The Link Between Autism and Poor Sleep
Focusing on healthy sleep routines can help improve attention, behavior and more
Current research indicates something that most parents of children with autism already know and experience daily: sleep challenges and autism are strongly linked. One of the largest studies to examine this link estimated that 80% of children aged 2 to 5 years have disrupted sleep. 1
A 2009 study found that children with autism who experience disruptive sleep have increased hyperactivity and distractibility as compared to those who sleep well 2, which may contribute to the increased prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder seen in autism. Autistic children who experience poor sleep also tend to exhibit more severe repetitive behaviors.
What is the reason behind these challenges? Research suggests a number of reasons, indicating that not one lone factor is responsible for nocturnal distress. Sensory sensitivities often seem to be responsible for difficulties falling and staying asleep, such as when sights, sounds and sensations prevent restorative sleep from occurring.
While there are no current methods to completely prevent or cure sleeping difficulties that autistic individuals experience, the following tips can help families to become more mindful of environmental and social adjustments that can be made before it’s time to turn the lights out:
Make devices off-limits 1-2 hours before bed
There is ample research regarding autism and sleep disturbances, and there appears to be even more studies outlining the detriments that screentime has on our sleep. It seems logical then, to assume that the use of devices such as tablets and cell phones would have an even more significant impact on those with autism, who are already susceptible to easing their minds and bodies into sleep each night.
There is no doubt that this suggestion would be problematic for many readers, as use of screens has become routine for many children and gives the allusion of being soothing. Yet there is likely to be little positive progress in sleep if screentime is occurring in the hours before bed.
Create a consistent bedtime with solid routines
Routines help create order, and help children learn what to expect throughout the day. While unexpected events undeniably occur, a solid routine can create an underlying structure that helps children feel more safe and secure. And this sense of security can significantly help autistic children who may have difficulties falling asleep due to feelings of stress and anxiety. Create a visual schedule (or ask your child’s therapist for their help in doing this) to further improve your child’s comprehension and execution of the routine’s steps.
Reading together helps make the previous two suggestions more seamless. When devices are off-limits before bed and you’re putting a routine in place, reading books together is a wonderful addition to a nighttime schedule. It is a socially intimate and cognitive enhancing activity that can also be quite calming, especially when it takes place in a calm, dim environment that sets the stage for (hopefully) a night of restful sleep. Which segways into the final suggestion…
Make the bedroom environment a soothing place
Anyone who sleeps in our modern environment—which in this case, is everyone—can benefit from this seemingly simple tip, yet many of us continue to use our bedrooms as one big laundry basket or as a place to catch up on our favorite Netflix series. Make bedrooms dim, organized and quiet, and more peaceful sleep is more likely to follow.
1 Reynolds, A.M. et al. Pediatrics. Epub ahead of print (2019) PubMed
2 Goldman, S.E. et al. Dev. Neuropsychol. 34, 560-573 (2009) PubMed