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How I Helped My Son With Autism Sleep Better

Annabelle Carter Short is a professional seamstress of more than 7 years who sells handmade items.

When my son was diagnosed with autism at age three, I felt shattered; it was like someone was ripping my life apart piece by piece. I always had a dream that one day I'd see him grow into a young man with responsibilities, with a family and of course a good job.

I had already seen signs that everything was not right before the diagnosis, but I thought it was an episode in his growth and it would pass. After his diagnosis, everything started getting complicated. He would, at times, be so angry and would throw things around the house. But that was not the main issue.

When Sleepless Nights Became a Rule

At the age of four, my son could not sleep at night. I observed in his sleep diary that, when he slept, his sleeping patterns were irregular; he would either wake up so early or very late. He would sleep for less than 6 hours when he finally managed to sleep and sometimes would be awake for more than two hours in the middle of the night. Some nights, he would wake up in the wee hours of the night and start playing with his toys or making loud sounds that woke everyone. After being awake for the better part of the night, he would have excessive sleepiness all day. But even with all that sleepiness, he still wouldn’t sleep.

I was seeing a therapist who recommended a few tips that I want to share.

1. I Adopted a Bedtime Routine

My therapist said that a regular ritual would help my son sleep better. He was rude to the teachers and sometimes violent towards them, so I decided to school him at home. I created a routine that runs from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he sleeps.

Two hours before sleeping, I would ensure that all gadgets are turned off. At first, it did not work, but with time, he got used to the rhythm and so did his body. In his routine, I included exciting activities such as a gentle massage before sleep and bath stories. I would also ensure that he used the toilet shortly before bed to ensure that toilet breaks did not interrupt his sleep.

I also maintained a sleep diary that helped me track the progress of my son. I would show this to his therapist when discussing the sleep problem.

2. I Started Using Mouth Splints

There were times when I would be so happy that my son had finally slept, only for him to wake up after a few minutes. He would then go back to sleep and be up after a few minutes. I realized that the problem was teeth grinding.

When I talked to a doctor about it, he recommended occlusal mouth splints. Teeth grinding disrupts sleep, but with these mouth splints, my son has been able to sleep better. At first, my son was not comfortable with wearing them. Because the mouth splints were customized to fit on the contours of his teeth, I knew it was only a matter of time before he got used to them. Again, the guards were made thin enough and with light plastic to make them comfortable.

I used to reward him for wearing the mouth splints and sleeping with them. I also got myself some store-bought teeth guards so as to motivate him to wear his. After a week, he adopted the splints as a sleeping routine.

3. I Made His Room Very Comfortable

I had to give away his mattress and get him a better mattress. I also had to replace his curtains with more beautiful, darker and heavier curtains to block out the light from his room.

I also got him a weighted blanket recommended by my doctor so he would use it when sleeping and even when he was doing other activities. Weighted blankets are cuddly; they make children (and anyone else using them) feel like they are being cuddled all night. This calms the body and improves focus. Granted, my son was able to focus on sleeping, and his muscles were calmed and relaxed. Though these blankets are heavy, they are not excessively warm, making them just right for my son.

If he requested to have anything in his room, I made sure he had it. Sometimes, due to his poor speech, I had to observe his behavior to know what he loved and what he didn't.

4. I Continued Taking Him to See a Therapist

I continued taking my son to a sleep therapist. I wanted my son to have the best care, and the doctor knew everything that was happening in his life. By seeing a therapist once after a while, my son's sleeping improved significantly.

The therapist recommended low doses of melatonin, which is a hormone that helps people with sleeping disorders to sleep better. I used the hormone for a while, but afterwards I realized my son would sleep better with or without the dose.

During the therapy sessions, my son was engaged in relaxation exercises, especially muscle and mind relaxation. I was also taught how to engage him in these exercises before bed to make him ready for bed. Using his sleep diary, the therapist was able to diagnose some of the behaviors that interfere with his sleep. We were able to help him modify behaviors, such as playing with his phone at night, that were interrupting his sleep.

5. I Learned to Sleep Better, Too

I used to wake up whenever my son woke up. The following day, we would both be hyperactive. He would be angry, and I would be tired and sometimes angry, too. I sought help from my husband; he would help take care of our son sometimes at night, and I would sleep soundly. During the day, I maintained my son's routine, and he also learned to sleep when the night set in.

It has not been easy, but I can now sleep comfortably knowing my son is sound asleep.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Annabelle Short

Comments

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 10, 2019:

I find a lot of effective insight in your article, Annabelle. All this should be useful to parents of children and youth with autism and to adults just discovering such a diagnosis.

Because of my upbringing, I was unintentionally conditioned to have a certain few autistic symptoms - which disappeared when I purchased the light blocking curtains you mention and began scheduling daily quiet time without technology. Thanks for spreading the word!