This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Autism is a common developmental disorder indicated by difficulties with social interaction, communication, learning, as well as restricted and repetitive behavior. Numbers show that one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism in the US. Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.
Children with autism need more attention and a certain schedule that allows them to function. Getting enough sleep is crucial, but many kids with autism experience sleep difficulties that persist in their adolescent years.
However, teens with autism need more sleep. In this post, you’re going to find out why and how to help a teen with autism sleep better.
Why teens with autism need more sleep
Although autism is a prevalent disorder where the sleep habits of children and teens who have it are poorly studied. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published research which showed that only a few studies had compared the sleep habits of teens with autism and those with typical development.
They documented longer sleep latencies and reduced sleep efficiency in teens with autism. Moreover, adolescents with autism were three times more likely to report sleep-related problems than their counterparts. Although the study confirmed that adolescents with autism experience more sleep problems than other teens, the underlying causes still remain unclear.
There were theories that children and teens with autism have impaired melatonin and cortisol hormone functions, but the above-mentioned study found there was no significant difference in balances of these hormones among patients with autism and teens with typical development.
A number of reasons could contribute to poor sleep quality of adolescents with autism, including their medications, absence of regular sleep schedule, lack of strict routine, among others. The reason why teens with autism need more sleep is that its absence can aggravate the symptoms they experience and intensify them.
According to a study from the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, it is entirely plausible that sleep deprivation exacerbates autism symptoms and challenging behaviors, but more research on this subject is necessary to investigate all effects of poor quality of sleep on behavior and symptoms in children and teens with autism.
Lack of sleep in autism can also lead to hyperactivity and worsening of repetitive behaviors, studies show. Due to all these factors, it is easy to understand why teens with autism need plenty of sleep and a good night’s rest.
How much sleep teens need?
Teens tend to spend a lot of time in bed watching movies and shows, but the reality is that they don’t get enough sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need between eight and 10 hours of sleep every night, but the most common recommendations are 9 ½ hours.
The reason is simple; adolescents are going through a second developmental stage of cognitive maturation, and sleep is food for the brain. Teens need enough sleep to support the development of their brain and cognitive functions the same way they need it for physical growth.
Is there treatment for sleep problems in autism?
All teens need plenty of sleep, so their body and brain can develop properly, but this is even more important for adolescents with autism. As seen above, sleep deprivation can aggravate symptoms of autism, cause hyperactivity, and worsen repetitive behaviors. But, saying that is one thing and actually helping a teen get more sleep is something else entirely.
A study, whose findings were published in the Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, showed that individualized behavioral interventions for sleep problems could help adolescents with autism and yield a high degree of treatment satisfaction.
Parents or caregivers of teens with autism can help them get enough sleep by making some adjustments in their lifestyle. Remember, autism is a multifactorial condition, and problems associated with it requires a multifaceted approach as well.
Useful things to do include
- Consult a healthcare provider about medications a teen is taking and see whether they have a negative impact on the quality of sleep. If so, the doctor may prescribe different medications, adjust the dosage, or advise you when to give pills to your teen to avoid sleep problems
- Establish a regular sleep routine – all people need a sleep schedule, and teens with autism aren’t the exceptions. It’s also worth mentioning that people with autism need a certain schedule to feel safe and function, so having a sleep routine may have more benefits than one. Going bed every night at the same time and waking up every morning at the same time can help avoid sleep deprivation and worsening of autism symptoms
- Make sure your teen with autism doesn’t engage in vigorous and energy-boosting activities too close to bedtime. While exercise is important, it’s more effective to do it in the morning or during the day. The same goes for other activities that may boost energy levels and make it difficult for a teen to get enough sleep
- Pay attention to diet as foods can improve or worsen sleep quality. Your teen should eat his or her meals at the same time every day, and instead of junk food, it’s more important to introduce fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-laden options. It’s also useful to avoid foods and drinks containing caffeine about three to four hours before bedtime
- To help your teen relax in the evening and fall asleep easier later, you may want to close the curtains and dim the lights, turn off the TV, and avoid late-night snacking. The bedroom should be quiet and comfortable
Lack of sleep can aggravate symptoms of autism, but more studies on this subject are necessary, especially among the teenage population. The individualized treatment approach for sleep problems in autism may help your teen sleep better as well as establishing a regular routine and making certain lifestyle adjustments.
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.