Ah, the joys of a good night’s sleep. When we’re lying awake in bed at night, we want nothing more than to stay up just a little bit longer. Then as soon as we wake up in the morning, prying ourselves up from bed can be the most difficult thing in the world. Sleep is part of being alive, and it’s something that comes so naturally to many, but for people on the autism spectrum, it can be a constant struggle. This problem seems to be magnified with children. Personally, I’ve had difficulties with sleep bordering on insomnia for a great deal of my life. My family is well aware of how unhealthy my sleeping habits have always been (though in the past year I have improved greatly), and I’m sure that, for many parents out there reading this, it has been a major issue they’ve had to deal with. I want to outline some shocking facts and realities about sleep-related issues when it comes to ASD.
I figured the number would be high, but I have to admit, I didn’t expect it would be this bad. According to Autism Speaks, as much as 80% of children with ASD suffer from poor sleeping. Now here’s the thing: as far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly unique about the effects of a sleep deficit on those with autism. It can result in increased aggravation, hyperactive behavior, lingering drowsiness, etc. This is consistent for all children. However, the issue is the exponentially higher rate at which these things occur for people with autism. Live Science states that in the neurotypical population, “Studies estimate that between 10 percent and 33 percent of children and 40 percent of adolescents experience sleep problems,” a far cry from the 80% with autism.
So why is this? What causes these issues to be so prevalent in the autism demographic? The truth is, we don’t know. Researchers have never been able to pinpoint an exact reason, though there are theories. These ideas range from decreased melatonin levels at night when they should be higher to aid sleep, to heightened sensitivity to various stimuli which distract from falling asleep, to the high levels of anxiety typically experienced by those with autism, which I have gone into depth with in previous blogs. No matter the root cause, there are fundamental challenges which prevent many from experiencing the proper rest they need to stay healthy.
There has to be some solutions to all this, right? Of course, though patience will most likely be required; there is no quick fix that’s effective. Autism Speaks and WebMD both have some suggestions for parents on maximizing their child’s “sleep efficiency.” These include avoiding any caffeine or sugar, providing a relaxing environment with soft music, dim lights, etc., turning off stimuli such as TV or video games, get melatonin (NOT sleeping pills), have the kid exercise during the day, early afternoon naps, and coming up with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. That last one, once I finally implemented it after 21 years on this Earth, was the one that finally worked for me. Now I sleep a consistent 7-8 hours on work nights, and 8-9.5 on weekends. Follow those tips, keep at it, and eventually sleep will come as naturally to you or your children as anyone else.