dramatically. He’s less groggy and in a much better mood.
Not everyone can simply change their schedule to accommodate their unique sleep pattern. As you can also see, he needs a full ten hours of sleep. If you can change your sleep schedule to fit your natural rhythm, do it. It works.
Our school district was extremely accommodating. When my son was in the third grade, he was in a self-contained classroom with 5 other boys who had autism. None of the children attended school for a full day. Some started late, others left early and one left in the middle of the day for private therapy. If you are looking for strategies for someone who is still in school and feel your child could benefit from an accommodation, ask! It could make all the difference.
It’s easier as an adult. If you’re attending college you can choose the classes that fits your needs. If you’re not a morning person, you don’t get a job cooking breakfast in a restaurant. It’s somewhat easier to taylor your life once you are out of school.
Try And Stay On A Sleep Schedule
Have you ever gone to a concert and come home still excited by the fun of the evening? Then you and your friend spent time talking about the evening until the wee hours. My son, and many people with autism, have trouble regulating their emotions. So if he has a very exciting evening out late, I already know his sleep will be disturbed for the next couple of days until he adjusts and gets back on schedule. That is why I always try and keep him on a sleep schedule.
He is always in his room by 11:30, now on his own volition, and up by 9:30am. If he does have a difficult night where he just can’t sleep, he watches Netflix on his iPod touch with headphones so he doesn’t disturb the rest of the house. If he does have a bad night, it’s up to me to get him up at 9:30 am and get going with his day.
Try Not To Oversleep Or Nap
Some days don’t we all just want to stay in bed? For many people with autism that simply is not a good idea. The later you get up, the later you will fall asleep that night. That also goes for napping. My son can have a brief cat nap of twenty minutes but anything longer than that and he won’t be sufficiently tired to sleep at night.
Oddly enough, that also goes for going to bed early. Not 10:30 early but 8:00 pm early. Once his body has hit the ten hour mark it will be awake and ready to go. 4:00 am is just too early to start the day. So do try to sleep only at night.
Avoid Processed Foods
I’m not a chemist so I can’t explain the medical basis for why some people can tolerate chemically processed “food” but not only does diet soda, with or without caffeine, render him incapable of sleeping, but it also causes bouts of aggression. He has been soda free for a year and has had no problems.
He is additionally sensitive to dairy. He has eczema and if he eats cheese it can cause a flare. Having itchy, hot skin is not conducive to sleep so if you have any underlying medical condition, whether it is affected by “food” or not, you’ll need to get a good handle on it so you can sleep well.
Many years ago, our doctor told us that our son was extremely sensitive to his environment and we listened. We focus on eating fresh, organic vegetables and fruits and limit our intake of meat and sweets. He hasn’t gotten a virus in 6 years, so while that may not affect sleep directly, I’m sure being unhealthy can.
Give Up All Caffeinated Products
Though caffeinated products can have an adverse effect on sleep, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will bother you. Try giving up all caffeinated products for two weeks and see how it goes. That will give you plenty of time to see if you are sleeping better or not. Everyone has their own tolerance and threshold. Experiment to see what yours is.
For my son, even one Diet Coke will keep him up until 3 am. For him, it is easier to never have caffeinated products than to have them every now and then. We focused on finding something that’s not caffeinated that is a good substitute so he wouldn’t feel deprived. Now, he drinks Izze instead of Coke. We substitute carob for chocolate. Experiment and find what works for you.
Keep Your Room The Optimal Temperature
As far back as I can remember, my son was the kids who was out sledding with no hat, not mittens and a wide-open coat. He just didn’t feel very cold.
20 years later and nothing has changed. We blocked the heat vent in his room because the heat aggravates his skin and he just simply likes it colder than the rest of us. If his room is too hot, he simply cannot sleep. He will even open a window in the middle of the winter to let in some cool air.
We decided rather than knock our heads against the wall, we would just keep the heat down and close his vents. We decide it made more sense to work with his biology than fight it. I don’t know if this is common or not on the autism spectrum, but it may be worth changing your room’s temperature and see if it helps.
Exersize Even Just A Little
My son is an avid bicycler. However, here in the Midwest we usually don’t bike outside from November to mid-March. He is naturally a somewhat sedentary person by nature so when he can’t bike, he doesn’t want to do anything active at all. Which simply translates into him having difficulty sleeping.
Our health club plays loud music which really grates on his nerves. So we bought him a bike trainer that attaches to his bike, creates drag, and allows him to bike in the house while he watches his favorite shows or listens to his iPod. It’s much easier and so much kinder, to focus on a person’s interests rather than trying to force them to do activities at a gym they can’t stand. He doesn’t need to exercise hard, but a gentle bike ride inside every day helps him sleep more soundly.
Try Supplements And Medications
We have never gotten to the point where he needed to try a sleep aid. However, I know many people with autism who have tried Melatonin and swear by it.
Sleep is an essential bodily function. If you feel you or your child could benefit from a supplement or medication, give it a try. Never feel guilty for doing what you or your family need. Everyone will have an opinion on how you should live your life but your opinion is the only one that matters.
© 2016 C.A. Porter