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How Fidget Toys Aid Sleep in Autistic Kids

Difficulty sleeping is a common challenge for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Research estimates 40-80% of kids with autism experience some type of sleep disturbance. This can include difficulty falling asleep, frequent night waking, early morning waking, and poor sleep quality overall. Lack of sleep affects kids’ behavior, mood, attention, learning, and health. Finding ways to help children with autism get the restorative sleep their growing bodies and minds need is crucial. An often overlooked but highly effective sleep aid for these kids are fidget toys.

Fidget toys are small, handheld objects that kids can squeeze, click, flip, slide, spin or otherwise manipulate to channel nervous energy. Originally created to help kids (and adults) with ADD/ADHD focus by giving restless hands something to do, these unassuming little gadgets can work wonders when bedtime rolls around. Here’s why fidget toys and other sensory tools belong in every ASD child’s sleep routine:

Calming Through Motion

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is common in people with autism. Stimming helps regulate emotions and manage sensory input through repetitive physical movements like flapping, rocking, spinning, pacing, bouncing, flicking fingers, etc. Motion actually has a very real calming effect on the nervous system that makes it easier to fall asleep. Fidget toys allow for stimming-type movements in a quiet, contained way. Kids can stim with their fidget toy under the covers without disturbing siblings or parents. The soothing nature of these movements releases tension in the body and mind and pave the way for better sleep.

Transitions Made Easier

Transition times are notoriously challenging for children on the spectrum. Shifting activities and environments amps up anxiety that makes settling down to sleep very difficult. Having a go-to fidget toy for the transition from playtime or homework to bedtime gives their hands and minds something familiar and regulating to focus on. The sensory input from manipulating the toy’s buttons, switches, and other features counteracts the overstimulation of an abrupt transition. Kids will feel more centered, relaxed and ready for sleep after some fidget toy play.

An Outlet for Restlessness

Kids with autism tend to have more restless minds and bodies that find relaxing into sleep difficult. They often fidget, toss and turn throughout the night as well which leads to frequent waking. Fidget toys give these kids’ restless hands and minds a positive outlet before bed to expend some extra energy. Using a fidget toy for a period of time before lights out can get the wiggles out so they don’t end up bouncing around in bed. The hand movements satisfy sensory needs in a calmer way than restlessness.

Occupies Wandering Minds

Excess mental energy and wandering thoughts are also common obstacles to falling asleep for autistic kids. Their minds may race with replays of the day’s events, new imaginings, worries, and repetitive mental loops. Engaging their senses with a fidget toy is the perfect distraction from an overactive mind. The focus required to manipulate the toy occupies their thoughts so they can’t race about. The concentration and stimulation fidget toys provide lead to a pleasant calm and mental quiet that paves the way for better sleep.

Self-Soothing At Bedtime and Through the Night

Fidget toys are ideal self-soothing tools for anxious kids at bedtime. The act of feeling the toy in their hands and manipulating its parts is very regulating. Rubbing their fingers over the ridges of a textured toy or listening to the clicks of a switch flipped on and off is extremely grounding. Having a comforting fidget toy to grasp in the dark when stress or anxiety strikes during night wakings can actually help eliminate those wakings. The ability to self-soothe back to sleep with a tool they associate with calm and comfort is powerful. Kids with autism often use sleep as an escape due to high daytime anxiety. Fidget toys give them a different positive coping mechanism.

Fun Focus for Bedtime Routine

Incorporating fidget toys into the bedtime routine kicks things off on a positive note kids look forward to rather than dread. Kids with autism often resist and avoid bedtime because they have trouble shifting gears and don’t know how to prepare their bodies and minds for sleep. Starting the wind-down process by playing with a preferred fidget toy they find very engaging helps tremendously. It provides something pleasing for them to focus their attention on in place of resistance or avoidance behaviors. The sensory play is regulating and primes them for sleep.

There are so many types of fidget toys out there to explore like pop tubes, marble and mesh balls, spinners, gears, flippy chains, infinity cubes and more. It may take some trial and error to discover which textures, features and tactile sensations your child responds to best for sleep and sensory soothing. The key is to make fidget toy play a consistent part of the bedtime routine. Knowing their favorite go-to toy is coming allows kids with autism to look forward to the routine rather than dread it. And the calming, focusing elements of these toys will pave the way for more restful nights all around.