Researchers estimate that between 40 and 80% of children with autism have difficulty sleeping.

By the age of one year, most children should be sleeping through the night. If after that time if your child is regularly unable to sleep, or if they have a period of good sleep which is disrupted, then this constitutes a sleep disorder.

How much sleep does my child need?

How much sleep a child need varies considerably but on average the amount of sleep a child needs per night decreases by a quarter of an hour per year until the age of sixteen. So a five-year-old needs an average of eleven hours sleep a night and a 16-year-old needs an average of eight-and-a-half hours a night. But these are not hard and fast figures and you may have a 16-year-old who needs ten hours sleep a night or a five-year-old who only needs seven.

Sleep diaries

Sleep diaries are useful for a number of reasons:

  • You can show a sleep diary to professionals involved in your child's life, such as teachers, GPs or social workers, to give them a clearer idea of the impact your child's sleep patterns are having on the child, you and your family. People may assume you are exaggerating if you tell them you only get an average of three hours sleep a night but if you can show them charts with times specified they may take more notice.  
  • Some applications for benefits for example the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) form, ask you to specify how much your child sleeps and how often you have to get up in the night to help them. You can send in a copy of the sleep diary to support your application.
  • For more able children with autism a sleep diary can act as a visual reminder of their disruptive sleep patterns. They can then be used to establish incentives for staying in bed and trying to sleep, eg: you could introduce a reward system.

Establish a routine

If possible, limit your child’s screen time (TV, computer, tablet, smart phone) or exposure to bright lights an hour or two before bedtime, as these can inhibit the production of the sleep hormone Melatonin. Some children may find the transition from sleeping in their parent’s room to their own room by themselves difficult. This can be related to difficulty with change but also the need for reassurance around bedtime and sleeping.

A comfy bedroom

Children with autism often have sensory issues which makes falling and staying asleep a challenge and the environment and surroundings can contribute to these issues.

Things that you can do to alleviate these issues include:

  • Remove labels from bedding and night clothes, or try bedding and nightclothes made from other materials.
  • Reduce smells coming into the room by closing the door fully, or by using scented oils that your child finds relaxing.
  • Remove distractions, such as toys on the bed and consider a different colour on the walls.
  • Block out light using dark curtains or black-out blinds.

Medication

Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone which the brain produces when it gets dark to help us sleep.

Some parents have found that using medication along with a behavioural or sensory approach can help to restore a good sleep pattern. The combination is crucial as without the behavioural intervention when the medical treatment ends the child is likely to return to their old sleep patterns. 

Getting help and advice

Cerebra is a charity which helps children who are affected by brain conditions, including autism.

They operate a “Sleep Service” which includes one-to-one telephone support, “Sleep Workshops” which are aimed at parent groups and sleep information resources.

The first step is to fill in a referral form to let Cerebra know more about your child’s sleep problem. They will then send you a sleep pack to fill in.

Once Cerebra has received your completed sleep application and diary you will be assigned a sleep practitioner who will arrange a telephone consultation with you and will give you support over the phone.

You can read about Cerebra’s services here

Their contact telephone number is 0800 328 1159 (freephone number)

More on sleeping

You can also read our article on sleeping and SEND children

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