Updated at: 15-02-2022 - By: Jane Brody

Many people with autism have a hard time getting a decent night’s sleep, and that’s especially true for those with autism spectrum disorders. Getting to sleep and staying asleep are common problems for those with autism spectrum disorders.

This might lead to an increase in certain symptoms, such as repeated activity, which can make it even more difficult for them to sleep.

Families that are dealing with an autistic child’s sleep issues are of particular concern because of this negative feedback loop. However, this is also one of the least researched features of autism.

For the time being, this is all we know about sleep disorders in autistic children and how to treat them.

How common are sleep problems in children with autism?

Nearly 80% of autistic children have sleep disruptions, according to a big study published in 2019 that looked at the incidence of sleep issues in autism. Children with autism are twice as likely to have sleep issues as other children, regardless of their developmental status.

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What types of sleep problems are common in autism?

People with autism are more likely to suffer from insomnia than the general population: It takes them an average of 11 minutes longer to fall asleep and they frequently wake up during the night. There are some persons with the illness who suffer from the disorder that causes them to stop breathing numerous times a night, causing them to wake up frequently.

People with autism may not get the same amount of restorative sleep as the normal population does. About 15 percent of their slumber is dedicated to rapid eye movement (REM), a stage that is crucial for learning and remembering things. In comparison, most neurotypical persons sleep for only 23% of the night in REM.

Does this lack of good sleep have consequences?

Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increase in autism symptoms, such as a lack of social skills. Sleep deprivation can cause children on the autism spectrum to engage in more extreme repetitive behaviors and have a difficult time making friends. They also have a lower IQ than their peers. However, it’s not obvious if these issues are the result of insufficient sleep, the cause of it, or a combination of the two.

According to a study conducted in 2009, autistic children who have sleep problems are more hyperactive and readily distracted.

Why do people with autism have difficulty sleeping?

Many persons with autism have other disorders, such as gastrointestinal issues, ADHD, or anxiety, all of which have been shown to interfere with sleep. Constipation cramps, for example, can keep someone with autism up at night. Difficulty falling asleep might be caused in part by hypersensitive to light, sound or touch senses. Autistic people’s sleep issues may be a sign of depression, but it’s not clear if depression is a result of or a cause of these issues.

They may also be taking drugs that interfere with their sleep. For example, stimulants, which are known to promote insomnia, are commonly prescribed to those with ADHD.

There are mutations in the genes of some people with autism spectrum disorders that predispose them to sleep disorders. According to research, people with autism are more likely than the average person to have a sleep-wake cycle or insomnia-related gene abnormalities. Some research suggests that people with autism have mutations in their melatonin gene, which is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates sleep.

What kind of effects do sleep problems have?

Sleep deprivation can have a significant negative impact on the development and well-being of children. Sleep deprivation has been linked to the following traits in children with autism:

  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Intensification of behavioral issues
  • Irritability
  • A lack of ability to learn and retain information

There’s a strong likelihood that if your child isn’t sleeping, you aren’t either. According to one study, parents of autistic children sleep less, sleep worse, and wake up sooner than parents of typically developing children.

How can researchers assess sleep problems in people with autism?

Polysomnography is the most popular and comprehensive sleep test. A person’s brain waves, eye and limb movements, and breathing patterns are all monitored as they sleep. Typically, it is done in a lab because it requires a large number of sensors, wires, and computers.

People with autism, on the other hand, may find that the gold-standard procedure is not always feasible, as many of them require specific bedtime routines. At least one research group has attempted to address this issue by bringing polysomnography equipment into the homes of autistic individuals.

Using a wristwatch-like device, an actigraphy sleep test records a person’s nightly movements. The device can be used at home to keep track of how long a person spends sleeping each night.

Interviewing families or having them keep sleep diaries is another way to collect data on sleep patterns. Due to the reliance on individual recall, however, these approaches are prone to inaccuracy.

How can I help my child sleep better?

Sleep aids should only be used as a last option in children. The quality and quantity of sleep that autistic children get can be improved through a variety of dietary and lifestyle adjustments and natural sleep aids:

  • Keep caffeine and sugar away from your child’s bedtime routine to avoid disrupting their sleep.
    Put your child to bed at the same time every night with a consistent evening routine that includes bathing, reading, and tucking them into bed.
  • It’s a good idea to read a book, provide a light back massage, or play quiet music before bed to help your youngster wind down.
  • A minimum of one hour before going to bed, turn off the television, video games, and anything else that might keep you awake.
  • Put heavy drapes on your child’s windows to block out light, put down thick carpeting, and make sure the door doesn’t squeak to keep your child’s bedroom distraction-free at night. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to your child’s sensory requirements when selecting the room’s temperature and bedding.
  • Melatonin is a sleep aid that can be given to children before bedtime by their pediatrician. Taking this dietary supplement before bedtime can help those who are suffering from jet lag adjust to their new time zone. Autistic children who have sleep disorders may benefit from this treatment because research shows that it is both safe and effective.
  • See if bright-light treatment is an option for you. Melatonin production may be regulated by exposing a child to periods of bright light in the morning, which may help them stay alert during the day.

Would better sleep improve quality of life for people on the spectrum?

Maybe. This has not been the subject of big, conclusive research. However, studies have indicated that children with autism who get surgery to address respiratory difficulties when they sleep demonstrate improved social communication and attentiveness, as well as fewer repetitive behaviors. Parents of children with autism who took melatonin supplements reported similar results, according to short research.

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Angela Maxwell-Horn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, argues that better sleep “is not going to heal autism,” according to her. Children with autism who return to a regular sleep schedule appear to learn more effectively, be less irritated, and exhibit less behavioral behaviors, according to her.

How do I know whether my child has a sleep disorder?

The amount of sleep required by each child varies slightly. In general, children require the following amounts of sleep, based on their age:

  • The recommended amount of sleep for children ages 1-3 is 12-14 hours each night (take into account whether your child naps).
  • Ten to twelve hours of sleep each day is recommended for children ages three to six.
  • For children aged 7 to 12, the recommended amount of sleep per day is 10 to 11 hours.

You should be concerned if your child has a hard time falling asleep or wakes up frequently during the night. It’s best to consult your child’s pediatrician to be sure. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist or an otolaryngologist-head-and-neck surgeon by your primary care physician.

In order to keep track of how much and when your child sleeps, keeping a sleep diary for a week can be beneficial. There is no need to include snoring or other breathing irregularities that may indicate a sleep disorder. The following day, record your observations of your child’s conduct. Your child’s doctor and any other specialists involved in treatment can see this journal.

Tips for Improving Your Autistic Child’s Sleep

For autistic children, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to enhancing their sleep. According to studies, these are some of the most efficient methods:

  • A cold, dark, and quiet bedroom is essential to avoiding sensory difficulties. Do your best to reduce outside noise to a minimum by using blackout curtains and other noise-blocking measures.
    Start your night routine at least one hour before your scheduled bedtime.
  • Give your child a simple, consistent bedtime routine that involves putting on clothes, brushing his or her teeth, reading together, or whatever is most calming for your child (and you).
  • A warm bath and snacks before bedtime can help some youngsters sleep better. Many autistic children have special attachments to stuffed animals or other toys, which might be included in the daily routine. Even on holidays and weekends, try to keep to your regular schedule as much as possible.
  • Predictable waking to sleeping times is essential for a healthy lifestyle. 15 minutes, 10 minutes, and 5 minutes prior to the commencement of the nighttime routine give cautions. Experiment with different routines, such as shutting off the TV and going to the bathroom. If visual or auditory timers work better for your child, go ahead and use them.
  • Help your youngster learn to fall asleep on his own, even if you’re not in the room. To begin with, sit on the other side of the room and gradually move farther away till you’re outside the door if this is an ongoing problem.

Children with autism may also benefit from extra attention to sensory and physical concerns in addition to these fundamental strategies. For instance:

  • You may wish to keep a log of how your child reacts to certain foods and exercise at bedtime. Are there any foods she consumes that make it difficult for her to go asleep? Before going to sleep, does he feel more relaxed or energized after exercising? As a result of your research, make adjustments to your routine.
  • For persons with sensory difficulties, there are particular goods to consider. Using a white noise machine or a weighted blanket, for example, can help your youngster relax by creating soothing background noise.
  • Some autistic people benefit from taking melatonin supplements at low levels 30 minutes before bedtime.

In the event that none of these easy, tried-and-true methods work for your autistic child’s sleep troubles, what should you do? In this instance, you have a number of options for furthering your quest for assistance:

  • A physician-ordered sleep study can assist identify problems with your child’s sleep cycle. Other than that, they can reveal underlying sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement disorder.. etc.
  • Autism Speaks’ online “toolkit” for parents can assist parents to pinpoint specific sleep issues and developing strategies for dealing with them.
  • You may want to check out a sleep program at your local hospital or clinic. Sleep specialists may be able to help you better understand how to help your child sleep by providing tools and ideas.

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FAQs

What causes sleep disorders in children with autism?

There are various hypotheses as to why autistic children have difficulty sleeping. In the first instance, we’re talking about nonverbal indications. Sleeping patterns are established by the natural cycles of light and darkness, as well as the circadian rhythms of the human body. However, they also rely on social cues to communicate. A child might watch their siblings getting ready for bed, as an illustration of this. Children with autism, who have trouble expressing themselves verbally, may misread or ignore these signs altogether.

Also, melatonin, which is known to control sleep-wake patterns, maybe a contributing factor in the problem. There is an amino acid called tryptophan that the body needs in order to produce melatonin, and research has shown that it is either more or lower in children with autism. Melatonin levels typically rise when it’s dark and fall when it’s light. In some children with autism, melatonin isn’t released at the right times of the day, according to research. Instead, melatonin levels are higher during the day and lower at night in these people. Increased sensitivity to external stimuli, such as touch or sound, could be another reason why children with autism have problems going asleep or waking up in the middle of the night. A child with ASD may wake up suddenly if their mother opens the door to the bedroom or tucks the blankets in. Anxiety is another illness that may have an impact on your ability to get a good night’s rest. Anxiety levels in autistic children are often higher than in typically developing children.

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