Sleep Issues and Autism: Theories on Why it Occurs

By Dawn Cole

May 4, 2019

I have had the privilege of working with many Ontario families as a Registered Nurse for 19 years. I have worked in a variety of clinical settings but have always gravitated to settings that allowed me to work with families. I have identical twin boys and a daughter. Having three kids in 15 months was at times overwhelming, but I was so thankful to have the knowledge my nursing career provided me. I love helping families find their confidence so that they can truly enjoy being a family.

Parenthood presents many challenges. For my family, our biggest challenges have all revolved around autism. I have identical twin boys who were both diagnosed with autism three years ago. Every autism family has struggles that are different simply because autism is not a cookie cutter diagnosis – every child presents in their own unique way.

Autism and Sleep

One very common struggles that many families face with a child on the spectrum is sleep. Research indicates upwards of 80% of families with at least one autistic child will report sleep disturbances. The impact of this is felt on every member of the family. Parents and siblings also have to face each day with little sleep.

Theories:

While many theories have been presented, no conclusive answer has ever been found to explain why struggles with sleep are so common in this population. Like everything with autism, what is true for one autistic individual may not be true for another.

Concurrent Conditions

We do know many children with autism have more than just an autism diagnosis. Anxiety, Depression, Epilepsy and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are just some of the concurrent diagnosis’ a child with autism can have. Each of these diagnoses is known to have sleep issues linked to them. Some research has suggested the sleep issues experienced by autistic individuals are the result of the concurrent condition and not autism. 

However, sleep issues do occur in children with no other diagnosis besides autism. Does that child have another undiagnosed condition that is interrupting the sleep cycle, or is autism the cause?

Sensory Issues

Another theory suggests sleep issues in autistic children are the result of sensory issues commonly experienced by autistic individuals. Sounds a neurotypical brain ignores, the autistic brain may amplify. Researchers hypothesize some children with autism may be easily roused by the slightest sound or other stimuli, thus interfering with the child’s ability to fall into a deeper stage of sleep. Something as benign as a clock ticking has the potential to keep the child up all night.

Low Melatonin

Another popular theory to explain sleep issues in autistic children is they have low melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain to help us sleep. Some research suggests the autistic brain may be over sensitive to light, and that the slightest amount of light may interfere with the brain’s production of melatonin. Researchers have yet to prove conclusively low melatonin levels exist in this population, but they are continuing to look for a possible link.

Every child has the ability to sleep – even those children on the autism spectrum. It has taken many sleepless nights and a lot of patience, but with a consistent approach both of my boys now have the ability to sleep through most nights with no issues. With the right approach, consistent routine, and proper timing your child too can sleep through the night. 

If your child is struggling with sleep, please reach out to your local Mama Coach for help.

 

 

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