Counting sheep doesn't work...
Even the Dalai Lama once said "Sleep is the best meditation". On Maslow's Hierachy of Needs Sleep is at the bottom of the triangle, the most important layer for a persons well-being. I'm pretty sure that if there was such thing as a sleep God, all teenagers would dedicate their adolescence to worshipping this being. A good nights sleep can make us all better people, a bad nights sleep has the potential to turn us into grouchy, resentful, unproductive zombies.
I think we can all agree that sleep is a powerful force, and one that we would most certainly die without. But what happens when sleep eludes us?
I suppose I first started having problems with sleep from birth. Although I don't remember it myself, I do remember my parents recounting on several occasions that I spent the first 12-18 months of my life crying non-stop. And despite their desperate attempts to get me to sleep, they would still spend their nights and days walking up and down the hallway cradling me as I screamed and cried my tiny eyes out. My sleep problem became their sleep problem. And that is how it is for many parents of children with Autism and various other neurodevelopmental conditions. I cannot speak for carers, but I can speak for myself as someone with a neurodevelopmental condition. Both of us alike have felt the effects of sleep deprivation, carers, because they have the undying need and wish to protect, look after and support their child, and me, because my brain isn't quite the same as other people's.
There could be thousands of reasons as to why sleep doesn't come so naturally to me. It may be, in part, genetics. It could be biochemical differences in my body. But I do know that most of the time I can't sleep because I can't stop thinking. My brain seems to have trouble switching itself off.
I am a very visual thinker, I have a vast imagination and the majority of what happens in my life is actually inside my head. So I could be lying in bed, waiting for the warmth of sleep to arrive, but it never does because my brain is still going a million miles an hour. I could be sucked into a philosophical debate, or imagining how I would cope in an apocalypse. Or I might think of something which would be a really good written piece, or think of a really cool thing to paint, and then, of course, I have to get out of bed and write it/paint it before I forget.
Sometimes I can't sleep because of Anxiety. Anxiety is something that I have accepted as a part of my day to day life. Most of the time now I can get past it, however it does still have the ability to disable me from time to time, especially when it comes to sleep. I could spend hours lying in bed replaying an awkward social exchange which happened that day, or de constructing a social situation where I messed up. Or I could be anxious about a social exchange happening the following day and run through every scenario in my head to prepare myself for every situation which could arise. I could be practising dialogues, and conversation structures to make sure I am ready. I might not be able to sleep because there is something happening the following day which is triggering high levels of anxiety, and so I spend hours on end worrying about it.
Sleep deprivation can be a dangerous thing. For me, being sleep deprived exasperates the original cause of not being able to sleep, and so I get stuck in a downward spiral. Lack of sleep is a major trigger for a worsening of my mental health, and can lead to a full blown relapse. I can't function without a healthy amount of sleep. After years of struggling with sleep problems I have slowly built some strategies to help.
The first and most important strategy to get a good nights sleep, for me, is Routine. I have a bedtime for myself, which I do resent slightly because I am not a child, but it's something which I have to commit to for my own health and well-being. The second trick I use is when I find myself unable to stop thinking, I write down what I am thinking about in a note pad next to my bed and tell myself that I can think about it in the morning. I do the same with Anxieties and worries (it's not fool proof and doesn't work all of the time, but it does work sometimes). The third strategy is Mindfulness, I simply do a 'full body scan'. A mindfulness exercise where you focus entirely on your body and how it feels, starting with your feet and working upwards to the top f your head. This helps to ground me, and bring me out of my head and into the room. I also make sure I don't have caffeine after 4:30, and if all else fails, if I haven't slept very well for 2 nights in a row, on the third day I take sleep medication to knock myself back into rhythm.
Sleep problems are common in those with Neurodevelopmental conditions, such as Autism, and/or mental illness. It can and does have a huge impact in a persons ability to function. What do we need to do about it? Research. Potentially through research, sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may not need to be such a huge, and disruptive part of carers' and the people they care for lives' in the future.