All autistic kids are different. But here are a few things that have helped my nonverbal autistic son start sleeping through the night on a regular basis. We still have nights where we struggle, but he sleeps well enough that I am not exhausted all the time like I used to be.
Before you know what has worked for us, you need to know where we started out. My autistic son Luke was a very good sleeper as a baby. I used the methods from Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child. He was sleeping through the night at about 6 months and he slept really well until he was about 2 years old. At 2 years old, a lot of the signs of autism started manifesting themselves more and his sleeping digressed badly. It got to the point where we would give him melatonin and he would go to sleep in the evening, but he would often wake up at around 2am. It would then take him about 2 hours to get back to sleep (with the help of more melatonin) if he did go back to sleep at all. He would wake up in the middle of the night every few days.
Autistic brains seem to be different than neurotypcial brains. One high functioning autistic adult once told me that he still needs melatonin to be able to go to sleep. When I first started using melatonin, I tried to be as sparing as possible. I didn’t want Luke to have to use it all the time. But now I’ve just accepted that melatonin is what he needs. His brain doesn’t naturally produce as much as normal people. Luke doesn’t even show tired signs like normal children. So I use melatonin and don’t feel bad about it anymore.
Lots of kids fight taking melatonin. We use a spray so that we can somewhat “force” him to take it. After a month of taking it, Luke doesn’t fight us anymore on it. He gladly takes the melatonin – even though this particular brand doesn’t taste very good! (If your child hates the taste, consider giving them a piece of candy right after the spray so that it hides the taste.)
Here is the link to the spray we use: Holistic Health Melatonin Spray
Usually Luke only needs one spray. I give him one spray 15 minutes before we start putting him to bed. But occasionally he will need two sprays. Especially if he has been going to bed later (like 7.30pm or later) for a few nights in a row. If you are really tired because you have been going to bed too late, then it is harder to fall asleep.
Put them to bed early
I try to put Luke to sleep somewhere between 6-8pm. This is what Marc Weissbluth of “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” recommends. Putting your child to sleep early prevents them from getting a second wind or getting over tired. Usually we put Luke to bed around 6:30 pm. I give him melatonin at 6pm or 6.15pm and then we start bedtime fifteen minutes later. He usually isn’t asleep until 6:30 or 6:45pm. And then he sleeps until 6.30 or 7am the next morning.
I have found that putting a child to put 15 minutes earlier than normal can really make a big difference. If you find that your child is having a hard time going to sleep, try putting them to bed a little earlier.
If a child is well rested, then they won’t fall asleep easily in a car and they are generally happier throughout the day.
White noise can help because it masks the other noises that might wake them up in the middle of the night. We have a white noise machine by Dohm that I put outside his door. If I put it inside his room, he will unplug it and play with it at 2am. So I put it outside his door and keep it on all night long.
Here is the link to the white noise machine we use, but I’m sure any machine will do fine: Dohm white Noise.
Sidenote: I actually use a fan outside his door for when he first falls asleep. The fan is louder and it allows us to still make noise in the living room while he goes to sleep at 6:30pm. Then, when we are ready for bed, we turn off the fan and use the white noise machine for the night.
Limit Toys in the Bedroom
For my nonverbal autistic child, we had to strip his bedroom down to the bare bones. Just a bed and some pillows and blankets. He loves to play with things at 2am.
Limit Light in the Bedroom
This was a hard one for us because Luke would pull down ALL of his curtains and blinds. Like rip them out of the walls. He loved to play with the curtain rod. So right now we have a tarp outside his window. Super tacky, but it works! Otherwise the neighbors lights or the moon would keep him up in the middle of the night.
It’s not the best situation because then he can never see out of his window in the daytime, but since there are no toys in his room anyway, he plays in other rooms and only uses that room for sleeping.
Lock the Door
In order to have Luke understand that it is time to sleep and he has no other choice, we lock his door. If he is in pain or crying, then of course we go and check on him. But I feel like he really wouldn’t TRY to go to sleep if he knew he could keep trying to get out and play. So I feel like locking his door is necessary and not a harsh measure. It is like a little baby being put in a crib where they can’t crawl all over their room while they are trying to fall asleep.
Where Luke is now
Just for absolute transparency, I want to be clear about where we are now with my son. He sleeps through the night regularly. If we go on vacation and sleep somewhere else without all of the above criteria, he usually wakes up in the middle of the night. So we definitely still have room for improvement. But it is much better than where it used to be.