Nothing could be more challenging, exhausting and rewarding than raising an autistic child. Not only is the situation difficult for doctors and parents alike, but it's manifested in oh-so-many ways across a spectrum of symptoms and to varying degrees in different children. One of the most commonly experienced problems, however, is trouble sleeping.
So I applaud the sleep counselors at a special school in Manchester, England, who are helping autistic children and their parents deal with disturbed sleep patterns.
Typically, an autistic child can:
- Have erratic and prolonged settling down routines.
- Have the need to perform rituals prior to going to bed, such as going up and down stairs a certain number of times, or repeatedly check on other family members.
- Have trouble learning to sleep alone in a room.
- Wake frequently and require time to settle back down with the help of an overtired parent.
- Be very sensitive to light and sound.
- Be tactilely defensive to sheets, PJ's and covers.
All of this makes for overtired children and parents. Not a good thing for the health and wellness of either. This exacerbates an already difficult situation, affecting an autistic child's ability to perform and learn in school, as well as a child's ability to gain the upper hand on a sleep-deprived mood.
Any parent who has had to endure endless nights of little sleep can attest to their own package of consequences: poor concentration levels, low tolerance for coping with the challenging behaviors of their children and high stress. And I know those are just a few examples in the litany of negative effects to chronic sleep deprivation.
Establishing a firm routine appears to be the magic bullet to helping autistic children. This strategy actually works for helping anyone become a better, sounder sleeper. It lies at the core of sleep hygiene.
My hope is that the trend in addressing the sleep needs of autistic children expands and reaches the shores of us here in America. I'm not aware of any sleep clinics that focus chiefly on autistic children and their parents, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them pop up soon enough.
Ask your doctor in the meantime - and remember that the practice of good sleep hygiene can be helpful and rewarding to anyone --whether you're dealing with autism or not.
Michael J. Breus, PhD