Welcome to the last day in the A to Z Challenge on autism. In all honesty, I’m glad the challenge is over because it’s been exhausting to try to write each post and comment on other bloggers and all. Today’s post is themed appropriately for this sentiment: titled “ZZZ”, it’s all about sleep and sleep problems in autistic people.
Sleep problems are common in autistic people. Some studies estimate that as many as 80% of children with autism spectrum disorders have sleep problems. The most common problems in autistic children are difficulty falling asleep and awakening often.
There are many possible causes for sleep probls in children and adults with autism. Some early research shows that autistics show abnormalities in brain structures related to sleep. Research is also underway on autistic people’s levels of melatonin (the sleep hormone) and other chemicals released by the brain that are known for their function in regulating sleep.
Behavioral issues which contribute to sleep problems in autistics include poor sleep hygiene and problems with limit-setting. For exampe, a person may have difficulty stopping engagement in day activities. This could be because these acitivites are the person’s special interest, but it could also be that the person has trouble shifting from one type of activity (eg. gaming) to a very different activity (preparing for and going to bed). Of course, just like neurotypical people, autistic people suffer increased sleep difficulties when they’ve been engaging with electronic devices shortly before going to bed.
Some medical issues that are more common in autistic people can also cause sleep problems. These conditions include epilepsy and gastroesophageal reflux. Lastly, medications that are used for treating behavioral problems in autism, such as stimulants, can cause sleep problems too.
There are many ways in which an autistic person can improve their sleep or a parent can help their autistic child do so. For example, establishing a good bedtime routine and a healthy sleep environment can help. To be a good sleep environment, a bedroom needs to be quiet, cool and dark. For children and adults with sensory issues, this may be especially important. On the other hand, some people may actually benefit from listening to calming music while falling asleep.
Daytime behavior can also help establish healthy sleep. Exercise is good, but not too close before bedtime. Obviously, caffeine causes sleep problems. Lastly, naps are good for preschoolers but not older children. Avoid allowing your preschool child to nap late in the afternoon.