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Night Terrors and Autism: Night Terrors are Not Just for Children

Clown Nightmare

Night Terror or Nightmare? Aren’t they the same thing?

The simple answer is-no. Nightmares happen during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, during that time where you are in the twilight area of your sleep, on the cusp of being asleep and awake-during light sleep. That same is not so for night terrors.

Night Terrors happen when a person is in a deep sleep, when there is usually no dreaming. The deep sleep accounts for your awake appearance at times, when you still are unable to recognize anyone or even where you are-in essence you are still trapped within your night terror.

My ASD Children have night terrors.

If you have a child with autism, you will probably recognize this scenario. My middle son (9) has constant night terrors. He flails around in his sleep, often punching, screaming, moaning, crying, whining-and we cannot seem to wake him out of it. He will sit up, look at his father and me, and still be lost in his “nightmare”. Oftentimes, waking him is unsuccessful and we just have to wait for him to calm down and settle into a seemingly more relaxing sleep.

(I will use the term nightmare and night terror interchangeably from here on, although we have already established they are technically different.)

Aspie Teen (14) still moans in his sleep, but when he was younger his nights were filled with blood curdling screams. The scenario looked much the same as with my 9 yr. old; he was difficult to wake, if we managed it at all.

Night Terrors and Lack of Sleep

Research shows that night terrors can be related to lack of sleep, which to me does make sense. ASD children and adults are notoriously bad sleepers. We have difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, difficulty waking up, and experience daytime sleepiness (sounds fun doesn’t it?). This difficulty with sleep can explain why we are also prone to night terrors.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I always experienced “nightmares”. As an adult I can tell you that many of them are very much the same as one another….someone is after me, I am being hunted down, chased, shot at, or worse, now they are hunting, shooting at, or killing me children. I have had many nights that I woke up inconsolable, not even thinking that I was awake or that my night terror was “just a dream.”

I have physically seen my own children sleeping next to me, but failed to recognize that the dream was not real. I remember one such night where I had terrors all night that my husband passed away, actually he was hunted down and killed in my dream/nightmare/terror. In my dream, I kept waking from the dreams with his ghost watching me. In the night terror, I was losing my mind seeing him everywhere but he wasn’t real.

When I woke, or I should say when my husband finally got me awake enough to recognize him I started screaming that he was not real. It took a very long time, for him to convince me that he was real, and that what I thought was real was only a nightmare. If I, as an adult having these intense night terrors, trouble waking from them and recognizing the difference between nightmare and reality-can you imagine how much harder it must be for our children? How terrified they must be during the night?

They are back…

I began writing about the subject of night terrors today because in the past couple of months my night terrors have returned. Even when I wake, I tend to fall back asleep right into another horrifying scenario.

Being pregnant, I am getting even less sleep than usual-waking during the night to use the bathroom, and having to move a million times and reposition the four pillows I have surrounding my protruding belly still to find no comfort. To add to my lack of sleep, I could not find any good research on melatonin and pregnancy so I stopped taking it since I found out I was pregnant.

Fortunately, Aspie Teen’s pediatrician assured me during his appointment, that I would be fine taking it during pregnancy and shouldn’t worry too much about it-but I NEEDED to get more sleep. Can you imagine how bad I must have looked for my son’s doctor to tell me I needed more sleep? Not good.

I originally thought these restless terrifying nights were anxiety and subconscious fears coming out in my dreams, which still very well could be the case. The little man (9) grinds his teeth all night long, flails around, has terrors, and during some episodes has so much trouble waking out of them that he doesn’t make it to the bathroom. This means that no matter how many bathroom safety measures I bring in to keep them comfy, it doesn’t entirely help. I can definitely see the anxiety side of it in him-he’s been grinding those teeth at night for years!

Melatonin has helped him with both getting to sleep, staying asleep, AND the terrors though they are still present-especially when he is overtired. For me, I think I am on my way back to taking Aspie Teen’s doctor’s advice-back to melatonin which for me definitely lessened the occurrences of night terrors.

How about you? Do you experience these kinds of night terrors? Does your children? How have you dealt with them?

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Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.