Hi! My 8 year old autistic son suffers from nightmares in his sleep all the time. I know that autistic people are prone to suffer from more sleep problems than any other group of people (getting to sleep, staying asleep, nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.), but I wondered if you had any ideas at all as to if there was anything we could do to help him? My son and I have talked about it a few times, and I said I'd do some research for him. Thanks! Fiona
Oh my gosh this is such a hard question!
When it comes to autistics and discomfort of any kind, the first thing I always look for is a sensory source. What is causing the discomfort? Basics first, and I would suggest the basics even if you’ve already done them (and I would suggest doing them regularly because it is always worth checking in). You’ve probably already done this but I’m going to go over it for other readers.
Control the sensory environment. Is there anything in the environment that can be changed to make the night more comfortable? A fan to cool the air a little more? Less light? More light?
If you haven’t tried weighted blankets, a lightly weighted blanket is safe for sleeping at night, and for a lot of us crawling under a blanket is like turning of a switch. It’s the best Mom Hug ever. Seriously. If you haven’t tried it, try it (though to be fair, they can be expensive).
The most inexpensive that I have personally found is SensoryGoods.com, however, I have not purchased one (yet!) so I cannot speak to quality. Of course, if it is within your budget, I recommend finding an autistic quilter or seamstress and supporting their business. If you need help finding a reliable source, I can help there (ask or PM is fine!). I’m sure my followers have a lot of suggestions there, too!
Moving beyond the basics, and I am guessing this gets closer to an answer for your question, “What if the sensory issue is emotional?”
In my case, nightmares are caused almost exclusively by my anxiety and PTSD; I am terrified of being abandoned by people, because of that I have all kinds of horrible dreams about the things I will do or the things others will do that ultimately result in abandonment.
Of course, something like that is hard to control. I can’t just remove the sensory input (emotional response to anxiety or PTSD in my case). I’ve been in therapy for years now, and I still have issues with this stuff.
But with emotional stuff talking does help. With a child, I wouldn’t suggest just before bed, like my wife and I, but maybe an hour before bed when there is still time after to distract the mind before the bedtime routine.
Basically, if you think the source of the nightmares is emotional, getting the thoughts out before bed but not to close to bed, might help ease some of the nightmares.
Try to get your son to stay on topic, but let him run the conversation. What are the things he worries about at school? At home? When he is playing alone? Watching TV?
If he doesn’t feel like talking, it is okay to push a little because sleep is a health issue, but obviously there is a line where pushing too hard just adds to the problems. If he doesn’t want to talk, then share some of the things that you worry about.
And to be clear, share your current worries. Obviously you are worried about him, you can start with that but don’t focus on it. This is about expanding the conversation. If you’re worried about work, share that. If you are worried about the political climate, share that.
The idea here is emotional reciprocity by example. If you want him to dig deep and really try and figure out what is bothering him, you need to do the same. Answer is questions as honestly as possible, with as little simplification for his sake as possible. Basically, talk to him like an adult.
Emotional stuff is hard, but if you invest in him, he will invest in you. Of course, you have to be on the watch for autistic language. You probably know his language better than anyone but him, but for other readers this means non-neurotypical modes of communication.
Watch his body language. Does he rock when he is emotionally agitated? You might be close to what is bothering him. Does he spin around when he is happy? You’re connecting with him, but not in the right area.
Make this part of your routine for the evening, including the extra time between the talk and bedtime. Your conversation with him can be five minutes or thirty or an hour. Whatever you think is reasonable for his routine. But make it a daily thing if you can. Or at least two or three times a week. I suggest shorter and daily because routines are easier that way, IMO.
Keep looking for answers here in the autistic community, I am going to tag a few people who might have more experience with this than I do.
All of that said. If the nightmares still persist, and talking doesn’t help, and therapy doesn’t help, there are medical options that are safe. I will not share them in this post, as they are a little further afield than I want to go here, but you can PM me or send another ask.
- Check the sensory environment. Let him control it.
- Try a weighted blanket if you haven’t already.
- Add nightly conversations about the things that cause anxiety, whatever those are for him.
- Reciprocate, reciprocate, reciprocate, in those conversations
- Check with other autistics I’ve tagged, and the community at large
- Check back for replies to this post to see what others comment!
- Last resort, there are medical options that are safe (but seriously, LAST resort).
Some people who might have more experience than me (and may or may not have additions to offer to my general suggestions above):
@butterflyinthewell @autismserenity @autistic-parenting @autisticeducator @strangerdarkerbetter @vulcanfeminist and I know there are more of you and I just can’t remember who might have thoughts on this because brain is a jerk. If I missed someone obvious, my apologies.