A Closer Look at Sleep Disorders with Autism

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).

A Closer Look at Sleep Disorders with Autism https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sleep-disorders-autism

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, 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.

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.

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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.

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 and to implement proper anti-distraction techniques. Circadian rhythm issues can be resolved with light exposure. 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. Check with your healthcare provider before trying any regimen to ensure the supplement is right for you and/or your child. For more serious sleep problems such as sleep apnea, physicians often recommend the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine and in special cases, surgery.

Content from Spectrum was used in the development of this article.



Ava Wadaby

Ava Wadaby researches and writes about autism as she works to understand the challenges of her son who was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD. She also regularly conducts activities with children in her neighborhood, focusing on their learning and development.

  • Avatar Victoria Gillen says:

    Another consideration: sleep apnea, often due to the weight-gain caused by psycho-tropics, AEDs, and other pharmaceuticals.

  • Avatar Narissa says:

    This is an important topic. I have close friends with siblings and children with autism who are often up most of the night. I have also worked closely with many families with similar problems. It creates a snowball effect because if the child with autism is not sleeping it negatively impacts their day. They are less present when learning and in therapy. For parents and family members who have to stay up with their child or sibling to ensure safety, they become sluggish throughout their workday. Often, these kids can’t make it to school which requires family members to take time off of work. Well melatonin worked initially with some of the cases I have been involved in, they typically get used to taking it and it becomes ineffective. Research in this area is needed!

  • Avatar Rick Peralta says:

    Sleep can be a matte of habit, where the individual is subjected to a disruptive environment and remains alert against direct disruptions. Often all that is needed is a quiet safe place to relax.

  • Avatar Irena says:

    Sleep apnea is not the heart stopping, it is breathing which stops.

  • Avatar Tina says:

    My son is autistic and giving him melatonin at night makes him to emotional through the day. We stopped giving it and his happy more. I think it wasn’t good for him. And didn’t help much. He would fall asleep quick but still woke up 3-8 tines through the night. Too exhausting. Still trying to find a solution.

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