Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sleep Problems

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Research shows that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to experience other problems that go hand-in-hand with ASD, which are known as comorbid conditions. This research estimates that the number of children with ASD who would qualify for also having a comorbid condition is approximately 70-80%. The range of comorbid conditions that exist can affect an individual’s mental and physical health, as well as impact them neurologically and medically. Some examples of how these comorbid conditions can manifest include an atypical reaction to one’s surroundings, sleeping disorders such as insomnia, and poor muscle development.

Child with autism spectrum disorder sleeping at her desk, with pencil in hand.

It is very common for children to go through a stage where they don’t sleep through the night. This is actually a normal stage within a child’s physical and cognitive maturation. However, it is a stage that, should it be persistent, is detrimental to not only their health and development, but also their daily functioning. This can affect how they interact with others on a daily basis, especially in children with autism spectrum disorder. Researchers have also demonstrated that insomnia, on its own, tends to worsen the symptoms of ASD and lessens an individual’s ability to thrive in their life.

Existing research shows that there is a strong tendency for those with autism spectrum disorder to have  problems with establishing proper sleep patterns and that they are impacted to a much greater degree than neurotypical children. Additionally, the studies also reveal that those with autism spectrum disorder are at a much higher risk of developing these sleeping disorders than neurotypical peers. The number of those with autism spectrum disorder who have trouble sleeping ranges anywhere between 44-86%. This is contrasted by the overall child population, where only 10-16% experience sleeping problems. 

Many autistic children who experience difficulties regulating emotions and behaviour are shown to also exhibit difficulties with their sleep. A past study of Asperger syndrome and other forms of autism discovered that the children who had persistent insomnia displayed greater emotional and behavioural symptoms than children without sleep disturbances. Parallel conditions are also known to disrupt sleep, some of which include gastrointestinal irregularities, stimulants, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety. 

Young girl sleeping

A study found in the academic journal Autism looked at the frequency that sleep issues in children with symptoms that are commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder occurred. The study participants were evaluated for symptoms relating to autism, problems with their sleep, and emotional and behavioural issues. It was found that persistent insomnia was over ten times greater in autistic children than those who did not have ASD (39.3% vs. 3.6%).

The autistic children were shown to develop more sleep irregularities over a period of time, with a frequency of 37.5% compared to 8.6% of the children without autism. Both groups were children aged 11-13 years. Even though only a few girls were included in the study, it was discovered that sleep abnormalities occurred less in girls than boys and their sleep problems were temporary. Those with ASD who also had ADHD were more likely to develop sleep problems.

Without question, it is clear that there is significant scientific backing that demonstrates the link between autism spectrum disorder and sleep problems. Sleep disturbances can, in reverse, negatively affect the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, such as experiencing an increase in repetitive and/or hyperactive behaviour, lack of focus/attention, displays of aggression, and an impairment in higher brain functioning. Given all these potential issues, it is important for parents to attempt to maximize their children’s sleep habits and put routines and strategies in place that will allow their children to get the most quality sleep.  

Sleep hygiene are the practices that we use to ensure that we have good nighttime sleep and as a consequence good daytime alertness. 

Some examples of good sleep hygiene for autism spectrum disorder are:

  • Avoiding daytime naps
  • Establishing a bedtime routine that offers time to relax and wind down before actually trying to sleep
  • Making sure the sleep environment is comfortable
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends)
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Avoiding blue light producing screens for an hour before bedtime

If your child is having a difficult time with sleep, contact Side by Side Therapy for a no-charge 30 minute consultation and we can brainstorm some ideas to help! 

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