It can be useful for whānau to understand how neurodivergence impacts sleep so they can support their child in a way that works for everyone. Often this will involve focusing on improving the quality of sleep a child gets.

Anyone caring for tamariki will have times when they will struggle getting them to sleep. It helps to know that the techniques for helping tamariki go to sleep and stay asleep can work for anyone (including adults!). But often sleep problems, including those experienced by neurodivergent tamariki, will have no “cure”. This is because their brains develop differently.

The word “neurodivergent” refers to people whose brains work differently than what is considered “typical”. It includes autistic people.

Most people wake up around the time the sun rises and start feeling tired once the sun has gone down. This is often referred to as our circadian rhythm – the 24-hour biological cycle that regulates our physiological processes, including our sleep-wake pattern.

Autistic people have variations in their genes that can affect this rhythm, making sleeping issues fairly common. These issues might not have a concrete solution. Whānau can instead focus on managing sleep and improving the quality of sleep their child gets.

Have a routine, but be flexible

Expecting someone who isn’t tired to go to sleep will only end in frustration! It’s best to set a specific time for when the wind down to sleep time will begin and then allow tamariki quiet time to read or play.

The light can be turned off but time is allowed for listening to an audiobook or quiet music. Some neurodivergent tamariki may even find it easier to fall asleep when listening to something.

Even if a child isn’t sleeping, quiet time in bed is still rest.

Create a comfortable sleeping environment

Many neurodivergent tamariki have heightened senses, so identifying what’s necessary to create a comfortable sleeping environment is important. Most people sleep best in environments that are cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Some tamariki might find futons, a thin mattress, or even the couch more comfortable than a traditional bed.

It’s important to avoid screen time and sugary foods in the lead up to bed time. Whānau may also find it helpful to talk to their family doctor about what medications their child takes that could interfere with sleep so they can come up with solutions.

Sensory tools can provide comfort

  • Weighted blankets or toys can create steady pressure. This can have a calming effect.
  • Body socks and sleep swaddles come in a range of sizes. During warm weather, these may be preferable to a weighted blanket.
  • White noise refers to a steady, unobtrusive sound or pattern of sounds and may help some tamariki get to sleep. It works by masking other sounds and can be produced on a mobile app, or with a cooling fan.

Conversation ideas

Tell me about your usual bed time routine for your tamariki.
What are some ways your child likes to relax?
What things make your child feel safe and comfortable?
Is your child taking any medication that makes it difficult for them to go to sleep?

Awhi Ngā Mātua

Content adapted from our partner Awhi Ngā Mātua, an online community for parents and whānau of disabled and medically fragile tamariki.

Visit Awhi Ngā Mātua(external link)

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