• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
  • This post may contain affiliate links and we may earn compensation when you click on the links at no additional cost to you.

Sleep Disturbances in Autistic Children

sleepAll parents experience occasional difficulties in getting their children to sleep, and keeping them asleep. Parents of autistic children, however, suffer this more often. Sleep disturbances are commonplace among autistic children and adults alike.

Why is it Important for Autistic Children to Get Adequate Amounts of Sleep?

Our bodies need sleep. When we sleep we grow; we heal; we rejuvenate. Sleep has also been linked to learning and memory functions—more severely, lack of sleep has been related to psychosis and erratic behaviors. It is no wonder that children who do not sleep well or are not getting enough sleep at nighttime have more difficulties in school. They also can exhibit more challenging behaviors than children without any sleep abnormalities. Children with autism spectrum disorders appear to have sleep disturbances more frequently than children without autism. For these children, the difficulty in getting to sleep, and staying asleep may have effects beyond feeling sleepy the next day. These children already have sensitive sensory systems, have difficulty modulating behaviors, and are prone to meltdowns when overloaded, overwhelmed, or tired. When an autistic child is chronically sleep deprived sensitivities may be enhanced, and meltdowns more frequent. Additionally, where there is a sleepless child living in the home, there are usually sleep-deprived parents and siblings.

Why do autistic children suffer sleep disturbances more often than other children?

There appear to be several factors that contribute to sleep disturbances being more apparent in autistic children. These children are thought to have circadian rhythm (natural wake/sleep cycles) disturbances. They may also have abnormal melatonin regulation. Melatonin is the hormone (which) regulates wake/sleep cycles. These children may have low melatonin levels. Other factors such as anxiety over bedtime routines, being unable to read social clues telling them it is bedtime, and their extreme sensitivities to lights, temperatures, and sounds can also be contributing to these sleep disturbances. Getting an adequate amount of sleep is advantageous both to children with autism spectrum disorders and their parents. Parents who are well rested are better equipped to handle the challenges that can arise when raising autistic children. Improving your child’s sleep patterns can help regulate their behaviors during the daytime waking hours.

What can help sleep difficulties in children with autism?

Parents can keep a sleep diary, chronicling their children’s sleep difficulties to become familiar with the child’s natural sleep patterns. Correlations between routines, foods, and other outside influences can be revealed with careful record keeping. Creating a bedtime routine with clear indicators that it is time to wind down and prepare to sleep may also be helpful, as well as, creating a sleeping area that is comforting and free of overwhelming sensory stimulation. Many pediatricians are now recommended Melatonin supplements for children with autism spectrum disorders. Research suggests that many of these children are benefiting from these supplements. You should always consult your physician before administering any medications or supplements to your children. Where sleep continues to be an issue, a sleep specialist can be consulted.

Getting enough sleep for you and your children will help you to deal with the everyday challenges that face autism families. Well-rested children tend to display disturbing daytime behaviors less frequently. Lack of sleep can make sensory issues more acute, and interfere with learning and self-regulation. If your autistic child is experiencing sleep disturbances, talk to your doctor, or a sleep specialist to see what therapies are right for you.

Updated: 9/6/2018

After many sleepless nights with four autistic boys, there are a few things that helped them sleep better at night. Read more about what has worked for us.

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.