Why do autism spectrum disorders affect sleep?

A diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) presents numerous challenges to families– challenges related to learning, to physical and social development, and sleep. It’s estimated that anywhere from 40% - 80% of ASD children have significant sleeping issues related to their diagnosis.


Unfortunately, there’s no specific, easily-identified reason why children with ASD are more likely to have difficulty sleeping than those without. This is probably because ASD is a variable disorder itself. The way it manifests, and the problems it causes, varies from child to child.


There are however, some general theories as to why ASD may causes sleep disorders:


  • Social cues: Children with ASD typically have a harder time reading social cues than other children do. This can make socializing hard for ASD children; it can also make bedtime hard! ASD children are less likely to register the social cues that it’s time to go to sleep (seeing their siblings putting on pajamas, listen to mom reading a bedtime story, etc.) They have difficulty seeing these as pre-bedtime rituals the way other children likely would.
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and/ or touch: Some children with ASD under respond to stimuli like light and noise; others over-respond. This is commonly referred to as sensory processing disorder, or SPD. It should be noted that while a large percentage (70% - 80%) of autistic children also have SPD, autism and SPD are separate diagnoses. So it’s possible for a child to have one without having the other. Children who are hypersensitive to stimuli may have difficulty sleeping for example, a child who’s extremely sensitive to light may find even a dim nightlight distracting. Or a child who’s hypersensitive to sound may be awoken by even the faintest noises. And a child who is extreamely sensitive to touch may find the feel of sheets next to his skin unbearable.
  • Low levels of melatonin: The hormone melatonin helps regulate the human body’s circadian rhythms (or daytime/nighttime cycles.) For most of us, our melatonin levels rise when it gets dark outside, making us sleepy; then, they drop off when the sun comes up, helping us feel awake and alert. Children with ASD, however, have lower- than-normal levels of melatonin, which may explain why they sometimes have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep at night.
  • Anxiety: Feeling anxious can make any child sleepless. Children with ASD, however, are especially prone to feelings of anxiety; a large percentage of children with ASD even suffer from anxiety disorders.


Effects of sleep disorders on autistic children and their families:


Poor and interrupted sleep obviously affects an ASD child’s nights, but this kind of chronic sleep deprivation may also affect his daytime behaviors. Sleep deprivation has shown to have the same negative effects on children with ASD as on non autistic children: increased irritability and aggression, depression, increased hyperactivity and emotional problems, and behavior problems.


And of course, the ASD child isn’t the only one affected – parents and siblings feel the effects, too. Siblings, as well as parents, may suffer sleepiness right alongside the ASD child , and that kind of endless sleep deprivation can take a serious toll on family relationships , health etc.


Helping children with autism spectrum disorder get a good night’s sleep:


The first step in helping your child with ASD get the rest she needs is to make sure that her sleep disorder isn’t related to something else. Make sure that her sleeplessness doesn’t stem from any physical cause. Once you’ve ruled these out, you can begin implementing meaningful solutions.


Consider the following ways to help your child with autism get the sleep he needs:


  • Keep a sleep diary: keeping a sleep diary can help you identify any patterns in your child’s sleep disturbances and then work on solutions that match the problem patterns.
  • Develop a bedtime routine: children with autism spectrum disorder must have predictable daily routines to help them feel safe and make sense of the world around them. Therefore, a bedtime routine is especially crucial for ASD children. As you build a bedtime routine, try to build it with intention: don’t include any patterns or routines that you know you will have to break later. Also keep in mind that children with autism don’t respond well to abrupt and unexpected changes. So it’s probably best to ease them into the new routine.
  • Evaluate the sleeping environment: If hypersensitivity is an issue for your child, evaluate their bedroom to see if anything there may be causing problems. Then, work to create a sleep environment that’ll be restful and soothing for your child. That could mean installing thick carpet to muffle noise ( if your child is sensitive to sound ) or hanging room darkening curtains (if your child is sensitive to light). For children who are sensitive to touch, these weighted blankets have been shown to help. And you may even need to consider a custom-made bed designed specifically for autistic children. If your child is getting out of the bed and wandering the house at night and you have concerns about her safety.
  • Consider medication (but only as a last resort) : Vitamins and other supplements, like melatonin or iron, may help improve an ASD child’s sleep and are considered good options, as long as they’ re administered under a healthcare provider’s supervision. However, sleep medications should be a last-resort option, and they should only be used in conjunction with some of the strategies listed above. Otherwise, once the child stops taking the medication, the sleeping issues will likely return full-force.



© 2010-2012 Pebbles n Pearls. All rights reserved. Pebbles n Pearls is not responsible for content published on websites accessible from this site or for content received from third parties.