Children and Autism: How to Deal with Sleep Disorders


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This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to advise or replace professional consultation, but only share experiences and resources that parents and caregivers might find helpful or interesting. Please speak with a pediatrician if you have any concerns about your child’s health and well-being.

Based on the latest psychiatry reports, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, commonly referred to as ASD, are more vulnerable to sleep disorders since it predisposes them to different stressors that affect their sleep. This problem can be solved by implementing different solutions and strategies. 

Any child with autism can be hypersensitive to sounds and light. So, even if they try to go to bed, it will be incredibly difficult for them to close their eyes and turn their minds off. According to records, these children experience increased production of melatonin during the day rather than at night. 

Based on statistics, children with autism, in general, spend 15% of their sleep cycle in REM sleep (characterized by very fast and deep eye movement), while other children spend 23%.  We need these REM cycles to sleep better. If we don’t have enough REM cycles, we will be vulnerable to sleep disorders, here is why. 

Different Types of Sleeping Problems for Children with Autism

There is a wide range of problems children with autism can experience when they sleep. Some are more common than others, but can still have a huge impact on the child’s sleep. Some of these problems include: 

  • Nightmares and terrors 
  • Sleep apnea 
  • Bedwetting 
  • Sleep deprivation 

Nightmares and Terrors for Children with Autism 

Nightmares are not uncommon for anyone with autism, including children. But, for the little ones, these experiences are terrifying. Not only do they affect the child, but they can also put a huge strain on the family as well.

Children who deal with night terrors can’t find a way to manage the stress. As a result, their dreams get disrupted, and they are afraid to go to sleep again. In the end, they will end up spending the night with their eyes wide open. 

Night terrors are accompanied by screaming, shaking, flailing, or crying. They can appear about 90min right after the child has fallen asleep. These terrors can last a short time to up to a couple of minutes.

Even though children may not remember them in some cases, they will wake up feeling exhausted as if they didn’t get any sleep. 

Sleep Apnea and Autism 

Based on the records from the Autism Research Institute, sleep apnea is the one that causes sleeping problems in children with autism. These problems include: 

  • Gasping 
  • Snoring 
  • Behavior issues 
  • Sleepiness during daytime 

In fact, 40% to 80% of all individuals with ASD, not only children, experience serious sleep disorders that affect their quality of sleep. In the long run, these problems can cause sleep deprivation, affect their daily activities, and cause more stress. 

Bed-wetting 

When a child with autism has no or little bladder control at night and is a heavy sleeper, then they are more likely to wet their bed at night. They do have complete control over their bladder during the day, but at night, this is a completely different story.

Poor control makes it incredibly difficult for children to sense their urge at night. If this problem is combined with sedating meds, then it will be nearly impossible for a child to avoid bedwetting. 

  • Bedwetting is not bad behavior, and this is just a behavioral response.  

Sleep Deprivation 

Sleep deprivation is an outcome of all the problems. Nightmares, terrors, bedwetting, and sleep apnea can affect a child’s quality of sleep. The more problems they have to deal with, the higher the chance of being sleep deprived. 

However, there is more to sleep deprivation than it meets the eye. This problem can have impactful negative effects on overall health. It can cause numerous changes like in their behavior, mood, and even lead to bad eating habits.

That’s why some children will be incredibly angry, have sudden mood changes, or have terrible eating habits. 

How to Help a Child with Autism Get Enough Sleep? 

This problem can’t be solved overnight. There are different steps you can take to obtain favorable results. 

  1. Evaluate the condition
  2. Don’t give the child sugar before bed. 
  3. Create a sleeping routine 
  4. Set a sleeping schedule 
  5. Remove any distractions from the room 
  6. Ask your doctor for a dietary supplement 
  7. Talk to a psychologist 

The first and most important step is evaluation. Before you can implement any changes, you need to know if the child experiences any medical difficulties that can affect their sleep. Some medical conditions may have nothing to do with autism, but still, aggravate their sleep disorders.  

When it comes to a sleeping routine, it’s pretty simple. You can read your child a bedtime story every night, or give them a bath before they go to bed. This type of routine can help them relax and fall asleep. Any distractions like the phone, computer, or light, can keep a child awake at night.

It is best to remove these distractions from the room to help the child sleep better.  

In other cases, you can ask the doctor for a dietary supplement with melatonin. This supplement can help keep sleep cycles normal. If you need any additional help with managing the child’s sleep, you can always consult with a sleep psychologist for the child to get proper therapy. This can speed up the process.  

How to Set a Sleeping Schedule

By creating a schedule, the child will have a solid environment where they can get enough sleep. This chart will give you a general overview of a good sleeping schedule for children. While it may differ for children with autism, it is still a good reference point.

Age Necessary Hours of Sleep  Number of Naps 
0 to 3 months old  12 to 18  3 or more 
3 to 12 months old  14 to 15  2 to 4
1 to 3 years old  12 to 14  1 to 2
3 to 5 years old  11 to 131 or 0
5 to 10 years old  10 – 120
10+ years old  8+0

Conclusion 

Addressing all the issues autism causes can be challenging, but it is doable. The best way to solve the problem is to evaluate all the factors and implement new strategies. Whenever the process becomes more difficult, you can always consult with a doctor on how to improve your current strategies.

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

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.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846201/

https://www.autism.org/treatment-old/treating-sleep-disorders/

https://www.webmd.com/brain/autism/helping-your-child-with-autism-get-a-good-nights-sleep#1

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sleep

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4770638/

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