There has been several research in recent years on the link between sleep and ASD. Many parents of children with ASD report that their children have difficulty sleeping, and research has shown that children with ASD are more likely to have difficulty sleeping than their neurotypical children.
According to one study, up to 80% of children with ASD have difficulty sleeping. These numbers are even higher for children with ASD with other medical conditions, such as epilepsy.
Underlying causes for these sleep problems in ASD individuals
A UK-based research team looked at how Autism affects sleep by conducting a systematic review of all the scientific research that has been conducted on the topic. They found that there are three main ways in which ASD can affect sleep:
- Irregular circadian Rhythm
- An underlying mental condition such as anxiety
- Drug side effects
- Medical issues
Irregular circadian Rhythm
The most common sleep problem in ASD is an irregular circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is our natural body clock regulating our sleep and awakeness. In people with ASD, this circadian rhythm can be disrupted, leading to difficulty sleeping at night and tiredness during the day. This disruption of the circadian rhythm is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Underlying mental conditions such as anxiety
Another reason why people with ASD might have difficulty sleeping is because of an underlying mental condition such as anxiety. People with ASD are highly prone to experience anxiety than the general population, and this anxiety can make it tough to fall and remain asleep.
Drug side effects
Some of the medications that are used to treat autism can also cause sleep problems. For example, antipsychotic medications can cause drowsiness and difficulty falling asleep. On the other hand, stimulant medications can have the opposite effect and make it difficult to stay asleep.
Some medical conditions are more common in people with ASD, such as epilepsy, which can cause sleep problems. Epilepsy can cause disturbed sleep and night-time seizures, making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
Treating sleep problems in ASD
There are several proposed approaches to treating sleep problems in ASD, and the most effective approach will be unique for each child or adult. Some common approaches include:
- Sleep Therapy
- Pharmacological Treatments
- Behavioral Interventions
Sleep therapy is a treatment aimed at helping people with ASD to establish regular sleep habits. This can involve setting a regular bedtime and wake time, avoiding naps during the day, and ensuring the bedroom is dark and quiet at night. Sleep therapy can be done with the help of a sleep specialist or through a self-help program.
Several medicines can be used to treat sleep problems in ASD. These include:
- Antipsychotics: Antipsychotics can be effective in treating anxiety and insomnia. However, they can also result in side effects such as weight gain and drowsiness.
- Stimulants: Stimulants are often used to treat ADHD, but they can also be effective in treating insomnia. However, they can also result in side effects such as anxiety and difficulty sleeping.
Several behavioral interventions can be used to treat sleep problems in ASD. These include:
- Stimulus control: This involves techniques to help the person with ASD associate the bed with sleep. This can involve only going to bed when sleepy and avoiding activities that are not related to sleep.
- Sleep hygiene: is a set of guidelines designed to promote good sleep habits. This can involve avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bed, establishing a regular sleep schedule, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Relaxation training: Relaxation training is a therapy designed to help the person with ASD relax and fall asleep.
These are the few possible reasons why people with ASD might have difficulty sleeping and some approaches that can be used to treat sleep problems in ASD. If you or someone you know is having difficulty sleeping, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist to find out what approach might be best for you.