Sleep for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

In addition to being the camp director of Camp Akeela and having a doctorate in clinical psychology, I’m also training to become a certified sleep consultant!  I’ve been thinking 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.

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. (Here’s an example of a weighted blanket.) 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.

If you’re looking for a great general resource on sleep for babies and young children, check out: Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child.

— Debbie


Thoughts on Asperger’s on ‘Parenthood’ (and a Washington Post interview with its producer)

We absolutely love the NBC drama ‘Parenthood’, particularly for it’s portrayal of Max, a young teenager with Asperger’s. Max – with all of his endearing quirks, sharp wit, affinity for routines and social gaffes — reminds us so much of our campers at Camp Akeela. This is the population that we’ve dedicated our professional lives to, and that brings us so much joy, laughter and pride each summer. It’s been a lot of fun seeing Asperger’s emerge into the public’s consciousness over the last few years, in part due to ‘Parenthood’. When we describe the mission of Camp Akeela to people we meet, Max is often a point-of-reference for them.

The show has done a great job showing Max and his family in a realistic light. Yes, he can be really frustrating. He sometimes has what we call “meltdowns” and has had to work really hard to control certain behaviors that were getting him in trouble at school. He often puts his foot in his mouth, or worse, hurts the feelings of someone who loves him.

It’s clearly not always easy being a parent or sibling in Max’s home. But the overwhelming picture we get of Max is how sweet and smart and funny and loveable he is. This affectionate but unsentimental portrait of Max immediately convinced us that someone writing for the show knows what he/she is talking about. Indeed, executive producer Jason Katims has a son with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Here is a link to an interview Jason Katims did for the Washington Post blog, “On Parenting”.

If you don’t already watch the show, check it out!


Welcome to our blog!

We’re so excited to share this blog with you.  We will mostly be writing about what we know best: Asperger’s (and NLD, PDD-NOS, …) and summer camp.  But we’ll also share our thoughts about general child development and parenting, along with specific news from Camp Akeela and whatever else catches our interest in the world!