Autism and Sleep Problems
According to Autism Speaks, as many as four in five children suffer from one or more chronic sleep problems. Furthermore, many adults with autism consistently experience trouble falling and staying asleep.
Poor sleep exasperates behavioral difficulties, hinders learning, and reduces an individual’s quality of life as a whole.
Right now, no treatment for sleep problems related to ASD exists. The FDA has approved insomnia drugs, but these are not suitable for children and may not even be good for adults.
Despite the challenges between autism and sleep, there are ways for parents and children with ASD to rest easy.
Common Sleep Problems in ASD
Individuals on the spectrum typically have insomnia. On average, it takes 11 minutes longer than those without insomnia to fall asleep.
These children wake up more during the night than neurotypical counterparts. Moreover, they may have sleep apnea, a condition that involuntarily stops breathing throughout the night.
Some clinicians recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which are devices that improve nighttime breathing. Some cases recommend surgery.
Not only that, but those with ASD may not experience sleep’s therapeutic effects. This may be due to shorter REM sleep cycles, which is crucial for learning and memory retention.
Individuals with autism spend about 15% of their sleep period in REM. On the other hand, many neurotypical people spend about 23% of the night at this stage.
What causes sleep problems in those with autism?
Children with autism typically have other conditions that impair sleep. These range from gastrointestinal issues to ADHD to anxiety, but other factors could contribute as well.
Sensitivity to lights, sounds, or touch can affect your child’s ability to relax. Some experts believe depression could play a role in autism and sleep problems, but this remains unclear.
Those taking medications for other conditions might experience side effects that impact sleep. For instance, stimulates taken to manage ADHD are known to cause insomnia.
Lastly, some individuals with ASD may have mutations making them more susceptible to sleep problems.
Research suggests that those with ASD are more prone to have variations in genes responsible for the sleep-wake cycle or that cause insomnia.
Others suggest that some mutations alter the production of the body’s natural sleep aid melatonin. Studies show improvement in sleep quality for children with ASD who take melatonin supplements and those who do not.
How researchers study the connection between autism and sleep
Currently, polysomnography is the most common (and more thorough) sleep test available. It tracks brain waves, movements in the eyes and limbs, and breathing patterns during sleep.
Typically, researchers conduct polysomnography tests in a lab as it requires many sensors, wires, and computers.
Unfortunately, while this test is the best way to assess issues between autism and sleep problems, administering it can be challenging because it disrupts bedtime routines.
However, some researchers are looking into bringing the equipment into homes to avoid this disturbance.
Actigraphy is another testing method and is less invasive than polysomnography. Here, the person wears a device similar to a wristwatch, which tracks movements during the night.
This technique is better suited for studying sleep problems since it can be worn at home to record how long he/she sleeps.
Another way researches learn about sleep patterns is by surveying families or asking individuals to keep a sleep diary. The downside is a predisposition to error since it depends on people’s memories.
Developing Good Sleep Hygiene
Dr. Carin Lamm, Director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Columbia University Medical Center, states that sleep problems affect up to 80% of children on the spectrum.
Sleep is crucial for a child’s development. Compared to those who routinely receive proper rest, those coping with poor quality or insufficient sleep show a rise in problematic behaviors like:
- Daytime drowsiness
- Impaired learning
- Behavioral issues like repetitive actions, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, and hostility
Create an environment conducive for sleeping
Your child’s bedroom should be dark, quiet, and cool. Sensory issues can make children with ASD extra sensitive to stimuli. Modify the room’s conditions to provide your child with maximum comfort.
Set a bedtime routine
Those with autism thrive with routines, so establish a predictable schedule between 20-30 minutes. Make time for calming activities like reading or listening to soft music.
Avoid electronics and screens before bedtime, including the TV, computer, or video games. These stimulate the brain and make falling asleep harder.
Create a regular sleep/wake routine
Maintain a consistent sleep/wake schedule throughout the week. Try to limit differences in the weekday and weekend routine.
Let your child fall asleep on their own
An essential skill for children with ASD is learning how to fall asleep without you. Everyone wakes for short moments at night but soon fall back asleep through mental connections completed at bedtime.
By removing yourself from the room when your child first goes to bed, he/she will be able to fall asleep more easily during these regular awakenings.
Stay physically active
Routine exercise during the day will help your child fall asleep easier. Physical activity also promotes deeper, more restful sleep. When your child does exercise, make sure not to do it too close to bed because it can make it harder to relax.
Be mindful of caffeine intake
Avoid caffeine, however much you can, especially near bedtime. Learn about caffeine-containing foods and drinks. Besides coffee, tea, chocolate, and soda contain caffeine.
Naps are beneficial for younger children in preschool, but avoid letting your child sleep too late in the day. It can disrupt their circadian rhythm or keep them from feeling tired to sleep at night.
Address underlying issues
Although autism and sleep problems relate to one another, it’s important to consider any other medical or psychiatric issues that might affect your child’s sleep habits.
Talk to your child’s medical care team about adjusting his/her medication, and look into other possible issues, such as:
- Restless leg syndrome
- Sleep terrors/nocturnal panic attacks
Your child’s doctor may refer to a sleep specialist. Those with chronic insomnia might need additional behavioral or pharmacological treatment.
Research Specific for Autism and Sleep
Researchers and the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) have developed several resources specific to autism and sleep.
The guides below are valuable resources for parents and their children with ASD.
- Strategies to Improve Sleep in Children with Autism Parent Booklet and Quick Tips
- Sleep Strategies for Teens with Autism
- Melatonin and Sleep Problems: A Guide for Parents
Sleep problems frequently occur in children with autism, but there is help. Once your child gets the rest they need, their overall functioning and well-being can improve dramatically.
Not only that, but restful sleep for your child will also improve the sleep of other family members, too.
ABA therapy services plays a vital role for your child’s development and well-being. So, parent’s need to be financially ready for the financial obligations that goes with the therapy sessions and home based autism therapy is a viable option.
No diagnosis will be able to tell you the hurdles your child will face. That’s why finding the right treatment, rather than focusing on a label, is the best thing you can do for your child.
Call or message us today. Or you can visit our website at www.sandcastlecenters.com. Our qualified therapists can help your child grow and live a happy, independent life.
Book an appointment now, in-home or on-site services are great options. This pandemic might help you consider telehealth ABA therapy services as well.
For more information and resources, check out the blog!
- “Sleep.” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/sleep.
- “Sleep Problems in Autism, Explained.” Spectrum, 6 Feb. 2020, www.spectrumnews.org/news/sleep-problems-autism-explained/.