About 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), boys five times more commonly than girls. While the diagnoses of autism themselves have been on the rise as the awareness grows, autism itself seems to occur at a steady rate. A recent English study indicated that the rates of autism among adults is about the same. With the increasing research of ASDs, we’re learning more about the difficulties that are unique to ASD sufferers. One of these unfortunate and unwelcome bedfellows is insomnia.
Indeed, the majority of children and adolescents living with autism are bound to experience sleep disturbances at a level that’s greater than the general population.
Between 50 and 80 percent of children diagnosed with an ASD have a hard time sleeping. While in typically developing children the prevalence of sleep difficulties is at 50 percent, the rate among young autism sufferers is at 73 percent. In particular, children with the form of ASD known as Asperger’s, were described as “significantly more likely to be sluggish and disoriented after waking and had a higher Behavioral Evaluation of Disorders of Sleep (BEDS) total score.”
Everyone needs to drink from the beneficial fountain of health and youth that is sleep; children and adults suffering from ASDs are no different. Insomnia and wakefulness disorders have been shown to diminish the capacity for emotional regulation (or the ability to put strong feelings in context and evaluate them critically), which is an area of particular struggle for ASD sufferers. Studies have shown that amygdala, the part of the temporal lobe of the brain tasked with emotional processing and regulation, malfunctions in sleep-deprived people.
Healthy rest helps our bodies self-regulate in other health-promoting ways: it prevents diseases and illnesses, staves off infections, assists in the retention of memories and therefore learning, fosters the ability to concentrate (again, important in learning), and counteracts agitation and anxiety. In other words, sleeping well at night helps people with ASDs stay healthy in general—and, in particular, it helps them reduce the symptoms of autism.
What can you do if you or your children are among the many people with autism who have a hard time sleeping? Are the doctor-recommended 8 to 10 hours per night always going to be out of reach for you? Not necessarily. Sleep medicine doctors have found a number of tricks that can lull you into a healthier slumber. Apply these 10 helpful steps to the degree you can:
- If you are a parent of a child with an ASD, make sure she or he has learned to sleep alone. Make their bedtime reassuring, their bedroom fun, and incorporate other tricks to disconnect falling asleep from your presence in their bedroom.
- Establish regular sleep and wake routine—even on the weekends or during vacation. It helps our bodies to stick to an internal clock.
- Cease the use of electronic devices at least two hours prior to desired bedtime. As Harvard researchers have noted, “blue light has a dark side.” The blue-spectrum light emitted by computer, phone, and tablet screens has emit has rousing properties. It literally wakes us up. Not many people know that same applies to the blue light given off by some energy-saving light bulbs.
- A bedroom that’s dark, cool, and quiet is a promoter of sleep. Slightly cooler temperatures, darkness, and silence (or, alternatively, white noise from a fan or another device) all bring on tiredness.
- Make sure that an uncomfortable mattress is not at fault: pick a comfortable mattress that is well suited to your and/or your child’s body type and preferences.
- Consider incorporating a low-profile bed, a weighted blanket, bed rails with rail pads, a CPAP machine, and other accessories for people with sensory disabilities.
- Explore the basics of a mindfulness meditation practice. The “mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment” has been shown demonstrated to alleviate worry and help us get sleep. A meditation practice can be as (deceptively) simple as counting to 100 or observing one’s breath.
- Avoid heavy meals, caffeine, and sugar close to desired bedtime.
- Regular exercise or physical activity during the day pays off in sound sleep at night. According to a 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, people who exercise are much more likely to report that they slept well on work nights than people who do not exercise (67-56 vs. 39 percent).
- If sleep apnea, sleepwalking, nighttime terrors, or restless legs syndrome are an issue, consult a sleep medicine specialist.
There’s no denying that difficulties sleeping are among the unwelcome bedfellows with which people with ASDs have to contend. But there are ways—many of them seemingly small and controllable—in which autism sufferers can avail themselves of the healing, stabilizing powers of sleep. Try some of these 10 tips to the extent you can—and let us know how well you slept.
Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two master’s degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps best after a kettlebell workout, with a window slightly cracked in a dark room, and on a medium-firm mattress in Portland, Oregon.