Why Are Sleep Issues So Common Among People with Autism?

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If you know and love a person with autism—or if you are a person with autism—you are probably quite familiar with the sleep problems that often plague those on the spectrum. The types of sleep problems experienced may vary from person to person. However, the most common issues include difficulty falling and staying asleep, sleeping less than neurotypical peers, and waking up super early in the morning.

These problems are real and widespread. Statistics on prevalence vary widely based on studies, but some estimates indicate sleep difficulties might affect up to 80 percent of individuals with ASD.

This begs the question: why are sleep issues so common in autistic people? What are the potential consequences of these sleep issues? And is there any way these problems can be treated?

Adobe Stock/Jan H. Andersen

Adobe Stock/Jan H. Andersen

What Causes Sleep Issues?

At this particular point in time, science does not have a clear-cut answer as to why autistic people struggle with sleep. But there are a few different theories and potential contributing factors.

One common theory is that the natural, biological sleep “clock”—called the circadian rhythm—is messed up in people on the spectrum. Dysregulation of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in the cycle, may be to blame for a sleep system out of whack.

Sleep may also be disturbed thanks to common struggles among people on the spectrum. Issues like anxiety, depression, sensory issues, and medical issues like gastrointestinal distress may all potentially keep an autistic person wide awake during the night. Medications may cause side effects like insomnia, too.

It is also possible that poor sleep hygiene—an absence of good bedtime habits and rituals—can contribute to insomnia.

Some emerging research also suggests that autistic people may be more likely to experience sleep apnea—a condition in which people stop breathing for a few seconds during sleep and then unknowingly startle awake. Needless to say, this can disrupt sleep without the person even realizing what is happening. And of course, other sleep disorders may affect this population, as well.

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Adobe Stock/madhourse

Adobe Stock/madhourse

Research is discovering that children with autism who do not get enough sleep at night are more likely to experience behavioral problems, aggression, and, perhaps surprisingly, hyperactivity. Autistic symptoms like repetitive behaviors may also become more pronounced in those who are sleep-deprived.

It makes sense why behavioral and mood problems would arise. Sleep is vital to health, brain development, and cognition. No one is able to perform at top level if they are feeling sleepy. Many of us also get irritable and inattentive when we are sleep-deprived.

Though it makes sense, it’s understandably problematic. So how can sleep problems be solved?

Tips for Better Sleep

Believe it or not, experts cite autistic sleep issues as treatable. Here are some of the things they suggest.

First and foremost, parents of children with sleep problems should consult with their child’s primary care doctor. Sleep problems can occur for different reasons in different people, so they may be able to help rule out or pinpoint and treat the medical factors that may be contributing to the sleep problems. Taking over-the-counter melatonin supplements has been known to help some with autism, too, so even if a medical factor is not present, the supplement might be worth a shot.

Adobe Stock/Rido

Adobe Stock/Rido

Experts also suggest that autism families establish a solid bedtime routine to help kids wind down and get ready for sleep. This includes going to bed at the same time each night and preluding bedtime with calming activities, like reading a story or saying nightly prayers. However, use of electronics like tablets or phones should be avoided during this time, and they should be put away at least an hour before bedtime.

These are just a few of the ways you may be able to help your child get more sleep and avoid those restless nights that often affect the whole family. With that extra required rest, both you and your child will be more equipped to function at your absolute best!

Check out even more sleep tips on the next page!

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.