Autism Sleep Routine: Establishing a Bedtime Routine for a Child with Autism

Children with autism require just as much sleep as other children their age. However, healthy sleep habits can sometimes be a challenge for those with an autism spectrum disorder. One 2019 study found that nearly 80 percent of children with autism aged 2 to 5 showcase disrupted sleep patterns, showing a clear connection between autism and sleep issues. Researchers are concerned that too little sleep can exacerbate features of autism, including poor social skills and repetitive behaviors.

This can leave many parents wondering how to get their child with autism to sleep better. If this is an area of concern for your child and family, it’s important that you establish an autism sleep routine in order to improve your child’s health and quality of life.

The Connection Between Autism and Sleep

An extensive amount of research has been conducted to better understand sleep and its influence on behavior, health, and other areas of life among children (and adults) with autism. Sleep problems can make life challenging for family members, which are often exacerbated if a child has repetitive behaviors, sensory sensitivities, anxiety, or if they’re taking medication for ADHD.

Children and Adults with autism tend to have signs of insomnia: It takes them an average of 11-15 minutes longer than most people to fall asleep. Many wake up frequently during the night. Some adults and children with autism have sleep apnea, a condition that could potentially cause them to stop breathing several times during the night. 

Some experts believe that people with an autism spectrum disorder carry a mutation that makes them more prone to sleep disturbances. These mutations can impact an individual’s sleep-wake cycle or impact melatonin levels — the hormone that controls sleep.

In some cases, children and teenagers with autism have a hard time falling and then staying asleep. Others wake up too early and then struggle to get back to sleep. Those with autism also get less restorative sleep, as they spend approximately 15 percent of their sleeping time in the REM stage — a critical sleep phase essential in learning and retaining memories. In contrast, most “neurotypical” people spend approximately 23 percent of their nightly rest in REM.

How to Get a Child With Autism to Sleep

Sleep routines help all children get ready for bed, whether they have autism or not. However, when developing sleep habits for children with autism, there are unique variables that need to be considered — many of which are on a case-to-case basis.

In that sense, before you address specific symptoms of autism, you’ll need to first understand what your child’s sleep patterns are like so that you can better understand their specific needs.

Develop a Positive Bedtime Routine

Bedtime routines are critical for establishing positive sleep patterns for children with autism. The goal here is to provide a sense of predictability as you establish familiar patterns. The routine you create should include soothing activities for your child, helping them relax before bedtime. This routine should begin 15 to 30 minutes before bedtime and take place in your child’s room where it is quiet and calming.

For example, you may want to read the same book each night, sing your child’s favorite song, hug family members, etc. Young children with autism also often benefit from a visual schedule. This can include words, pictures, or both. This helps children visualize each step so that they can follow the order of the routine.

Check out Back to School Visual Schedules for Students with Autism

Set Up Healthy Sleep Associations

Sleep associations and habits are the things that children (and adults) need to settle for sleep. When children wake at night, they need the same things to go back to sleep.

For children with autism, healthy sleep associations and habits can be a very strong factor. They might include falling asleep next to a parent, or while watching TV, and  after using an electronic device.

Alos if you’d prefer your child to fall asleep by themselves in their own bed, you might want to help your child develop some healthy sleep associations. 

Here are some ideas for your child with autism:

  • Use pictures of your child sleeping in their own bed as part of a visual support.
  • Give your child a reward for staying in their own bed.

Consider Your Child’s Sleep Environment

This tip is beneficial to anyone who struggles to sleep, as a comfortable sleep environment is imperative. However, for children with autism, they may be particularly sensitive to noises or light. The following suggestions are intended to guide you, as your child’s sleep environment should be adapted to their autism needs.

  • Be mindful of the temperature. Your child’s room should not be too hot or too cold. This also relates to your child’s bedding, as some children may prefer light covers while others prefer heavy covers. Sensitivity issues can lead to increased awareness of textures, so even your child’s pajamas may be distracting or uncomfortable for them.
  • Ensure a quiet room and household. Typically, it’s not ideal to have a television or radio on when your child is falling asleep. If they find a consistent, low, and quiet noise soothing, consider a ceiling fan or white noise machine. Also, be aware that noises at night, that you may not notice, can be bothersome to your child with autism. For example, the sound of the laundry machine running or other household noises. The goal is to keep your child’s room as quiet as possible.
  • Consider lighting when creating a sensory room. Since children with autism can be sensitive to bright lights, it’s important to remain mindful of the type of lighting in your child’s room at night. If streetlamps are bright, you may want to consider blackout curtains. You can also add a dimmer switch to the main lighting system.

Learn more about building a sensory bedroom for children with autism

How to get a Child with Autism to Nap

Developing a healthy bedtime routine or children with autism starts by creating healthy habits during the day. Your child should wake up at the same time every day, all seven days a week.

If your child is 5 years or older, avoid naps. Plan activities throughout the day to help them stay awake. But, if they are young enough to nap:

  • Make sure they sleep in their bed
  • Avoid naps past 3:00 p.m.

The key to trying to get a child with autism to nap is to develop routines. A bedtime routine, as well as a daily routine (including naps), is the best way to get your child to take naps during the day.

Encourage Daytime Behaviors and Activities That Promote Sleep

During the day, it’s important to consider the behaviors and activities that may affect your child’s ability to sleep at night. For example, exercising during the day may help your child fall asleep more easily at night and experience deeper sleep. Exercise should be scheduled early in the day. The same is true in regard to autism nap time. Keep nap times on a regular schedule and do not allow your child to sleep too late in the day.

At Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, we are here for you and your child. Being Utah’s leading autism learning center, we offer a range of autism programs for children of all ages. Just as bedtime routines and schedules are critical for your child’s well-being, their daytime schedule is equally vital — especially in terms of social and academic skills. Learn more about the programs we offer in order to help your child reach their full potential today!