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Autism and Night Terrors

night terrorsMany adults and children with autism report having frequent nightmares, manifested by fitful, restless sleep, or screaming in the night. These may be difficult to wake, or calm during these episodes. Are they simply being plagued by nightmares, or could it be something else? Night Terrors.

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. The 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.

Are ASD Children Prone to Night Terrors?

If you have a child with autism, you will probably recognize this scenario. You child flails around in his sleep, often punching, screaming, moaning, crying, whining-and you cannot seem to wake him out of it. He will sit up, look at you, and still be lost in his “nightmare”. Oftentimes, waking him is unsuccessful and you just have to wait for him to calm down and settle into a seemingly more relaxing sleep. The child experiencing night terrors is usually difficult to wake, if you can manage it at all.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Research shows that night terrors can be related to lack of sleep, and ASD children and adults are notoriously bad sleepers. They have difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, difficulty waking up, and experience daytime sleepiness. This difficulty is related to self-regulation issues that are prominent in autism. Difficulty with self-regulation affects your ability to regulate sleep patterns. This difficulty with sleep patterns/regulation can explain why autistics are also prone to night terrors.

What Can Help with Night Terrors?

A steady sleep pattern can help ward off night terrors. Keeping a set bedtime, and regulated sleep patterns is not always easy for those on the autism spectrum. The over-the-counter supplement, Melatonin, has been recommended by many doctors and pediatricians to help autistic children and adults with both getting to sleep, and staying asleep. This can help lessen the presence of night terrors, which are frequently reported to appear when the child is overtired, or has not been getting enough sleep. It’s important that children do receive enough sleep, or they could start to develop health problems. For example, when someone is overtired and sleep-deprived, they can start experiencing headaches and eye problems. If this happens, it might be worth visiting an optician who may suggest some things to enhance eye health. People don’t want to lose their eyesight, so it’s important to take care of the eyes by taking some eye vitamins. That should keep your eyes healthy whilst you try and find a way to improve your sleep.

Night terrors are often reported in those with autism spectrum disorders, and they are not only limited to children. Adults on the autism spectrum frequently experience these intense nightmares, that we call night terrors. Lack of restful sleep can increase the instance of night terrors, and finding ways to regulate sleep patterns and get more rest can help to lessen the presence of these horrid dreams that are so difficult to wake from.

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.


  1. My guy frequently has night terrors when he has to go to the toilet. If I can get him up and into the bathroom he usually goes back into a deep sleep afterwards and remembers nothing the next day.

    • We have a son with Autism. He is 34 with extreme behavior issues. Every spring and fall he has night terrors. We are awaken between the hours of 1 to 4 am with him trying to destroy everything and us. Is there anyone having similar problems?

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