Thursday, October 14, 2010

Anxiety Over Sleep Issues

We have been doing biomedical treatment with our son since shortly after he was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. Kai has made a lot of progress in many areas, but sleep remains a persistent issue. His two-night streak of sleeping through the night when we went camping this past weekend was an extremely rare occurrence. Now that we’re home, he has resumed waking up in the middle of the night.

Many kids with autism have sleeping issues. Kai usually wakes up some time between midnight and 3AM. He will come knocking on our door and I’ll go out to see him and put him back to bed. Sometimes he will just say, “good night” and lay down in his bed. Other times, he will start talking to me about all sorts of different topics including planets. And, then there are times when he seems really anxious, and he may tell me he had a bad dream and can’t sleep. When he is more talkative or when he says he can’t sleep, it is almost certain that he will come knocking on our door again. On those nights, I often end up sleeping in the extra bed in his bedroom.

Before, I never wanted to stay in his room as I thought that it was just an emotional over-dependency on his part to want to see me or my wife in the middle of the night. I thought we would just be coddling him if we stayed in his room. A tough love approach would teach him to be more independent.

But, tests done by our DAN (Defeat Autism Now!) doctor show that Kai’s neurotransmitters are not functioning correctly, and his glutamate levels are particularly high. Glutamate is the most excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Abnormally high amounts of glutamate can result in disruptive sleep and bring on high levels of anxiety. As Kai is fearful of so many things, it is likely that his glutamate level is at least partially responsible.

Knowing that his anxiety and sleep problems are the result of a physical condition rather than simply an emotional issue, I’ve softened my stance about taking a tough love approach. I’ve tried to place myself in his shoes. How would it feel to wake up in the middle of the night, feel very anxious about something, and not be able to fall back to sleep?

Is it bad to soothe your six year old child in the middle of the night? Would it be better to take a tough love approach and leave him alone, even if he is unable to fall back asleep?

When I stay in his room, he usually becomes calm, stays quiet, and eventually falls back asleep. But, at some point, he may wake up again after I have fallen back asleep.

Three nights ago, some time after I fell asleep in his room, he woke me up. “Dad, stop snoring!” Apparently, I was sleeping too noisily for him.

Two nights ago, some time after I fell asleep in his room, he woke me up. “Dad?” “Huh?” “You can go back to sleep.” Apparently, I was sleeping quietly and he was just checking to make sure that I was still in the room.

Then, earlier this morning, he again woke me up. “Dad?” “Huh?” “You can sleep for 15 more minutes.” “Uh, thanks, Kai.”

And then, 15 minutes later, the human alarm clock went off. “Time to wake up, Daddy!” “Grrrumph.”

You know, on second thought, maybe that tough love approach is not so bad.

* * * * *

This post was submitted for S-O-S Best of the Best, Edition 8: Sleep Issues & Bedtime and Kids with Special Needs, which will be published on July 15th, 2011. You find more information and read other submissions here.


  1. That was very good of you to put yourself in his shoes when you learned it was more physiological than previously thought. To be able to soothe a child in his time of need is what is remembered fondly later by all involved parties. He will remember your kindness forever. You will remember his reaching out to you...and you being able to make it all better.

    That is what good parenting is all about.

  2. Thanks. I'm learning to be more flexible in my approach.

  3. How big of you to try to empathize. I'm sure mine would have been so much better off if I had that approach. His inability to communicate actually helped in my tough approach. It's only because I was young and indifferent to what he was going through at the time. But it worked out. It is just taking you a little longer. At least you know the issues he has. Good post. :-)

  4. Thanks! I have adapted my parenting approach quite a bit from the way I thought before I actually became a dad.

  5. I totally get this! On one hand, I don't want to "coddle" but on the other hand, I want him to sleep (I want to sleep too!). But it's great that he was able to sleep through the night while camping - that would have had me a little bit stressed out. One just never knows with our kids :)

  6. Lisa, we were surprised when he slept while we went camping. We thought his sleep would be even worse. Like you say, one never knows with our kids. :)


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