Friday, April 29, 2011

Helping Those with Autism Relax & Have Restful Sleep

As I was starting to blog tonight, I noticed in my Blogger Dashboard that yesterday's blog was a milestone. It was my 200th posting here at Aspierations - Come as you are... Let your light shine!

When my husband John completed his 100th blog, I got him a cake.  For my 200th... or I guess now, my 201st blog, I'm hoping for a nice long two handed back massage tonight.  My shoulders heartily agree.

Relaxing is a skill I have never mastered.  Even in a hot tub with tranquil surroundings and peaceful music, my mind still has the tendency to race and contemplate all the things I think I need to be accomplishing. There have been times when I do actually remember relaxing and when I close my eyes, I try to recapture those moments but I truly need to be in the right frame of mind.

My husband is very good at relaxing and can fall asleep about anywhere.  From zero to snore in 60 seconds... (Hooray, nose strips!)  The boys spend their days actively involved in some sort of activity and even if we were to try and hang out in front of the TV, chances are they would be multi-tasking unless it was a particularly favorite show.

It seems like challenges with relaxing are characteristic of those on the autism spectrum but if you'd like to chime in with your own opinion or personal experiences, please feel free to do so.

I know there is definitely an impact on my sleep for I find it very hard to fall into a restful night's sleep unless I am snuggled up underneath the covers (I have this great plush tiger comforter), there is a fan going on in the room to block out outside noise and I am physically feeling very tired.  I have tried melatonin with varying success.  When I have a cold, nighttime liquid medicine like Nyquil puts me out after about a half hour but the problem is that I when I take this stuff, I don't want to wake up again until at least 8 hours later, a novelty not always available in our household.

Our oldest son who is 11 1/2 tends to have trouble falling asleep as well.  A weighted blanket does help him stay asleep.  Our youngest son who is almost 5 falls asleep fairly easily but tends to wake up one to times a night and rather early in the morning. (It used to be much more frequent...)

I found a useful article online tonight at WebMD called Helping Your Child With Autism Get A Good Night's Sleep.  Researchers estimate that between 40 - 80% of kiddos with autism have difficulties sleeping. There wasn't a statistic for adults given but I wouldn't be surprised if most adults with an ASD like autism or Asperger's fell into that range.

The biggest sleep problems among children include:

1) Difficulty falling asleep  <-- Check for me and check for our oldest!

2) Inconsistent sleep routines <-- Our kids do have pretty good routines during the school year and although we try and have a summer routine as well, it doesn't seem to work quite as well.

3) Restlessness or poor sleep quality <-- Check! Ugh...  Nightmares and occasional restless leg syndrome plague me.  Our oldest goes on a fair amount of boy scout camping trips and those always throw his sleep schedule off for a couple days afterwards.

4) Waking early <-- Check for our youngest and subsequently, anyone in his path.  It is not uncommon for him to wake up with a really loud urgent request... usually for ice... but occasionally just to share something important that happened at school.

Obviously sleep problems can have a significant impact on a person's health and their performance in school or work.  Parents of children with sleep problems are also adversely affected because their sleep schedules are often thrown off as well.  

Ryan used to only be able to fall asleep in our office recliner... until we got him a big boy bed!

There are certain things you can do to help a child or adult with sleep problems.  Since people on the autism spectrum may have heightened sensitivity to sound and light, doing things like making sure to have heavy curtains on the windows to block out the light and padded carpeting may make an impact.  

Relaxing music can help one fall asleep.  Having a fan with a cool breeze pointed away from the one sleeping has proven very useful in our family. When it's bath night for the boys, they are usually taken about an hour before bedtime to help relax them.

We don't allow sugary snacks, drinks with caffeine, video games or computer time for at least an hour before bedtime.  The PBS Kids Sprout channel has a Good Night show every evening so we do allow that for Ryan and we encourage quiet activities such as reading for both boys.

Bouncing before bed? Well... sometimes just a few bounces are okay....

I think probably the most important thing for the boys to have a successful chance at regular sleep is that they have a nighttime routine.  On weekdays they go to bed at the same time and on weekends, we give them an hour extra.  I know this sometimes throws things off but we try to make sure to have plenty of physical activity packed into the weekend so that when it is time for bed, they are ready to sleep.  Conversely, during the week, even though they go to bed an hour earlier, it may take 30 - 45 minutes to fall asleep.  

I'll admit that for me, I end up doing one regular thing that experts say not to do.  This egregious mistake is watching TV every night before going to bed with my husband.  After long days with the kids and work, it's nice to just have some relatively mindless "us" time snuggling and watching our favorite shows.  I do not want to give that up.

Being that we both enjoy murder mysteries and crime dramas, the subject matter isn't always the lightest and I look away at the really gross and graphic stuff.  The thing is that watching TV at night before falling asleep has actually become my routine and on nights when it doesn't work out to do it, those are often the hardest nights for me to fall asleep.  At least when I get my mind thinking about some show, it's not racing around contemplating everything else I feel I should be doing in the present and future.  

Here is the link again to the WebMD article - Helping Your Child with Autism Get A Good Night's Sleep.  It's a fairly quick read and worth looking at if you haven't read anything on this subject before.

Regarding helping a child or adult with Autism learn to relax or calm down... some occasions are much easier than others.  When you're in the midst of a huge meltdown, be prepared to be creative and use many of the tricks in your arsenal.  For anxiety, we have found success using calming music.  Others try yoga or meditation. (I haven't yet been able to successfully meditate, although I have tried many times.)

Our boys have learned a few self-regulation techniques to calm them down when they're upset such as doing Dots and Squeezies, wearing a weighted vest or swaddling with a weighted blanket, doing heavy work (carrying weighted items such as a gallon milk jug), practicing deep breaths or pressing against a wall. I have found that singing familiar lullabies or personal nighttime songs to my sons will often help as well, perhaps because it reminds them of a time when they relax before falling asleep.

Sleepovers in brother's room aren't always best for falling asleep, but they sure are fun!

Do you have any other tricks of the trade for calming yourself or a friend / family member on the autism spectrum?  For me, if the weather is cool outside, I enjoy a nighttime walk or listening to music and IF (the operative words) I can get a nice warm bubble bath with candles and music and no interruptions, that often does the trick too!  

Tomorrow is the last day of April and since I've been blogging each day this month in support of Autism Awareness, I'm going to do a review of blogs I've written throughout the month as well as some thoughts for continuing awareness, empowerment and enrichment for the future!

I hope you'll visit again.  Thanks so much for dropping by!


  1. Great Job on #200. That is a lot of work and you have touched many lives.

    I am so proud of you in so many ways.

    Your Biggest Fan and Love,

    Johnny Cat

  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for the positive shout out! I know being out of town, you were going to miss my last blog of April so I appreciate you commenting on #200 & #201.

    I look forward to hearing about Camporee! :-)