The hardest part of becoming a mother to my autistic son Philip was the extremely disrupted sleep pattern in our lives. I don’t think that it’s common knowledge for other families how big a problem the “fall asleep problem” is for many autistic children and their parents.
I desperately tried to find a sleep pattern or reason for my son having severe sleep problems, but I never did until I figured out that I had to find the balance between him being overstimulated and under stimulated.
It was a very difficult task since he was in the hand of a kindergarten where I had no control over how much they stimulated him or the other children during the day, even though I begged them to respect that he needed breaks during the day. I thought they would know this by now, as they were the specialists – at least I thought that to begin with.
At one point the sleep problems were so damaging to my own health, that I contacted a sleep specialist at the hospital.
They prescribed him all sorts of sleeping pills but not the one he would become addicted to.
I found out many years later that many of these products can cause brain damage.
Once again, I felt lost and alone.
How much sleep an autistic child gets during a day varies a lot.
My son slept for 4 hours maximum at night. I tried to have very structured bedtime routines. I always sang the same songs and I put him to bed at the exact same time every night. He could fall asleep easily but after 2 hours he would wake up and he could stay awake for hours, before I finally succeeded in making my child sleep again. After ½ an hour he would wake up again. I started to make a wake schedule and sleep schedule to figure out if there was a pattern.
At one point I gave up. I knew that he could survive on only 4 hours of sleep during the night, but I couldn’t. As a single mom and running my own business, I was constantly walking around in a bubble, and I could have fallen asleep in 30 seconds if I allowed myself to do that.
I knew it was time to put him into his own bed.
I felt that I abandoned my child when I knew he was awake during the night, but I could no longer survive on 4 hours of sleep.
I couldn’t find any sleep research or sleep education that could explain my son’s huge sleep issues, so I ended up giving up and sensing what he felt instead. I tried to forget about the many pieces of advice people gave me, which I didn’t find useful because of how little they helped Philip with his restful sleep. So many people gave me advice on his bedtime routines, but I had already implemented them and nor did they help either. I desperately tried to get help from my local community and commune, asking for professional help with autistic children’s sleep patterns but they didn’t have any explanations, courses to join or professional psychologists who could help us.
During the first 8 years of Philip’s life, both of us dealt with these severe sleeping problems and poor sleep every night.
When I finally stopped finding the pattern, I experienced that my son’s sleep habits were a consequence of the stimulation he had during the day, how many pauses they gave him in his kindergarten AND how stressed I was. The calmer I was, the calmer his nervous system became. I couldn’t lie and tell myself that I was calm if I truly wasn’t. I had been running so fast trying to get food on the table for him and me, so I saw myself stressed and burnt out.
I don’t think that I could have handled it in another way when I look back at our situation today. It was pure survival and I think that most parents to autistic children know what I am saying here. There is no energy for taking in new information or help that doesn’t work out immediately.
How do I get my autistic child to sleep
I wished that there was a person who could tell you where to find help, and what to expect when you become a parent to an autistic child. I know that all children are individuals and yet there are some problems that are the same. I believe that the problem with falling asleep or staying in deep sleep is one of them and this is the reason why I am telling my stories as a mother to a son on the autism spectrum.
I know now that I am the specialist of my son, as you are to your child as well. I would like to encourage all parents of children with autism to trust what you feel about your children and try your best to get the information to the adults who are your child’s caretaker when you cannot be there for several reasons such as you going to your own job etc.
What to do if your autistic child won’t sleep
I recommend you remember what the sleep patterns were when your child was in your stomach. Maybe you remember it? Maybe you don’t. But if you remember the pattern back then you can figure out when your child is awake and when your child needs more rest, also even though it is during the day. If you can recall the pattern then you are able to pass it on to the helpers, the kindergarten or other adults who take care of your child. I wish for you that I would have thought more thoroughly about that when we were living in the problems with the difficulty of falling asleep and staying in his sleep.
I also recommend you have a calm and structured bedtime routine. Make sure that your child doesn’t get overstimulated two hours before bedtime. Some of the things that can overstimulate an autistic child is to change the temperature in the room which means letting your child in and out of your house or apartment or giving your child a bath.
It takes too long for your autistic child to regulate that overstimulation in the physical body afterwards, which can explain problems with falling asleep or staying in the deep sleep.
Which also means that the more stimulation your child gets before the bedtime routines the more stimulation needs to be digested in the nervous system and that can take a while.
Stimulation the body needs to absorb can be:
– Digestion of food
– Tablet or TV
– The difference between the body temperature
– Physical touching
– Noise in general
I recommend you tug your child into his or her own bed if your child is ready for that to avoid your child reacting to your noises or energies for a more relaxed bedtime routine.
The talented and certified kinesiologists can figure out the imbalances in your child’s organs or intestine systems as well. I learned that the organs represent the clock. Since my son had imbalances in his liver, he always woke up at 1 am to 3 pm. It required many treatments and a change in his diet to balance his liver. In my online course “How to make my autistic child eat a variety of food”, you will learn more about autistic children and their eating habits.
Do weighted blankets help autistic children to sleep?
I also tried different sorts of weight blankets. Some of them had chains in it, some of them had chestnuts and some of them had balls. Since many children with autism have a heightened nervous system, they have difficulties in stimming themselves to calm themselves down. Stimming can be a physical reaction or a special way to touch the body to calm it down. If the child doesn’t get the right help, many children with autism try to calm themselves down by moving back and forward in small movements or scratching themselves at the same spot or having tics.
Since my son never had problems falling asleep, I couldn’t tell the difference between the weighted blankets that helped him or not during that bedtime routine. However, since he had a heightened sense of hearing, the weighted blankets woke him up.
However, I saw a magnificent difference when he was awake and if he got overstimulated. Then he could sit on a weighted blanket, and I saw his nervous system and physical body calming down, which of course had an improved reaction on his psychological behavior as well.
Many of the companies who produce the weighted blankets are willing to send them on loan for families so that children with autism can try them for 2 weeks for free. They know that the blankets are very expensive, and it varies from child to child if it works or not.
I know that there are so many hassles to worry about becoming a parent to a child within the autism spectrum and I know you are not alone.
I help families with autistic children and you are very welcome to check out my “Masterclass for Parents: A better life for your autistic child“. In this masterclass, you will meet like-minded parents with various difficulties. I know for a fact that the worries with the bedtime routines are one of them.
My son is 14 years old now and since he was 8 years old, he started to have a more stable sleeping pattern.
I think it was a mix of his brain being ready enough to process the stimulation he got during a day, my nervous system as well and the knowledge from what stimulated him or not which helped us. I am sending you love and light and I hope that you could find this useful.