For parents of autistic children, there’s often no such thing as a good night’s sleep. Children on the autism spectrum are often prone to wakefulness well into the night, making it hard for others to sleep and leading parents to worries that their child will harm himself if Mom and Dad fall asleep. This fear is well founded. It is not unusual for autistic children to leave the house in the middle of the night – all without a care in the world.
I am not a doctor; I am a parent of a child with PDD-NOS. I do not have a cure, but I do have experience dealing with these sleepless nights. It is common for my son to stay up until 4:00 a.m., bouncing on the bed, laughing hysterically, and generally having a much better time than those of us who actually need a little sleep. If you are a sleep-deprived parent at your wit’s end because your autistic child never seems to sleep, keep these tips in mind:
Secure Your Home
The absolute best thing you can do for both your peace of mind and your child’s safety is to secure your home. At our house, we have door chains at the very top of the exterior doors. At this point, our son is to young to reach them, and therefore, we do not worry about him leaving the house in the middle of the night. I know of other parents who have installed motion alarms that will alert them if their child leaves. That is a spectacular idea, and one that I will personally adopt when the time is right.
Also keep in mind that your child need not leave the home to be in danger. We “child-proof” homes when an infant or toddler are present. Parents of autistic children need to do much the same thing. Keep chemicals or dangerous objects in a locked cabinet. Keep kitchen knives in the highest cupboard. We often turn off the water faucets in the bathroom at night-not so much to protect our son as to protect ourselves from a heart-stopping water bill. My point is that each sleepless autistic child will find his own dangers or way to damage your property. Get to know your child’s proclivities and secure your home against them.
Sleep in Shifts
When our son is at his worst with sleeplessness, we often have to stay up well into the night to watch over him. The easiest way to do this is to take turns and let one person sleep well. I will often doze in our living room chair so that I am in a good position to keep Alex from causing trouble downstairs. I do my best to keep him out of the bedroom while my wife is asleep. There is no sense in her being half-awake the next day. Because I am a mere mortal, sometimes I get to sleep and she gets to stay up. It’s our way of protecting our son and one another.
Wake ‘Em Up Early
It seems obvious, but if your autistic child is staying up until 4:00 in the morning, they need to get up early. Attempt to wear your child out during the day, and do not let him nap. This is a strategy that parents of typical children have used since time began. The autistic twist is this: often, parents are so sleep-deprived that the temptation is to let the child sleep until 2:00 p.m. if that will buy you some quiet. Resist it. Autistic kids are often able to keep this up for several nights at a time, but eventually, you can get them on an appropriate sleep schedule until the next crisis throws it off.
Melatonin is available over-the-counter in the supplements section of your pharmacy. Many adults take it to help them fall asleep. It also has a high success rate for autistic kids, and it certainly has fewer affects on them than prescription medication. When our doctor suggested it, we were skeptical. Nonetheless we tried it, and it halted a jag of staying up until 3:00 a.m. that had lasted at least two months.
If you are thinking of using melatonin, you must talk with your doctor. It’s not a prescription medication, but that does not mean that you make the decision to give it to your child on your own. Your doctor might also suggest a prescription medication. I feel fortunate we have not had to go with that option, because the side effects often make the situation worse instead of better. Nonetheless, you should understand that there medicinal options.
Insulate Other Children as Best You Can
We have an autistic son, and we also have two typical children. We do anything we can to make sure their sleep is not disturbed. It is not easy, and in some homes (such as ours), it is impossible to give each child his or her own room. We have to live with our son staying up late, but his siblings do not have to live with excess noise or being disturbed throughout the night. We will sometimes move Alex into our room, or move his brother into our bed if the noise is too much. We will take our son downstairs and let him make noise in the dark living room instead of jumping on the bed and yelling in his brother’s ear. You will have to decide what options will work best in your home.
Dealing with a sleepless child is hard. Dealing with a sleepless autistic child can be a living nightmare. If you find yourself in this situation, understand that many other parents of kids on the spectrum know what you are feeling. You may not be able to stop the situation entirely, but you can manage it. If you have other tips to share, please feel free to comment on this article. I would love to hear them.