The inability to get a good night’s sleep is experienced by most people at one time or another. However, recent studies show sleep concerns are more prevalent with people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
For many people with autism, it can be a challenge to get to sleep and stay asleep, which can have a negative impact on certain aspects of autism, such as repetitive behaviors, balance, coordination, sensory perception which can, in turn, lead to more sleep problems. If sleep issues are not properly addressed, the problem can become an endless cycle for many.
Types of Sleep Issues Commonly Associated with Autism
Insomnia is a common problem experienced by people with autism. It has been observed that it takes 11 minutes longer for a person on the spectrum to fall asleep than someone who is neurotypical. A person with autism is also more likely to wake up in the middle of the night. Some people with autism experience sleep apnea which can cause the heart to stop several times momentarily at night. Many children with autism struggle with prolonged wake ups at night, which is often tied to sensory processing issues.
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These issues indicate sleep may not be as restorative for a person with autism as it can be for other people. About 15 percent of sleep time is spent on rapid eye movement (REM) compared to about 23 percent for neurotypical people. This can affect memory and learning functions.
What Causes the Sleep Problems People with Autism Experience?
A great many people with autism also experience other health conditions like gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), all known to be sleep-disruptive. Constipation may also cause cramps that can make a person remain fully awake at night.
Also, some people with autism may take medications that can affect getting a good night’s sleep. For example, people with ADHD are often prescribed medication that acts as a stimulant which can end up contributing to insomnia. Studies indicate some people on the spectrum may carry mutations that make them more prone to sleep problems. Several studies have revealed that people with ASD are twice as likely to have mutations that affect the melatonin levels. Melatonin is the natural hormone that helps regulate sleep.
Sleep Problems and Children with ASD
When it comes to children with autism, nearly 75 percent are said to experience sleep challenges. Here are some varied ways in which sleep issues can affect families:
- children with autism typically sleep less than is needed for their age, which can affect their overall health.
- When sleep patterns are scattered, both parents and children can experience increased stress and tension. This can contribute to a cycle of sleep disturbances.
- Children with autism are also more prone and sensitive to stimuli. This can be disruptive while getting to sleep and if they wake up in the middle of the night.
- Children with autism typically prefer routine and controlled conditions making it more difficult to adjust to any changes in the preferred environment.
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Two Components of Sleep Problems
Sleep problems are known to have two major components: problems with circadian rhythm and problems with settling the brain and body. The best method of settling the brain and body is to come up with safe conditions for sleep, have structure and consistency ar ound routines and sleep schedules, and to get the necessary amount of physical activity and sensory stimulation during the day. Circadian rhythm issues can be resolved with light exposure, when the above techniques have not resolved sleep issues. Children with ASD often experience problems with sleep continuity when they sleep in the dark.
What Are Some Treatments for People with ASD Who Experience Sleep Problems?
There are many sleep hygiene and behavioral approaches to help promote a better night’s sleep. It’s vital to stick to a bedtime plan, create a comfortable environment, and find ways to eliminate sleep disruptors. There are situations when the fix is as easy as establishing a sleep routine, which includes a specific order of activities before bedtime. Finding the right room temperature and lighting can also make a big difference. It’s also helpful to stick to the same sleep time and wake-up time.
Researchers indicate a low-dose of melatonin can also help people with autism get to sleep without side effects. However, some children have the opposite response and are more awake at night. For more serious sleep problems such as sleep apnea, physicians often recommend the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine and in special cases, surgery. Check with your healthcare provider before trying any regimen to ensure the supplement is right for you and/or your child.
Content from Spectrum was used in the development of this article.