This article is evidence-based, verified by Enrico Castroflorio, Ph.D.
A person spends, on average, about 26 years sleeping in their lifetime. Sleep occupies a large chunk of our time, and good quality sleep is essential to help us and our loved ones thrive. However, a good night’s sleep can be a struggle for the best of us, and it is problematic for many people with autism.
Sleep and Autism
Individuals with autism often have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Besides, this may worsen some characteristics of their condition, such as repetitive behaviors that can make sleep even more difficult. For this reason, sleep problems are a significant concern for families struggling with this autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Autistic people take an average of 11 minutes longer than regular people to fall asleep and often wake up at night. Sometimes they also suffer from “sleep apnea,” a condition that alters the respiratory rhythm by stopping it several times during the night.
Moreover, a person with autism spends about 15% of her or his sleep time in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, which is essential for learning and maintaining memories, compared to 23% spent by neurotypical people.
Additionally, sleeping is less “regenerative” for people with autism compared to the general population. Not surprisingly, the US National Sleep Foundation identified children with ASD as one of the highest priority populations for sleep research and treatment.
Little Gland, Big Responsibilities
In general, the reasons behind poor quality sleep can be different: body temperature, overthinking, excessive artificial light, smoking, and so on. These artificial jet lags happen because a tiny gland in the middle of our brain, the pineal gland, is tricked by those behaviors.
For more information about the pineal gland, check out the video from the University of Michigan below:
Its job is to receive information about the state of the light-dark cycle from the environment and convey this information to produce melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” Melatonin is released during the dark period of the day only, allowing us to have an internal personal Big Ben, called the circadian clock.
New data suggest the possibility of inadequate nocturnal melatonin production in autistic people. Thus, it is possible to treat this deficit with synthetic melatonin under a physician’s supervision.
The FDA considers melatonin as a dietary supplement, and it doesn’t go through strict testing as you would expect from a prescribed drug. It is commercially available, and doctors use it to treat insomnia in autistic children.
Unfortunately, people with autism often suffer other clinical conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or anxiety, which both affect sleep quality.
Furthermore, the use of other medication (e.g., antidepressants and stimulants) that metabolize melatonin may reduce the effectiveness of these interventions.
You must follow your physician’s advice about helping your autistic child sleep better. Their clinical experience and medical training outweigh anything we might read in a forum or magazine.
Physical Exercise as Sleep Therapy
We all agree that regular exercise promotes physical and mental health, but what are the benefits for people with ASD?
Physical inactivity is widespread in children with autism. One of the areas in which autistic subjects have problems is motor control: limited motor coordination, together with repetitive and stereotyped movements, are common.
In some cases, problems arise from balance maintenance. However, children who are more physically active tend to have healthier and more consistent sleep patterns.
Recent studies have shown a positive relationship between physical exercise and symptomatic improvement of autism in children, adolescents, and adults, particularly for what regards body relaxation, which turns in better sleep quality.
Time to Try a New Sport? 🏆
Some sports can be challenging for autistic children; this does not mean that autistic kids need to stay away from physical activity, but it is essential to help them to choose the sports they are most likely to enjoy.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but team sports such as soccer, basketball, and hockey can be particularly tricky for autistic children. Said so, not all team sports need high-level communication and cooperation, and many of them might include an individual athlete as an essential team member. Here some of the best games that could be a great opportunity:
- Swimming. Swimming is a beautiful sport for most people, including children with autism: they could succeed in this because it allows individual competition.
- Athletics. This sport can result in an exceptional outlet for children with autism. Keeping track of events requires fewer communication skills than most team sports.
- Bowling. Even though it is noisy, bowling seems to be a natural sport for many children with autism. Maybe it’s the repetition: throw twice, sit down. Or perhaps it’s the satisfaction of seeing the pins fall. Whatever the reason, bowling is an excellent sport for social events that include people on the autism spectrum.
Although it is possible to choose any non-team sport, these are some of the most popular for autistic kids.
- Horse riding. Yes, it is expensive. Other than that, it’s an exceptional sport for children with autism as it is prevalent for them to find it easier to communicate with animals rather than with people (and many autistic children excel in horse riding!).
- Hiking (and fishing). The peace of the natural world is excellent anti-stress therapy. Hiking is an easy way to exercise and enjoy nature without the pressure of demanding social communication. Fishing is another sport that may be of interest to an autistic person who enjoys the natural world.
- Martial arts. Karate, judo, taekwondo, aikido, and more, combine the elements of predictability with the challenges of physical interaction with other people. In essence, martial arts are a fantastic way to build physical skills together with self-esteem.
Physical exercise has a positive impact on the sleep of autistic people. Of course, this positively affects the rest of families that are continuously challenged by ASD. Physical activity affects circadian rhythm through naturally increasing melatonin levels, the “sleep hormone.”
Autism creates specific challenges when it comes to sports, but it also opens up some exciting possibilities. For this reason, exercise is one of the best methods not only to add physical activity to daily routine but also to help manage and alleviate sleeping disorders of autistic kids.
After graduating in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Turin, Enrico did his Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Brain Technologies at the Italian Institute of Technology, Genova. He then joined the Medical Research Council Harwell Institute in Oxford where he is currently researching the role of novel genes associated with autism.