This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Along with the social, emotional, and communication issues that children with autism experience, many of them also struggle with common sleep issues. These sleep issues reduce even further the quality of these children’s everyday life. But the sleep issues can also help diagnose autism from an early age, let’s say in babies.
It is not uncommon for autism to start presenting through certain sleep issues that every parent should be able to notice and report to their child’s doctor. What will follow are some of the biggest sleep issues that have been reported over the past to be noticed among the youngest autism patients.
What do you need to know about autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term used to refer to a group of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by issues linked to communication and social interaction. Individuals with autism tend to demonstrate restricted, repetitive, and often stereotyped interests or patterns of behavior. The usual indicators of autism usually appear by the age of 2 or 3, but autism can also be diagnosed as early as 18 months.
It has been suggested that autism occurs more often in boys than in girls, with the ratio being 4 to 1, male-to-female. Autism is thought to affect one in 160 children worldwide. The exact cause for autism is unknown; however, researchers are suggesting some risk factors including low birth weight, a history of viral infections, genetic mutations, metabolic imbalances, etc.
There is no cure for autism, but there is a variety of treatment options that have shown major success in the past. Usually, the treatments that are most commonly being used are behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, play therapy, speech therapy, meditation, and physical therapy.
Autism and sleep issues in babies and children
It is unlikely that a child will go through the night without any sleep issues. However, autism causes these children to experience sleep issues that we do not see that often in healthy children. In addition, babies and children with autism experience sleep issues more often than other children, as some statistical data published in 2017, showing that between 44 and 86% of the children with autism experience sleep issues, shows. For autism babies and children, it is likely that they will experience the following sleep issues:
- Irregular sleeping and waking up patterns
Babies and children with autism tend to have insomnia. They also tend to take 11 minutes longer to fall asleep as compared to healthy children without autism. Many of them also wake up quite often during the night, contributing to their sleep to be far less restorative than it is for children and people, in general, without autism.
Individuals with autism tend to spend only about 15% of their sleeping time in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, as compared to healthy individuals who spend about 23% in their REM stage. Getting too little sleep can exacerbate the existing autism symptoms, especially the poor social skills among these individuals.
- Sleeping too little for their age
Some research suggests that in individuals with autism, melatonin, which is the hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle, is not released at the correct times during the day, which causes common sleep interruptions among them. Instead of having the expected high melatonin levels during the night, babies and children with autism tend to have higher levels of melatonin during the day, and lower during the night, thus causing them to sleep less and wake up more often.
- Waking up and staying awake for more than an hour during the night
For healthy babies and children, it is normal to wake up a few times throughout the night in order to eat or simply wanting affection and attention from their parents. Eventually, they wake up less often over time, sleeping for longer periods of the night.
However, for autistic babies and children, it is usual for them to wake up more frequently, experiencing difficulties to fall asleep in the next few minutes, thus staying up awake for an hour or longer, causing even greater sleep difficulties during the night.
- Excessive sleepiness throughout the following day
Because of the frequent wake-ups, shorter REM stages, and the longer time that they need in order to fall asleep, autistic babies and children tend to experience sleepiness and fatigue during the day. As mentioned earlier, many of their symptoms are expected to worsen because of the existing sleep disorders.
Finding a solution to the common sleep issues in autistic babies and children
There are a lot of ways that a parent can use to soothe the sleep issues that any child, especially a child with autism experiences. For starters, focus on bedtime routines that a lot of autistic children are attached to. This might involve sleeping in their favorite pajamas, listening to a certain bedtime story or a lullaby, etc.
Make sure that your baby has at least two naps during the day, with the first one being in the morning and the second in the afternoon. The baby should not sleep later than 3:30 p.m. to help prevent any sleep difficulties later. Also, bedtime should be no later than 8 p.m.
When your child wakes up in the middle of the night, make sure that it feels comfortable and secure. This may involve taking it with you in your bed, where it can fall asleep faster, knowing that its parents are right there beside him.
Limit all environmental disturbances such as light, noise, smells, etc. In addition, use relaxation techniques such as meditation and practicing mindfulness before bed, to ensure your child’s maximum relaxation. Make sure that there is no light entering the room nor sounds or smells that your child can focus on instead of focusing on falling asleep faster.
Autism is a difficult condition that constantly requires proper care and treatment to ensure maximum results. Naturally, it is encouraged to be recognized as early as possible. And perhaps it will be the sleep disturbances that your little one has been experiencing lately what will help the doctor to make a clear diagnosis.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.