The autism spectrum refers to a set of neurodevelopmental disorders assessed by a scale of social, communication, and behavioral impairments. Children experiencing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face many challenges, including issues with their sleep which are particularly challenging.

Anywhere from 44 to 83 percent of children with ASD experience some form of significant sleep disturbance. The biggest challenges are falling asleep, staying asleep, sleep quality, and maintaining a consistent sleep routine.

Infants and preschoolers experience the highest rates of sleep disturbance, which can manifest through settling issues, nightmares, confusional arousals, insomnia, sleep apnea, bedtime resistance, sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome, and night terrors.

Why Children with Autism Suffer in Sleep Quality

There are a number of autistic characteristics that contribute to sleep disturbances in small children with ASD, according to several theories:

Theory one is that children with ASD lack discernment with social cues to tell when everyone else in the household is preparing for bed.

Theory two relates to melatonin and an amino acid called tryptophan. Levels of tryptophan, which helps produce melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone,’ can show up in lower and higher levels in children with ASD. Research also shows that melatonin is not released at the same time of day for children with ASD as with children without ASD.

Theory three is that children with ASD have a heightened sensitivity and awareness to external stimuli, meaning that more sounds and other stimuli can keep them up at night or wake them up at night.

Theory four is that anxiety can keep children with ASD up at night, since research shows that children with ASD tend to have higher levels of anxiety.

Theory five is that children with ASD can have neurotransmitter abnormalities in the brain that can cause disruptions in REM sleep.

How to Help Your Child with Autism Sleep Better

Regardless of the reason behind sleep disturbance, sleep deprivation can cause aggression, depression, hyperactivity, increased behavioral problems, irritability, learning deficits, and poor cognitive performance.

The good news is that there is research and advice on what can be done to alleviate symptoms of ASD based on these proposed root causes that contribute to sleep disturbance. See these five tips on what you can do as a parent to help your child get the sleep he or she deserves:

Instill Relaxation Techniques

Based on the anxiety theory, teaching your child how to self-soothe through anxiety-reducing techniques is paramount for quality sleep. If your child suffers from anxiety, some conventional techniques may work like reading a bedtime story or giving him or her a soothing bath. However, if typical remedies don’t work, consider relaxation techniques like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and music therapy.

Teach your Child How to Sleep Alone

It can be tough but important to train your child how to sleep by him or herself. A child’s being able to self-soothe and fall asleep without a parent lying beside him or her is an independence milestone that gives the parent more freedom at night as well. See sleep guidelines that every parent should know.

Consider Melatonin Treatments

Remember that according to the melatonin theory, melatonin is either not released at the right time of day and/or not enough is produced due to a lack of tryptophan. The use of melatonin supplements is on the rise, but be aware of all the benefits and risks involved before trying melatonin therapy.

Create a Bedtime Routine

It’s important to make bedtime a positive experience, instead of a time of day met with dread. Create a bedtime routine for your child that he or she will look forward to. Take at least 20 minutes prior to bedtime for your child to unwind, where they know in advance it is bedtime. As with any child, regular bedtimes and wake times are key, and consistency with upholding the routine you create is everything. You can even create a picture book where you include visual cues and the sequence involved in your nighttime routine to educate your child and reinforce the bedtime routine.

Minimize External Stimuli

For children with ASD who experience a heightened awareness and sensitivity to external stimuli, it is essential that you minimize household noises and carefully monitor the thermostat to make sure your child’s bedroom remains cool. Also minimize the amount of light exposure to the room, even if that means installing blackout blinds.

Remember that each child, regardless of an ASD diagnosis, develops in his or her own time, where any differences will show up in time. Based on information available through kidpt.com, know when not to worry and when to seek extra help.

Bio: Ashley Little is a writer for the MA Sleep Institute, an organization dedicated to helping others get their best sleep each night.

A new interactive tv show on Sprout called Tree Fu Tom has made its way over the pond from the UK. It is aimed at children ages 3-7 and my 4 year old has been asking to watch it again and again.

The show is about a boy named Tom who shrinks and turns into a cartoon to enter the world of his garden. Tom and his friends encounter challenges and have to problem solve solutions. This is where the magic comes in. Read more

If you have a child who has difficulty with social skills and I asked you what kind of therapy could help your child develop these skills, what would you say?

I can guarantee physical therapy wouldn’t be on that list.  Not even on the bottom of the list.   Read more

Re-posted from OUR Journey Thru Autism

“I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” yells an exuberant 8 year-old boy as he rides away from me on his bike. This young boy has a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and dyspraxia and was so frightened to just sit on his bike with training wheels 4 months ago that he held on to me for dear life. Today he rides away from me on a two-wheeled bike on his own and tomorrow he will ride with his brother through the neighborhood. Read more

For many of us who have a loved one with autism or work with children with autism, the vaccine debate is not something new.  It is one that has been on my mind more over the last couple of years as I have done research to help me make decisions about how and when to vaccinate my daughter.  It comes up frequently with parents of  some of the children that I work with as they recount their stories and I have also treated children with “medically accepted” vaccination injuries. Read more

Playdough can be a great tool to strengthen the hands and for imaginary play.  It can also be a great tool for increasing sensory awareness of the feet.  It can also be used to challenge balance in standing like in this video, or it can be done in sitting too.  Have fun trying it out!

Children toe-walk for various different reasons. Medical causes such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy must be ruled out.  Many children on the autism spectrum will also toe-walk.  Additionally, children without any other diagnoses have been called idiopathic toe walkers.  It is important to understand that toe-walking is a MOVEMENT problem, not just an ANKLE problem.  This is why toe-walking can be challenging to parents and therapists alike.  A whole body approach is needed to achieve great results!  Read more

As a pediatric physical therapist specializing in developmental disabilities, I have worked with a lot of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) over the past 10 years. After several months of physical therapy, I frequently saw how related areas of development, such as communication and social skills, would improve after addressing their motor deficits. Read more

Joni Daichman, MSPT, Tracy Cueli-Dutil, DPT and Roberto Tuchman, M.D

Paper presented at the Geneva Centre Internal Symposium on Autism, Toronto, Canada (October 2002)

There has been an increased interest in the relationship between motor function, cognition, attention, language development and social communication disorders over the last few years.(Gillberg 1998; Landgren, Kjellman et al. 1998; Kadesjo and Gillberg 1999) The purpose of this brief report is to review the sensorimotor system as it applies to autism and related disorders. In addition we will discuss and highlight the motor clinical findings in children with autism and related disorders and provide preliminary data on our own clinical experience.  Read more

Originally published in Autism Spectrum, Winter 2005

Movement is an integral part of our social, emotional, and physical lives. A 4-month old excitedly kicks her arms and legs in response to the funny face dad makes, so he does it again. An 8-month old will crawl to retrieve her favorite rattle, shake it to hear the sound it makes, and then look at mom to share the experience with her. An 18 month-old takes moms hand, walks her to the kitchen, and says “juice” while pointing to the refrigerator. As a child grows, the length and complexity of movement sequences become more sophisticated. Read more