If you are lucky enough to sleep through the night, you won’t have any idea of what I’m talking about. If you have/or have had a newborn baby you will have some idea. But, if like me you’re a parent of a child on the autistic spectrum, then you will most likely know EXACTLY what I am talking about.
I used to take sleep for granted until I had children. On a Sunday I would literally lay in bed all day. It used to drive my husband insane how chilled I was. I absolutely love sleep. But now it's a precious commodity in our house due to the disrupted sleep patterns of our eldest, Stanley.
All parents can expect a degree of disturbed sleep at some point when they have young children and not all individuals with autism will have sleep issues - but it's very common in people on the spectrum.
So why? Why does Stanley have so much trouble surrounding sleep?
I have learnt over time that there are many reasons why Stanley won’t settle or wakes early. Anxiety, worry about the week ahead, the need for routine, a change in routine, poor understanding of the concept of sleep, sensory issues, bank holidays, half terms, Christmas...
A few years ago Stanley's doctor recommended a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is the sleep-hormone which causes people to feel drowsy in the evening and fall asleep, sleep medicine. Apparently it's used for jet lag and can be brought over the counter in some countries.
Melatonin deficiency is common with individuals on the autistic spectrum. Here's the sciencey bit: The theory is that melatonin production is light dependent. For children with certain types of autism it’s thought that the brain doesn't process the light properly and so either doesn't make any melatonin or doesn't make enough.
Unfortunately due to budgetary reasons *sigh* we were unable to have this prescribed in medicine form so were given tablets to "crush up and disguise in food or drink". Easier said than done - Stanley’s autistic but he's not silly! Needless to say that didn't work for us. So we were offered to try another medication in the form of a strong antihistamine. Four years later he is still on this medication. Sometimes this is effective. Sometimes not so. It took us a long time to get Stanley into a bedtime routine, he's only recently learnt to self settle in his own bed and doesn’t go smoothly every evening. He will occasionally protest and refuse to get into bed. Drop to the floor. Moan and groan. Generally after a bit of wall banging and a full itinerary of tomorrow he will drift into a slumber. Sometimes he will just cry himself to sleep. It's heartbreaking.
Whether Stan will stay asleep is another matter. The slightest noise disturbs him - trying to get him back to bed is impossible. So if he's awake at midnight you can guarantee he will be awake all night and into the morning. As is the rest of the house. The difference being while mummy and daddy will be zombie like, Stanley will be bright as a button going about his business. It's as if he doesn't need to sleep... Sleepovers are few and far between. Thank God for respite.
They say that some countries use sleep deprivation as torture. It is torturous... Going to work on no sleep sucks. In fact sometimes I don't and just sleep all day while Stanley is at school. It's so hard to concentrate when you are tired. Everything is ten times more stressful. I'm snappy and impatient. Emotional. Luckily my colleagues know to ignore the huffing and door slamming and to keep my mug topped up with coffee! It goes without saying the negative impact it has on relationships. My husband can't do anything right when I've not had any sleep. Not forgetting he's knackered as well... Bickering for the sake of bickering.
Tips to help sleep which I have found effective:
Routine, routine, routine! Basic enough so if you are away on holiday you can follow the same timeline.
6:30 Tech finished
6:45 Brush teeth/quiet time
7:00-7:30 Bed with TV on.
8:00 TV finished and sleep time
Check pyjamas/duvet covers aren't irritating. Cut labels out of clothes. Wash them a few times to soften the fabric before use. (This was an issue for Stanley he was forever taking his duvet out of the cover before going to bed because it was too 'starchy'.)
Foot/hand massage before bed can sometimes be relaxing.
Soft sensory lighting in the bedroom. Black-out blinds.
Stanley has his TV on when he goes bed. He has a timer and after 30 minutes we will enter his room and turn off - if he hasn't already. This isn't everyone's cup of tea but we find this relaxes him and provides some background noise. Maybe you could try playing some soft music instead.
None of these suggestions may work... Just remember to be consistent in your approach and get an early night where you can!
To read more about Stan and his family head to Marijka's blog
The content of these blogs/webpages reflects the thoughts, opinions and experiences of the individual writer and does not reflect the views of Family Fund. Always consult your doctor or other medical professional before taking medical action or changing your or your child’s health routine.