Humans sleep is a vital indicator of overall health and well-being. Sleep needs vary across ages and are especially impacted by lifestyle and health. The National Sleep Foundation provides the following recommended sleep ranges for children and teenage groups:
- Ages 3-5 : 11-13 hours of sleep
- Ages 6-13 : 9-11 hours of sleep
- Ages 14-17 : 8-10 hours of sleep
Your child may be suffering from a sleep problem if they often have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, wake up repeatedly during the night, or early in the morning.
Children with autism are anywhere forty to eighty percent more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances, according to most studies. Lack of sleep can lead to chronic sleep deprivation for both the individual and the family and caregivers, increasing the stress and decreasing daily functioning of all in the home.
According to research, the following underlying medical issues are viewed as significant factors in sleep disruptions associated with ASD:
- Reflux or other gastrointestinal disorders
- Sleep apnea
- Lack of physical exercise
- Disturbances in circadian rhythm ( natural sleep and wake patterns)
- Abnormal melatonin regulation
- Sensory stimulations, high sensitivity to light, touch, or sound
The most common cause of sleeplessness in children with autism is actually believed to be environmental influences. For example, when a parent or caregiver waits in the child’s room until they fall asleep, it prevents the child from being able to fall asleep on their own if they were to wake in the middle of the night. Instead, parents and caregivers should help his or her child fall asleep alone. The second most common cause of sleeplessness in children with autism are bedrooms designed for stimulating play during the day and sleep at night. Such send mixed messages to the child of when they should sleep in this area and when they should play, which is why parents are encouraged to leave the bedroom as a place of rest and not a place to play.
Healthy sleep tips
If your child with autism is suffering from any of the above causes of sleeplessness, you may want to employ some of the following to encourage proper sleeping routines:
- Choose a bedtime and stick to it. Make sure the chosen bedtime is appropriate for your child’s age and is consistent every day of the week. The time chosen should also be functional with the parent’s evening schedule so the child’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, will adjust to the new sleeping schedule.
- Use a relaxing ritual before sleep. A visual schedule should be used to follow the same bedtime routines each night – and be sure to use exact same order every night.
- Exercise Daily. Not only will exercise reduce stress and wear you out, it also helps to improve sleep quality and duration. Early morning or afternoon exercise can help reset the sleep-wake cycle. Furthermore, physical activity triggers a small increase in body temperature, which will drop post-exercise and promote falling asleep.
- Ensure comfortable sleep setting in bedroom. Children with ASD may have heightened sensitivity to various environmental factors, like light, temperature, sound, and cloth texture. If your child is experiencing a fitful or restless sleep, watch closely to determine what factor is hindering their sleep. For example, an improper sleeping setting would be considered the following: a room that is too bright, has too much noise, and is too warm or too cold.
- Stay away from sleep stealers, like alcohol and caffeine. Caffeine can stay in their system for up to twelve hours, and consumption of caffeinated foods and drinks (such as chocolate, coffee, and tea) any time after lunch may cause sleep disturbances.
- Turn off electronics before bed.
- Discuss with a doctor the possible need for a medication of sleep aid, but keep in mind this is considered one of the last resorts and the Food and Drug Administration does not currently encourage the use of medications to treat sleep disorders in pediatric patients.
Children who suffer from sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, sleep walking, sleep terrors, or restless leg syndrome may need further evaluation and treatment from a specialist to help your child sleep better. Regardless of which treatment plan is pursued, daily routines for the child with autism should remain consistent. In order to assist the individual with autism, maintain consistency with the changes and help the child understand when it is time to sleep, eat, and play. Creating and promoting healthy sleep habits also promotes daily function and make a big difference in your quality of life.
Carin Lamm, MD. (2015). “Sleep and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)”.
Autism Research Institute (2015). “Sleeplessness in Autism”.
National Sleep Foundation (2015). “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?”
Sleep.org (2015). “How Much Caffeine Should You Really Be Having?”