OK so bedtime can be a challenging time for some children and in particular children with autism. I want to explore with you why that may be the case and give you some suggestions for how to make it more of an award winning performance as opposed to a complete and utter shambles every night!
1. How do you feel about bedtime? Are you anxious about it? Do you dread it? If you do, those feelings will most definitely come across to your child (even if you are trying your best to hide it – children have a way of being in tune with what is going on energetically). For some children they will see this as a weakness and jump on the opportunity to make it work in their favour and for other children they may just feel that something is a miss and not feel comfortable enough to relax.
2. Do you have a routine? Do you stick to it? Does it work or need adapting? Bed times are times when I believe it is important for children to have a routine. The routine supports them in knowing what is coming up and what is expected of them. If it is a rigid routine that works, then so be it, sleep is really important for everyone to function effectively and develop. If your routine is new it may take some time for your little one to get into it, stick to it. If your routine just isn’t working any more then you may need to assess what ingredients are missing or need to be taken out to make it a winner.
3. Are you aware of any fears that child has about bedtime? For some children its simple, they don’t like the dark or don’t like to be alone. If you are able to discuss with your child what the issue is then I recommend using the Collaborative Problem Solving approach to get to the bottom of it. If your child is not able to communicate to you what the problem is (and most children can in some way or another you may need to be more observant on how they are communicating it to you through their actions) then you may have to put your detective hat on and investigate further what could be the obstacle here.
4. What sensory factors may be playing a role at bedtime? As we know, many children with autism have a co-occurring sensory processing disorder (not all, but many). This can play a big part at bed time since our sensory systems need to be organised enough for us to relax and fall asleep, this could be the key ingredient that needs fine tuning. Tell tale signs might include needing to be tucked in, lots of teddies on the bed, covers loose, particular items in bed, positions of sleep, types of cuddles, activities before bed etc, there are many more. Observe what is going on for your child and it will give you an indication of what helps to calm their sensory system down that you could include in your bedtime routine.
5. Winding down. When I used to work as a Dore Programme Specialist years ago, many children I came across had a Cerebellar Developmental Delay. This means that they had a difficult time processing information and so bed time in particular, the end of the day was when everything would come out verbally or just playing on their mind, sometimes taking for absolute ages to switch off completely. You may have experience it yourself, your body is tired and telling you its time to sleep you get in bed and then your mind is racing, you cant switch off until you have exhausted all possible thoughts and then you sleep. When this happens to me (occasionally) it can be 4 – 5 hours before I actually drift off – that’s a lot of thoughts! If you notice your child is like this then adapt your routine to accommodate for this, you may add more winding down activities before bed, or earlier bed times, or just simply talk things through earlier in the day. Whatever you choose to do can make a difference to helping them wind down.
6. Anxiety. We know that anxiety plays a big role in children’s minds that have autism. If sleep patterns were fine and then at times it seems to go to pot, it could be due to anxieties taking place that the child is worried about something coming up in their lives. This may not seem a big deal to you, but if it is a more than a change than they are able to handle their anxiety could be very high. Reassurance and talking through may help to ease this anxiety. You are probably aware that bedtime isn’t the best time to have this conversation but often this is when it comes out, and cannot be avoided. If you can create a time in the day to discuss these sorts of things it may help remain calm when it comes to bedtime.
No doubt there will be factors I haven’t discussed in this article, but I am hoping this gives you a fair idea of what could be going on and encourage you to reassess your bedtime routine and make adjustments where you see important.
Remember, sleep is vitally important to development and functioning and should be considered a high priority in families. If you need more support than this please contact me and I can help you and create an individualised sleep programme with support for you firstname.lastname@example.org