Sleep can be difficult at times for anyone and everyone, but individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are particularly vulnerable to having sleep issues. Both falling and staying asleep can prove troublesome for those on the spectrum.
In recent years, researchers have been delving deeper into autism, gaining more insights into sleep’s role in ASD. The latest research findings and insights of autism experts led to the creation of our 2018 Autism Sleep Guide.
How common are sleep problems in individuals with autism?
According to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences, children with ASD suffer from sleep problems significantly more than typically developing children. The study found that up to 80 percent of kids with ASD experience issues with sleep, compared to just 10 to 16 percent of kids in the general population.
What kind of sleep problems?
Parent reports recorded in a review by a doctorate-level practitioner indicated that insomnia was the most common sleep issue experienced by children with ASD – 56 percent of the study sample was affected by longer-than-average time trying to fall asleep and frequently waking up throughout the night.
Sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing repeatedly starts and stops, was also commonly seen in those with autism. Sleep apnea is characterized by a lack of oxygen to the brain. This can be particularly problematic for young children during such a critical period of brain development.
REM sleep is essential for the executive brain functions associated with learning and retaining memories. Scientists have found that, on average, individuals with ASD only spend about 15 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep. To compare, typically developing children spend about 23 percent of sleep-time in REM sleep.
What are the implications of poor sleep?
Poor sleep can take its toll on anyone. For those with autism, poor sleep can aggravate certain characteristics associated with ASD, like repetitive behaviors. This increase in repetitive behaviors can then make it more difficult to fall asleep, perpetuating the poor sleep cycle.
Children on the spectrum often struggle with meltdowns and temper tantrums as well. Tossing and turning all night can negatively impact mood and the ability to regulate emotions.
Are there any treatments for autism-related sleep issues?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved certain insomnia medications for adults on the spectrum, but strong pharmaceuticals aren’t the best option for young children. Instead, research has shown that melatonin supplements can offer a safer alternative, though it’s always best to consult with a pediatrician first.
In some cases, it can be as simple as establishing a routine: implement a specific order of activities leading up to bedtime. Other factors like temperature and lighting in the bedroom can also play a role.
In conclusion, better sleep won’t cure ASD, but it can help ease the symptoms and behaviors that go hand-in-hand with autism.
Expert Tips for Helping a Child with Autism Get a Good Night’s Sleep:
According to research and the decades-worth of experience of our Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), there are a number of bedtime tips worth trying out with a child on the autism spectrum.
- Avoid giving a child anything with caffeine or sugar before bedtime.
- Avoid excessive liquids in the evenings.
- Establish a bedtime routine with the activities that best help your child relax. Maybe it’s bath time followed by reading a book in bed and lights off at 8 p.m. Different bedtime activities may work better for different children, but it’s important to establish a routine and stick with it.
- Encourage relaxation with soft music, reading a book, or a back rub.
- At least an hour before bedtime, unplug from all stimulating activities like video games or television.
- Stay consistent with nap time during the day and wake time in the morning.
- Make sure exercise is incorporated into the child’s daily routine. The more energy is spent during the day, the easier it will be to fall asleep.
- Make sure room temperature and lighting are at comfortable levels.
- Reduce the chance of sensory distractions: get thick curtains to block out light, take care of creaky doors, and install carpeting in areas the child can hear people walking around.
- Talk to a pediatrician about melatonin supplements if natural nighttime remedies don’t seem to be making a difference.
- National Sleep Foundation
- CDC – Sleep and Sleep Disorders
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine
- National Autism Resources – Sleep
- National Autism Association
- The Autism Society
- National Institute of Mental Health
- CDC – Autism
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Autism Speaks Sleep Toolkit
- Autism Research Institute – Bedtime Tips
- WebMD – Autism and Sleep
If you found our Autism Sleep Guide useful, check out our Autism Anti-Bullying Guide.