Sleep-related issues are frustrating and can be problematic for almost anyone who suffers from them. However, they are particularly troublesome for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Difficulty with sleep affects both adults and children with ASD by exacerbating related symptoms. As a result, sleep disorders may make it difficult for them to function on a regular basis. Understanding sleep disturbances and how to improve sleep for people with autism is crucial to avoid related problems that are likely to have a negative impact.
Sleep Disorders and ASD
A large percentage of people on the autism spectrum experience a problem with sleeping at some point in their lives. When these problems are persistent, they may indicate a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders, such as insomnia, are changes in one’s sleep that can impact health and quality of life. People with ASD may have:
- Difficulty settling down when it is time to sleep
- Trouble staying asleep at night
- Problems falling asleep due to high anxiety
- An inability to recognize the need to sleep in others living with them
- An irregularity in their body’s sleep rhythm
- A melatonin or sleep hormone irregularity
- Epilepsy or some other neurological condition
- An increased sensitivity to noise and light, including the blue light emitted from electronic devices such as smartphones
- Food allergies that disrupt sleep
- Problems with sleeping too much due to stress
Learning to Deal With Sleep Disorders
While sleep disorders are difficult for people on the autism spectrum, they are manageable. To successfully manage sleep-related issues, a number of strategies have proven helpful. The key is to find and implement the right ones.
To start, try explaining the need for sleep to children on the autism spectrum, particularly those who are having difficulty understanding why it is necessary. Discussing sleep not only helps them understand its importance but can also reassure them that it is safe to sleep.
Setting up and sticking to a routine is also crucial. A sleep routine should include actions such as limiting screen time starting at least two hours before bedtime. A routine provides reassurance to people with autism, particularly children, and reduces changes that may adversely affect their ability to sleep. Creating a sleep diary can help to establish a routine, as it can illustrate any problematic sleep patterns. A sleep diary can help doctors treat autistic adults and children and may even be useful when applying for certain disability benefits.
Another step is to create a sleep environment that reduces sensory problems that are likely to impact the sleep of individuals with ASD. To create a comfortable sleeping environment, reduce the amount of light in the room by using blackout curtains or blinds. Light, smells, and noise may be reduced by keeping doors completely closed during sleep time. To reduce the risk of disruptive smells, people should avoid cooking or using anything with a strong odor before bedtime or near the bedroom. Noise may be further reduced by having thick carpets in the home and moving beds away from walls that are adjacent to rooms with a lot of activity or traffic. Earplugs may also help to lessen the amount of noise that might hinder an autistic child or adult’s ability to sleep.
Other distractions that may impact sleep include excessive toys in children’s rooms and even certain colors or pictures on the walls. The feel of certain materials used for bedding and night clothes, tags, or labels may prove uncomfortable or too stimulating against the skin, and as a result, it may be necessary to switch them for a different fabric. Even one’s mattress may hinder their ability to sleep. A mattress should be changed if it’s too old or the wrong type to properly support their sleep position. In addition to creating a relaxing environment, a soothing bath, gentle music, or reading a calming book prior to bed may help people with autism to relax and settle down.
Diet and Medication
In some cases, changes in diet may cause discomfort that proves disruptive to one’s ability to sleep. When determining the cause of sleeping problems, people should consider what new foods have been introduced and avoid caffeinated drinks. While some foods may cause sleep issues, other foods may help improve the quality of one’s sleep. Pineapple and grapes, for example, contain natural melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Other foods, such as chicken, beans, and bananas, contain the amino acid tryptophan, which also aids in sleeping.
Medication is often the last resort, particularly in helping children in the autism spectrum. In some cases, doctors may recommend a melatonin dietary supplement to help balance the sleep-wake cycle. Although natural remedies present another option in helping people with autism to sleep, one should check with a doctor before trying them.
Sleep for Parents and Loved Ones of People With Autism
When a person is taking care of a child with autism or living with an adult on the autism spectrum, it’s important to get proper rest. Sleeping while one’s child is asleep may seem ideal, but it isn’t always feasible. If circumstances or a lack of free time make it difficult to get restful sleep, caregivers and loved ones should seek help from family members who can step in, provide assistance, and allow them to rest. If that’s not an option, parents of autistic children may check if they are eligible for respite services or some other type of community care program.
- Sleep Problems in Autism Explained: This article discusses sleep problems that individuals with autism may experience, how common they are, causes, and treatments.
- Helping Your Child With Autism Get a Good Night’s Sleep: Parents and caregivers of children with autism will find information on common sleep problems, causes, and the effects they may have here.
- Autism and Sleep Disorders: Learn more about autism and sleep disorders by clicking on this link to read an article on the topic from the Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences. The page includes in-depth information including sections on establishing sleep patterns, bedtime routines, and sleep training.
- How to Get Children With Autism to Sleep: In this Scientific American article, readers will learn how a lack of sleep increases certain behaviors in autistic children and what’s needed to help them sleep.
- Sleep Disruptions in Children with Autism Studied: Autism Parenting magazine offers this article that discusses a study about why there is an increase in sleep disturbances in children with neurological disorders such as autism.
- Ambitious About Autism: Sleep: People interested in learning about sleep problems and autism can click this link for information on the common types of issues autistic children may face and what may cause them.
- Poor Sleep Plagues Many Kids With Autism: In this U.S. News article, the increased risk of sleep problems in children with autism is discussed.
- Getting a Good Night’s Sleep: As children on the autism spectrum suffer from sleep disorders at a higher rate than other kids, parents should click this link to learn about the importance of good sleep and find suggestions that can help establish a good sleep routine.
- Autism and Sleep: This Psychology Today article outlines autism and sleep statistics from a study by the University of Helsinki Finland.
- For Children With Autism, Sleep Is the Essential Ingredient in Any Treatment Plan: By reading this article, parents will learn about the importance of sleep for children with autism, and they can read tips on how to combat insomnia.
- Establishing Positive Sleep Patterns for Children on the Autism Spectrum: Parents who click this link will discover tips on how to address factors that may contribute to sleep disorders and establish positive sleep patterns and effective routines at bedtime.
- Autism and Sleep Fact Sheet: Sleep is an important factor for growing children, particularly those with autism. This informational sheet reviews why it is important and how doctors may intervene.
- Sleep: Establishing Good Sleep Hygiene: Autism Speaks offers this page with seven tips to encourage good sleep hygiene for individuals with loved ones who are autistic.
- Strategies to Improve Sleep in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: This guide is for parents of autistic children who need help with sleep.
- Sleep Problems in Children With Asperger’s Syndrome: Asperger’s is an autism spectrum disorder that can impact sleep. In this article, the Asperger/Autism Network provides tips on how to improve the sleep of children with Asperger’s.
- Autism: A Closer Look: On this page of the CDC website, visitors can learn about sleep concerns and solutions for children with autism spectrum disorder.
- Sleep Problems in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Interested individuals can find facts about sleep and autism here.
- Treating Sleep Disorders: Discover how to treat sleep disorders in people with ASD by watching the video and reading the article on this page of the Autism Research Institute website.
- Sleep and Autism Spectrum Disorder: The prevalence, effects, types, and treatment of sleep disorders in people with autism are outlined in depth in this educational document.
Logan is the content director of Sleepopolis, which means he not only reviews new mattresses every week, but also curates all the comparisons, best of pages, and video guides on the site. He takes a straightforward, honest approach to his reviews and endeavors to give viewers an objective look at each new product he tries out. Logan has perfected his method by personally testing over 200 different mattresses, so he’s not only able to discern the overall vibe of a specific bed, but to contextualize its feel within the bed-in-a-box market as a whole.