Dreaming of a good nights’ sleep?
The joy of a good nights’ sleep should never be underestimated but, for people living with autism and their families, it often remains just a dream.
While as many as one third of us can relate to restless tossing and turning from time to time, often brought on by the stresses of the day or leaving the TV on while we drift off, for people living with autism, problems sleeping can be hugely debilitating. For children with autism particularly, sleep troubles are twice as common, not helped by the fact that many autistic people have been found to have low melatonin levels – a naturally occurring hormone that helps to control sleep patterns.
That’s why our nurse at Portfield School, Angie Jones, embarked on a specialist course, based on teachings at the Sleep Clinic in Southampton, to help children and their families try to combat some of the causes of poor sleep.
We know how important it is for our children’s development to feel rested and rejuvenated after a few more than 40 winks! Equally important is that parents and siblings also feel refreshed and able to cope with whatever life throws us them.
Why do people living with autism have difficulties sleeping?
As well as having low melatonin levels, things like increased anxiety, hypersensitivity to light or noise, and an inability to wind down or interpret social cues correctly, such as other members of the family getting ready for bed, can make it hard for people living with autism to sleep peacefully.
Whatever the reasons, poor sleep can lead to poor health and research has shown that there is a connection between the lack of sleep and characteristics such as behavioural challenges, hyperactivity and poor cognitive performance.
Angie said: “Sleep deprivation can have a negative knock-on effect on the entire family and also on the health of the individual having sleep difficulties. This is why we want to do as much as we can at Portfield School to support children and their families to put strategies in place which aim to improve sleep patterns for everyone.”
How does sleep training work?
In the coming weeks, Angie will be working closely with some families to try to establish the main causes of sleep issues in the household. Then by implementing one small change to routine or environment at a time to see if there is any positive change.
She will start by looking at sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene includes elements such as how light the room is, whether it’s too hot or too cold, if the bed is comfortable or how noisy the room is. Parents will keep detailed sleep diaries to establish if aspects of the bedtime routine can be altered, such as scheduling quiet time, creating visual bedtime timetables and removing distractions earlier.
Angie added: “There is no one-size-fits-all magic formula, but the fact that Autism Wessex have recognised the impact that a good nights’ sleep can have on the wellbeing of our children and that we can work with the families to improve this is a massive step forward. By assessing each child and taking into account any co-occurring conditions such as ADHD, we can hopefully make a positive impact. In some cases, it might be a simple fix but, in other cases, we may have to refer to a specialist. What’s important is that we do all we can before we get to that stage so everyone at home can benefit from a restful night.”