Autism is a wide spectrum that looks differently for different people. However, one commonality often seen in individuals with autism is sleep difficulty. Some children with autism may struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or may sleep in unusual ways.
One prevalent sleep disturbance commonly reported by parents of children with autism is sleeping on the floor. As a parent, you may wonder why they do this, if it is ok for them to sleep this way, and what, if anything, you should do to help make sure they are getting the best night's sleep possible for optimal functioning.
Read on to learn more about this phenomenon and what you can do to address this with your own children.
Sleep is often something taken for granted by people who do not suffer from sleep disturbances.
Your child with Autism has a 40 to 80% likelihood of suffering from sleep difficulties, based on a 2010 literature review by Cortesi et al. To further compound the concern, sleep disturbances in children with autism have been correlated with maternal stress and sleep disruption, emotional regulation difficulties, increased aggression, hyperactivity, and reduced social abilities.
If you are concerned about any aspect of your child’s sleep, you are not alone! And you’re in the right place to learn more about how to approach this bedtime challenge.
If your child has sleep challenges, you likely have concerns regarding the impact that sleeping on the floor could be having on them, from their moods, ability to focus, behavioral concerns, energy levels, or even their communication and social skills.
So, why do they like to sleep on the floor? The answer is complex because again, every child is different and there is no one simple answer for all individuals.
Let’s explore some common reasons why:
That comfy cozy blanket set and perfectly soft pillow you thought your child would love (because you probably do!) may actually feel incredibly uncomfortable to them.
Hyper and/or hyporeactivity to sensory stimulation are included in the DSM’s diagnostic criteria for an ASD diagnosis, as sensory issues are exceedingly common.
The sensory input from a floor is significantly different than the input obtained from sleeping on a bed, depending on the bed surface and the type of flooring.
For some children with autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a smooth and cool surface may simply feel better than the sensory overload caused by the soft bed, fluffy blankets and pillows, sitting up high on a raised surface, and the warmth under the covers.
It should be noted that because autism is such a wide spectrum, some children with autism may prefer the soft bed instead.
Many children with autism struggle with effectively communicating their wants and needs and advocating for themselves. Because of this, they may be unable to communicate specific aspects of the bed that are uncomfortable to them and request modifications to better meet their needs. For example, a neurotypical sibling may say “mom, this bed is itchy, can you get me different sheets?”, or “dad, these heavy blankets make it too warm for me to sleep.”
A child with autism may be unable to communicate what about their bed or their current sleeping arrangement is making them uncomfortable and may make themselves comfortable wherever they can instead, resulting in sleeping on the floor.
We’ve covered some of the reasons children may sleep on the floor, and some statistics on the correlations between sleep disturbances and autism.
Now, is this something that you should be concerned about or is it a harmless quirk about your loveable little one?
Let’s cover possible concerns about this sleeping pattern:
Studies suggest a heightened sensory perception may be a contributing factor. Sleeping on the floor may suggest that they are struggling with the sensory input that they are experiencing during the night. Common sleep disturbances include insomnia, inability to stay asleep, unusual sleep patterns, etc.
Studies have demonstrated that lack of quality sleep compounds certain symptoms of autism including social skills, emotional regulation, and severe repetitive behaviors. Further research is needed to identify whether these issues stem from a lack of quality sleep, contribute to the lack of sleep, or a combination of both. Sleep disturbances also have an adverse effect on the well-being of caregivers. It’s difficult to be the best version of yourself when you’re sleep-deprived! With all of these factors in mind, any unusual sleep variations are worth evaluating further.
Kids are resilient and seem to be great at bouncing back from wild sleep positions. However, the possibility of back/body pains from sleeping on the floor should be considered. This concern may be further compacted when considering that children with autism may be unable to communicate pain or discomfort. They may also be unable to identify that the cause of their pain is from sleeping on the floor.
Does your child have environmental allergies like dust mites and mold? Sleeping on the floor may actually increase their exposure to these allergens, which could further reduce their quality of sleep.
If your child prefers to sleep on the floor, but gets a great night of sleep and there are no concerns that their sleep is being impacted by sleeping on the floor, they may simply prefer the sensory experience of the floor. In this case, forcing the bed or pushing other options may not be necessary or beneficial. You know your child best!
Sensory processing is a large component of Autism Spectrum Disorder. An Occupational Therapist can conduct an assessment to identify Sensory Modulation Disorders and may have more specific recommendations for your child’s individual sensory needs at bedtime.
It may not be the bed in particular, but other components of the bedtime environment. Is the lighting too bright or too dark? Adjust the lighting. Is it too loud or too quiet in the room? Cut out any background noise or add a white noise machine (or natural white noise like a fan).
Try one modification each night and record in a notebook what change you tried and what, if anything, appeared different in their sleep that night. Taking data will help you to pinpoint what needs to be changed sooner than later.
Discard the idea that your child has to sleep in a bed. Consider alternatives that may be more pleasing to your child. You could try bean bag chairs. Perhaps a chill space in the corner of their room with their favorite pillows and blankets. A floor bed could also be a great alternative, especially if the height of the bed is a contributing sensory consideration.
Some other ideas include a hammock, a reclining chair, a futon mat, or an air mattress. Again, what works for one child may not work for another, so you may need to try a few things before finding the perfect setup for your child!
If your child experiences sleep disturbances beyond simply preferring to sleep on the floor, a sleep study may be necessary. Talk to their Pediatrician about whether that would be a possibility. Conducting a traditional sleep study in a clinical setting with all of the attachments is oftentimes too overwhelming for a child with autism.
However, there may be alternatives such as a sleep tracking bracelet that the child could wear at home for a period of time.
You know your child better than anyone. We know you’re their biggest advocate. Take these ideas into consideration and determine the best course of action for your family.
If you are ever questioning your child’s sleep habits, but unsure whether they are harmless or a sign of something more significant, it’s always best to reach out to their doctor, another trusted medical professional, or their care team to seek guidance. There is never a silly question when you’re advocating for your child’s well-being.