Children with autism spectrum disorders often have trouble sleeping. It’s incredibly common and is prevalent in as many as 80 percent of children diagnosed with autism. Trouble falling asleep and the tendency to wake up throughout the night are the most commonly reported complaints.
But why do kids with autism have trouble falling asleep? Why do they have trouble staying asleep? And why are these difficulties much more common for kids with autism than they are for kids without autism?
There could be several reasons why a child with autism can’t sleep. It could be a behavioral issue, it could be neurological in nature or it could be a medical issue. It can even be a combination of the three.
Sleep Problems and the Brain
The cause of a child’s sleep difficulties in autism are almost always due to an imbalance in the neurological system. We already know that children with autism have a right-brain deficiency and compensate by using their left brain. As the left brain is responsible for categorization and conscious thought, it can be difficult for left brained individuals to “turn it off” before going to bed, leading to a lackluster night’s sleep.
To further explain, because of this hemispheric brain imbalance and immaturity, we’ve found in our research as well as others that children with autism have a more active sympathetic nervous system – which controls the fight or flight system. These children have also been found to have a lower than normal parasympathetic nervous system – which controls the body’s digestive system and ability to go into a restful state.
This nervous system imbalance results in a chronic stress response in their bodies which has many effects such as:
- Leaky Gut
- Digestive Problems
- Yeast Infections
- B Vitamin Deficiencies
- Enzyme Deficiencies
- Food Sensitivities
Sleep problems in children with autism are also due to a disruption in the normal rhythms of cortisol and melatonin production, which function together to regulate sleep / wake cycles. In a normal functioning system, melatonin increases when cortisol decreases and induces sleep.
Children with autism have high cortisol and low melatonin because the brain is not regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems correctly. When this sympathetic system is overactive, increased levels of cortisol are produced – which stimulates the mind and body to a highly alert and wakeful state. This imbalance ultimately causes chronic sleep problems that can only be corrected by bringing the brain and nervous system back into balance.
Sleep Problems and Behavior Issues
Inadequate sleep hygiene and poor sleep habits are sometimes behavioral issues that could delay falling asleep. Promoting proper habits before bedtime can do a lot to help kids go to bed at the right time. Avoiding caffeinated drinks or sugary sweets a few hours before bedtime is another way to help children with autism sleep more easily. Some children who are diagnosed with autism have difficulty reading social cues that tell them when it’s time to sleep. For example, if they’re used to sleeping in their parents’ bedroom, they may find it difficult to transition to sleeping alone. Reassurance and keeping to a fixed routine before bed can be helpful.
Sleep Problems and Apnea
Sleep problems and autism are linked medically as well. Sleep apnea is incredibly prevalent among children with autism. As sleep apnea causes the airway to close, it can make children awaken throughout the night. This can lead to poor academic performance and hyperactivity, as well as exacerbate autistic symptoms.
There are numerous reasons why autism and sleep difficulties go hand in hand. Paying attention to a child’s symptoms and making changes to sleep routines can go a long way toward helping them get a better night’s sleep. However, if the problem is severe and affecting the child’s quality of life, it’s likely related to a brain imbalance and should be addressed accordingly.
Help for Autism-related Sleep Problems
If your child is exhibiting signs of autism and you have exhausted traditional treatments and therapies with little result, our free assessment can get you and your child headed in the right direction. Using your mobile phone, the assessment will help you determine the appropriate next steps in a care plan for your child. You’ll also receive proven exercises to help your child overcome developmental delays.