Autism and Sleep Deprivation

08/10/2017 07:13 am ET

“Go the F. to sleep!” While we probably don’t actually speak those words out loud, I am sure that I am not the only autism mom who has had that thought run through her mind. (Well, truth be told, I may have whispered those words a few times.) It seems as if I have been on the new born schedule for 12 years now, except that even new borns seem to sleep better than my son Ben at times. Take last week, for example, after he had gotten his hands on some colas at his dad’s house. I must have checked on him every half hour from the time he went to bed at 10:00, until I finally drifted off to sleep around 5:00.

Upon waking at 6:30, my partner, Steve, said to me, “Wow, Ben is up early this morning.”

“No,” I replied, “He’s not up early, he’s up late. He hasn’t gone to sleep yet.”

Around 8 a.m, he made his rounds of the house looking for his stuffed dog, Scruffy, indicating that he was finally ready to go the F. to sleep. (By the way, if you have a copy of our book, “Calm the F. Down! A Day in the Life of an Autism Mom”, you can find Scruffy in every illustration. If you don’t have a copy, it is a must read for every autism mom and you can find it HERE.)

Research shows that as many as 80% of children with autism suffer from sleep disturbances, and as a natural result, their parents are usually sleep deprived as well. While our kids seem to be able to function fine with a minimum of zzzz’s, sleep deprivation can really take its toll on us autism parents.

Decades of research shows that long term sleep deprivation has profound effects on our health, putting us at increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity, depression, anxiety, stroke, and can even lead to an early death. Lack of sleep can have an immediate effect on our mood, making us feel irritable and short tempered, interfere with our concentration and decision making, make us less productive and put us at risk of accidents and injuries. For me, lack of sleep feels like a low grade hangover, without the enjoyment of the night before.

In desperation, you have probably combed the internet in search of solutions to your child’s sleep problems, and in doing so, you have probably found these remedies:

-Establish a regular bedtime routine. Been there and done that, right? Even got the t-shirt, correct? The bottom line is, we can make them go to bed, but we can’t make them go to sleep.

-Cut down on screen time. This helps. As a general rule, Ben is not permitted to have electronics after 9:00, and I expect him to be in bed by 10. That said, there are nights that I have to pick my battles and it is easier to give in to his demands for “Mommy’s phone” in order to get some peace for myself! Even without electronics, he seems to be able to entertain himself for hours, just reciting episodes of Thomas the Train.

-Create a sleep friendly environment. While it is not a magic wand fix, this is also a technique that can help. Keep the room temperature cool, and the room dark and free of distractions such as toys and electronics.

While I have found these generic tips to be somewhat helpful, I have come up with other, less conventional methods to help Ben and myself get better quality sleep. So here, from the author of “Calm the F. Down! A Day in the Life of an Autism Mom”, are some tips to help your child (and in turn you) go the F. to sleep:

-Nail it down. As part of my goal to make Ben’s room more conducive to sleep, at one point I had to have all moveable furniture fastened to the wall or the floor so that he was unable to move it. I also removed anything that could serve as a distraction or as a possible danger to him, such as pictures with a glass frame.

-Drugs. Melatonin is a simple sleep aid which can be bought off the shelf. The first time Ben took it, after being recommended by his pediatrician, I was delighted. He was yawning within minutes and quickly fell into a deep eight hour sleep. However, within weeks he developed a tolerance so that it took more and more of the substance to get the same effect. I now only use it on special occasions, such as if we are traveling. He was also prescribed a drug called Clonidine, which also seemed to have a miraculous effect at first, but after several months seemed to lose its effectiveness. (We are now awaiting an appointment with his pediatrician to discuss the sleep issue, along with the increase in anxiety and OCD that has come with puberty.)

-Lock him in. Ben was a runner and a very good escape artist. I lived in constant fear that I would fall asleep at night and he would escape the house, or even roam around the house and get himself into danger. The only thing that brought me peace of mind and allowed me to get some sleep (while keeping him safe) was to put a lock on his door. If you follow this tip, it is imperative that you ensure that the door can be opened quickly and easily in the event of an emergency. I simply used a knob that unlocks when you turn the knob, such as you often find in bedrooms and bathrooms. Basically, I turned the knob around so that it locked from outside his room.

-White noise. Like the above tip, this one is more for my sleep than Ben’s. Ben’s vocalizations can be very loud and disruptive, so at night, I turn on a fan to drown out some of the noise which allows me to get some rest. I joke that I sleep with one eye open, meaning that even with the white noise, my spidey senses remain in tact and if he cries or gets sick, I am immediately on my feet.

Let’s face it, many children with autism seem to be able to function on a minimum amount of sleep, while we autism moms might go through our day looking and feeling like zombies. When considering sleep quality then, consider your own needs as well as your child’s, since a well rested mom makes for a more patient and productive mom.

Florence Strang is a Registered Psychologist, and author of the newly released book, “Calm the F. Down! A Day in the Life of an Autism Mom”. You can learn more about Florence by visiting her website: www.florencestrang.com

Florence and Ben
Florence and Ben
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