Autism and Sleep (again)

Filed Under (Sleep, Transitions) by Estee on 09-09-2010

This picture is of Adam covering his ears while I’m doing a song and dance trying to keep him awake! Say what, you might ask? Doesn’t Adam have problems staying asleep?

Well yes, sometimes, which is why I found this evening so ironic that I have to write about it. Adam was up since two in the morning at his dad’s. When he came home, he was unusually pooped and fell asleep around 5 o’clock. I didn’t have the heart to wake the poor little guy so I let him take a short nap which could spell trouble again at two a.m. It was at this thought that I decided to try and wake him forty-five minutes later. I tried so hard to keep him awake that I found myself creating a kooky song and dance routine to make him laugh. If it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have kept it up for a full hour. While Adam laughed and smiled at me most of the way through it, this moment, which I captured here, signified the end (with no encore).

“Go away, mum,” he said, his small hand swooshing me away.

Since Adam was born, I was sleep deprived nearly every night for three years straight! My infant rarely napped and if he did it wasn’t for long. When I attempted to put him down to sleep, it took me about three hours in a darkened room, all by myself, (just think what three hours means!), only to have him wake an hour and a half or so later.

I need about seven hours of sleep a night. Adam is good on sleep too — more focussed and happy, generally, but his body doesn’t always comply in either falling or staying asleep. As he gets older, sleep is more manageable (when I say manage I mean mostly for me as Adam can still function on little of it) around here and on tougher nights, a small dose melatonin has saved an evening or two. Some days, it has had zero effect. It seems to have little effect if there is a lot going on in Adam’s life.

In 2010 alone, Adam has moved homes, has learned to live in two households (since 2008), and has now changed schools after having been settled in one since Kindergarten — that was four years ago. He started his new school on Tuesday and he has been body-twitching so I am not surprised at the sleep difficulty. Add to that a holiday event last night, well, it’s just so much.

I imagine Adam in his new school trying to figure out his environment, the new people, the new expectations and being completely overloaded. I think of it a little like Tourettes syndrome where individuals who try to “perform” and keep their bodies calm all day long claim that they have to come home and tick like mad. We all do it, as a matter of fact. We all get overloaded and find ways to block out the stimuli. Many of us also wake up in the middle of the night when our lives are disrupted. It is not any different for Adam so while we talk about autism and sleep, much like we do food sensitivities and autism, I believe we have to remember that while many autistic people may claim to not need a lot of sleep in general, it might also be the manifestation of receiving certain stimuli that we are really talking about. In other words, in most of us, we respond to changes, transitions and other matters of life in our sleep and behaviours. Typical kids might also be having nightmares, or cry in Adam’s current circumstance. The specific sensory sensitivity of Adam, however, manifests, we might say, in an autistic way. Similarly, many of us non autistic individuals are gluten and casein sensitive. We just don’t all hand flap (as but one example) when we feel uncomfortable.

Some of the ways we try to ensure good sleeps around here are really cool to cold room temperatures, a dark bedroom, calm soft music and low lights before bed. No computers, no televisions, no noise. I learned early to keep Adam’s personal environment as calm as possible — his “safe haven,” if you will. It’s not always a sure thing, but I’ve noticed that it helps Adam out a great deal.

Yet after school today was quite a different day for us, which is why I am writing this.
Adam is happy now, I’m certain — safe and sound in his bed… and fast asleep.



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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.