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Towards A Good Night’s Sleep: Better Understanding Autism and Sleep Patterns

For any parent who recently had a child, establishing a natural and normal sleep cycle takes several months, but in most cases, babies generally cut back on the number of daytime naps and are able to sleep for longer periods of time at night. However, a significant number of children continue to have issues with sleep well after starting school.

This is a particularly prevalent issue amongst children with autism as researchers estimate that between 40% and 80% of children with autism have difficulty sleeping, with the most common problems being difficulty falling asleep, inconsistent sleep routines, restlessness or poor sleep quality, and waking early and frequently. Obviously, these symptoms cannot only have negative effects on the child, but on the family unit as a whole.

In looking at the causes behind the connection between sleep disorders in children with autism, researchers have yet to find a definitive cause, but have a number of theories. The first looks at social cues as many neurotypical children will not only know it’s time for sleep due to it being dark at night or their own circadian rhythms, but by also taking cues from their siblings who are preparing for bed. Children with autism, however, are less likely to pick up on these social cues and might in fact misinterpret them.

Another potential theory has to do with the hormone melatonin that helps to regulate sleep-wake cycle with them rising during darkness and decreasing during the evening. Studies have shown that some children with autism don’t release melatonin at the correct times of day. Instead, they have high levels of melatonin during the daytime and lower levels at night.

Another reason children with autism may have trouble falling asleep or awaken in the middle of the night could be an increased sensitivity to outside stimuli, such as touch or sound. While most kids continue to sleep soundly while their mother opens the bedroom door or tucks in the covers, a child with autism might wake up abruptly.

So how can a parent help their child with autism to sleep better? Therapists and doctors typically agree that sleep medications should be used as a last resource. Some natural ways to help promote sleep include the following:

  • Avoid giving your child stimulants such as caffeine and sugar before bed.
  • Establish a nighttime routine: give your child a bath, read a story, and put him or her to bed at the same time every night.
  • Reading a book, giving a back massage, or putting on soft music.
  • Help to avoid sensory distractions by placing heavy curtains on a child’s window, install thick carpet, and eliminate squeaky doors.
  • Make sure television, video games, and any other stimulating activities are turned off at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Talk to a sleep psychologist about bright-light therapy. Exposing the child to periods of bright light in the morning may help regulate the body’s release of melatonin.

While none of these are guaranteed methods to help encourage healthy sleep patterns, many parents have found that combining these different tactics can help to promote better sleep.