Autism and Sleep: Putting Issues to Bed


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — At least half of autistic and children on the spectrum struggle with sleep patterns, with parents saying it’s closer to 80 percent. High anxiety, medication, or sleep apnea are real issues, so Ivanhoe has good advice leading to restorative sleep for parent and child.

Up to 16 percent of neurotypical children suffer from poor sleep, compared to 50 percent in kids with autism. The other is how these children process medications and hormones.

Beth Malow, MD, Director Sleep Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center says, “Different genes can affect how we either synthesize or make melatonin in the body, or how we break it down.”

Anxiety, chronic insomnia, and middle of night awakenings are triggered for kids with no ‘off switch.’

Doctor Malow explains, “Anxiety versus over arousal can be really tricky, especially, if your child has limited language and can’t tell you what they’re experiencing. And the idea is that you just can’t turn your brain off.”

Rather than tackling problems at three in the morning, parents are advised to rewind.

“I even go backwards to what’s happening during the day. Because what’s happening during the day is going to feed into what happens at night.” says Doctor Malow.

Before bed, set the stage with quiet and low light. Plus, if sleep apnea is the cause, CPAP masks are now much less claustrophobic.

“Even people with autism, who have sensory sensitivities, can tolerate it.” says Doctor Malow.

And we all need our sleep!

Doctors say this advice should also increase REM sleep, in which we consolidate learning and clear the day’s debris from our brains. It’s most important for mental health, especially in those with autism, who get 10 percent less REM restorative sleep than neurotypical kids.

Contributors to this news report include: Donna Parker, Producer; Ally Stratis, News Assistant; Roque Correa, Editor; and Videographer.



REPORT #3123

BACKGROUND: Children with autism often show unique sleep patterns compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Research has consistently shown that sleep disturbances are frequent in this population, with difficulties ranging from falling asleep and maintaining a regular sleep schedule to experiencing night awakenings. These differences in sleep behavior can have a great impact on their overall well-being and daily functioning. It is believed that the unusual sleep patterns observed in children with autism may be attributed to genetic, neurobiological, and environmental factors. Some studies suggest that changes in the circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, could play a role in these differences. Additionally, sensory sensitivities and elevated anxiety levels, typically associated with autism, may contribute to sleep difficulties. Understanding and addressing these unique sleep patterns is crucial for providing support and improving the overall quality of life for children with autism and their families.

(Sources: sleep/

DIAGNOSIS: Diagnosing sleep disturbances in children with autism involves a comprehensive assessment that considers various factors. Typically, healthcare professionals, including pediatricians, neurologists, and specialists in developmental disorders, play a pivotal role in this process. They often include a combination of caregiver reports, direct observations, and sometimes, the use of standardized sleep questionnaires. These tools help in gathering information about the child’s sleep habits, including bedtime routines, sleep length, and any nighttime awakenings. Also, actigraphy, a non-invasive method of monitoring sleep-wake patterns, may be used to provide objective data. Polysomnography, which involves monitoring brain activity, eye movement, and muscle tone during sleep, can also be used in more complex cases. It’s important to note that diagnosis is not based solely on sleep patterns but also considers the overall well-being and functioning of the child. An in-depth evaluation is important to identify specific sleep-related challenges and curate interventions to meet the individual needs of the child.


NEW REGULATIONS: Autism Speaks has created a guideline formulated for health providers to follow when treating sleep issues in autistic children. Published by a team of specialists, they aim to support primary providers serving children with autism. The first rule of thumb is to ensure that it’s not a medication or separate medical condition that’s causing the sleep issue. Once that’s determined, the provider should suggest ways in which the family can create healthy sleeping habits. This can resemble a steady bedtime, eliminating electronics one hour prior to sleep, or establishing a peaceful nighttime ritual. If those strategies aren’t working, providers can advise the family to seek out cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapy that can assist with sleep related issues.


* For More Information, Contact:

Craig Boerner

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