In addition to being the camp director of Camp Akeela, a three-week residential summer camp in Vermont and having a doctorate in clinical psychology, I am also a certified sleep consultant and the co-founder of Sleep Sisters! I think a great deal about children and sleep and have found it interesting to focus on children on the Autism spectrum, specifically those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). It is estimated that between 40 and 80% of all children on the spectrum suffer from sleep problems (falling asleep, staying asleep and early waking). Scientists are unsure exactly what causes such a high incidence of sleep challenges for kids on the Autism spectrum but we believe that a big part of the issues stem from struggles with integrating our often over-stimulating world.
Our observations from Camp Akeela, where most of our campers have a diagnosis of AS or NLD, are that kids on the spectrum have to work really hard all the time to maintain a level of “homeostasis” or feeling good. We often say that it’s as if our campers have to walk around the world on a daily basis performing their every-day tasks while simultaneously doing long division in their heads. Living in a “neuro-typical” world is hard work. In order for them to be at their best, we have found that our campers need to be well-rested – more so than the typical child.
Here are a few of our suggestions:
- Like all children, those with AS need to exercise daily to stay healthy. In order to do this and get to sleep at a reasonable hour, kids should try to exercise at least 2-4 hours before trying to get to sleep.
- Children with AS most likely require an extended amount of time to calm down and become sleepy. At least 30 to 45 minutes should be put aside in the child’s daily schedule to allow for this…which means that homework may need to get done earlier or saved for the morning.
- Research shows that dim lights while getting ready for bed create an increase in melatonin (the “sleepy hormone” in our bodies). A light dimmer in the child’s room might be well-worth the investment.
- Children on the spectrum need a great deal of predictability in their lives…bedtime routines are no exception. Children benefit from a “sleep rules” or “sleep schedule” chart in their room that is age appropriate and should include the evening schedule from showering/taking a bath, to dimming lights to putting on PJs to reading to turning off the light and going to sleep.
- Children on the spectrum often struggle with sensory integration. Many of our campers have found the use of weighted blankets to be helpful. Others have preferred to sleep on the floor rather than a “squishy” mattress.
- Although it feels counter-intuitive, many kids who are having trouble falling or staying asleep at night are often over-tired and require an earlier bedtime. It is not unheard of to have school-aged children on the spectrum in bed with the lights off between 7:30 and 8pm.
- Many parents (and doctors) fall into the trap of quickly moving towards the use of synthetic melatonin (which is a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies that helps us feel sleepy). There have been a few studies that question the safety of ongoing, nightly use in children – especially adolescents. We believe that healthy sleep habits are a better place to start and may yield even better results!
BIO: Not only am I a mom to our daughters, Margo and Julia, but I also have my doctorate in clinical psychology. All of my sleep work is informed by my knowledge about brain development, emotional development and family relationships. I really believe that a couple’s relationship (if there are two parents in a family) is deeply affected when a new baby arrives…especially when she isn’t sleeping! As I work with families, I always keep in mind that the family dynamic is always in play and find that developing the right sleep plan can really help bolster the strength of the family relationship at such a critical time.