Does autism interfere with your child's sleep? Take a look at Healthism's guide to autism and sleep for practical advice.
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects about 1 in 110 children in the United States alone. A common problem that parents of autistic children face today is sleep deprivation, often because the child has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. A lack of sleep can exacerbate the symptoms of autism, so it is important to understand why a child with autism may have trouble sleeping.
Chances are if you have an autistic child, you know how hard it is to get them to sleep through the night. In fact, up to 83% of autistic children have sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and early morning awakenings. Autism causes a host of symptoms ranging from mild impairment to severe disability, which is why the disorder has been reclassified as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
This includes a range of disorders that all together comprise ASD, including classic autism, Aspergers disorder and pervasive developmental disorder. Delayed development in communicative and social skills is seen in all types of ASD, but classic autism also involves repetitive movements, heightened reactions to environmental factors and difficulty focusing. There is no cure for autism, nor is there a confirmed cause of the disorder, but treatment is available for an improved quality of life.
Environment and Sleep
Some autistic children have difficulty sleeping because of fear of the dark, while others may have chemical imbalances that affect the sleep/wake cycle. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes autism, so the reason for sleep difficulties may still be unknown. However, several studies have revealed reasons why falling asleep and staying asleep may be difficult for children with autism. Some common environmental factors that can contribute to a restless night for autistic children include:
- Lights too bright in room at night
- Uncomfortable bed or pillows
- Fearful shadows on the walls
- Feeling closed in with door closed
- Clutter in the room
- Too much noise
- Lack of cues that it is bedtime
It is important for autistic children to have an organized bedtime routine that signals it is time to sleep. Remove all clutter that may indicate it is playtime and not bedtime. If fear is a factor, consider using a nightlight or a special item to sleep with for comfort.
Recent studies show that there may be a connection between sleep difficulties in autistic children and the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland, which produces more melatonin at night to make you feel sleepy. In the morning, melatonin levels decrease to make you feel more alert. Children with autism may be getting mixed signals due to melatonin fluctuations.
In fact, a new study published in the Journal of Child Neurology found that melatonin supplements are safe for most autistic children and significantly effective for sleep problems. Dr. Beth Malow, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University, led the study, showing that melatonin supplements are a natural way to treat autism-related sleep disorders. Results from the study also showed that 60% of child participants experienced improved sleep, and 25% reported that sleep was no longer a problem.
Another factor to consider when your autistic child is having trouble sleeping is the area of diet. Products that contain sugar, caffeine and other additives can cause an already overactive system to stay active well into the night. Although some children can tolerate a moderate amount of these substances, many children with autism have increased sensitivity to caffeine, sugar and food additives. For some, these items can cause hyperactivity, restlessness, increased repetitive behaviors and impulsiveness. If your child must have these foods, try giving them earlier in the day, at least 6 hours from bedtime. Consider consulting a nutritionist or dietician to help identify things in your child’s diet that may be affecting sleep.