Updated: Apr 21
Are you sick and tired of not being able to sleep because your neurodivergent brain won't stop being so extra spicy? Yeah, me too. (At least, I used to be!) A lot of Autistics have a hard time getting the rest we so desperately need. The longer we go without good sleep, the harder it gets to cope with sensory issues, executive function, and pretty much everything else.
I'm going to skip all the usual stuff--avoiding caffeine, exercising, turning down your phone brightness. You've probably tried all that. Instead, here are all the oddly specific yet critical elements that have worked for me. Working with an autism life coach can help you figure out your own sleep strategy, too!
Sleep hygiene is a real thing
When you hear the term "sleep hygiene," it might seem like some kind of trick. No more staying up late on the weekends? Yeah right! I'm a grownup and I do what I want! But like most aspects of human health, good sleep is a thing that we must work to maintain. Luckily, this part fits right in with Autistics' love for routines, so we have a head start!
(No more all-night gaming, Timmy! You'll thank me later!)
It sounds like the least fun thing ever, but it helps so, so much to wake up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time every night. Yes, even the weekends. Why? Because of a little thing called your circadian rhythm. Basically, your brain and body have a lot of stuff they do for you all the time to keep you alive, and they really want to do them at the same time every day. It takes a lot of brain chemicals and stuff to wind you down and wake you back up, and your body appreciates some prep time.
(Just like me when it's almost time for dinner. Or leaving the house. Or literally anything.)
It might not feel like it, but trying to keep a sleep/wake schedule really does pay off. After probably a week, you might start to notice that you actually feel tired around bedtime and (somewhat) awake in the morning! You know, like everyone says it's supposed to feel?!
Are you breathing ok?
Not every Autistic person has this problem, of course, but sleep apnea is surprisingly common. This is especially true for people with thicker necks or smaller jaws (me). On top of that, many Autistics have overly-loose joints, thanks to connective tissue disorders like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (also me). Loose joints and weak connective tissues can result in your airway being blocked off when you relax. Maybe that's happening to you? Ask your doctor about it!
Here are some hints that you might have sleep apnea:
Waking up in a puddle of drool (gross, sorry)
Dry, sore throat in the morning
Others tell you you snore really badly (you can also use an app to record yourself and find out)
Your tongue feels like it's too big for your mouth
Before I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and became best friends with my CPAP machine, I was apparently waking up 80 times per night, every night, because I wasn't breathing. And that's considered "mild" sleep apnea!
Suspicious about the sensory aspects of wearing a CPAP mask at night? I also thought it would be horrible, but now I LOVE my CPAP. Being able to relax and breathe at the same time is awesome and I'd never go back to sleeping without it. I'm very sensitive about my face at night, but I still got used to the mask after just a few weeks.
(Don't worry, it's not as bad as the Snore Converter.)
Get in the zone
It is essential for me to play video games every evening. It's hard to explain, but gaming does something for my mind that nothing else does. It's kind of like my brain is a desk that's cluttered up with all the things I've thought about and done throughout the day. After being "in the zone" gaming, it's like my brain has tidied up all its clutter and packed it in a drawer for tomorrow.
(Kind of like this! But my brain-desk has a lot more animal facts on it.)
It may be important to note that I stick to cozy games, especially ones that involve resource management. Maybe organizing digital stacks of iron ingots helps my brain get into "tidy up" mode. Or maybe a tidied-up mind is just a natural consequence of being in flow state. Either way, it just plain feels good to line stuff up. I used to feel guilty for "wasting time" on video games, but now I know they're an important tool for me.
(That's what I'm talkin' about!)
You may notice a potential problem here. Thanks to Autistic inertia and difficulty switching tasks, won't I just get stuck playing video games and stay up way too late? Yes, of course I will! But that's why gaming comes before dinner, not after. Eating dinner is the perfect gaming cut-off for me, since it's hard to do both at once. It also helps that my partner wants to watch a show with me while we eat. Transitions are much easier with someone to help!
After I've gamed, eaten, and watched a few shows, I'm usually feeling pretty sleepy. But then it's time to brush my teeth, which always winds me back up. So once I'm in bed, I have to wind back down. The good news is that I have perfected this process after years of experimentation. Hopefully my example can help you find your own wind-down routine!
Many people say that being on your phone in bed keeps you up at night. If you're scrolling forever through super-stimulating content, I definitely agree. But that's why I'm only allowed to use 3 apps when I'm winding down. From most-stimulating to least-stimulating, they are:
Current favorite puzzle game
Reading a book
I use each of the apps in that order, depending on how busy my mind feels. The goal is to stay stimulated enough to keep my mind from wandering, but not so stimulated that I start waking back up. If I notice I'm still thinking about work while I try to read my book, I take a step back to the puzzle game. Sometimes I skip a step. The most important thing is that I'm guiding my brain to feel sleepier and sleepier.
(My brain is like a cute little hamster. I have to give it a trail to follow or it'll be running on the wheel all night!)
I know not everyone loves crosswords like I do. But with millions of choices in the app store, you're bound to find something that works for you. When I'm choosing an app for my wind-down, it must have:
Night mode or dark colors
Consistent brightness level
No ads, or I can pay to remove them
No obnoxious, micro-transaction-based reward system ("Earn 14 crystals to unlock a power-up! Buy 500 crystals for $8.99!")
I don't want anything popping up, sparkling, or whooshing across the screen. It's bedtime, folks. My brain doesn't need to be assaulted with daily bonus check-ins, prompts to connect to my Facebook account, or countdown timers for limited-edition blue orbs. I want to knock out a crossword puzzle in five to ten minutes and move on to the next one, feeling mildly accomplished and increasingly sleepy. Which brings me too...
Don't rush it!
A breakthrough moment in my quest for rest was when I realized I was trying to fall asleep way too early. Just lie down and close your eyes, right? Not for me! And, I assume, not for a lot of other Autistics. This is when we're our most vulnerable to an obnoxiously chattering mind.
(If your brain's doing this, it's not ready to try to sleep.)
If you try to fall asleep before your brain is ready, you get endlessly looping thoughts about an embarrassing moment from 10 years ago. So how do you know when your brain is ready to put down the crossword and close your eyes? It's time for some interoception!
For many Autistics, interoception (or your sense of your own internal state) is no easy task. As well as you're able, try to pay attention to the signals your mind and body might be giving you that it's time to fall asleep for real. My signals are:
I start rubbing my feet together
Mental images of weird, dream-like things
My eyes keep trying to close and it gets harder to to aim my vision
So when those things start happening, I put my phone down, contemplate the dream-like visions, and ta-da! I'm asleep!
(Hmm, what's going on with that happy cheeseburger?... Zzzzzzzzzzz)
You got this!
I know how incredibly frustrating it can be to lie awake for hours, wishing for something that seems to come easily for so many other people. I hope that reading about my own bedtime routine gave you some ideas, or at least some hope! But if you still need some help, contact us to start working with an autism life coach. Our neurodiversity-affirming Coaches are full of great ideas for feeling better every day--and every night, too!