If you or your child are autistic, you likely know that autism can affect sleep.
Good sleep can be as elusive as it is essential, and countless people experience insomnia at some point in their lives. But for autistic people and their families, restorative sleep can seem a little farther out of reach.
Considering its impact on critical areas such as emotional processing, learning abilities, and social interactions, improving sleep is a priority. This is true for everyone, but particularly for autistic people, whose strengths exist outside the social arena.
Even though disrupted sleep is often part of autism, it’s possible to improve the situation and wake up well-rested.
Sleep differences in autism present before 2 years of age and are one of the first indicators of this neurotype. By comparison, only about half of typically developing children and adolescents experience disrupted sleep.
Genetic and neurological differences combined with environment make it harder for autistic people to sleep well. The result is:
- more time needed to fall asleep
- increased nighttime awakenings
- sleep cycle changes
Sleep testing (polysomnography) studies show that autistic children differ in several ways from allistic (non-autistic) people during sleep:
- less time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — an essential sleep stage that processes learning and long-term memory
- more undifferentiated sleep
- differences in eye movement bursts
- less time in bed
- decreased total sleep time
- longer period of stage 1 sleep — the short transition from wakefulness to sleep
A 2010 study demonstrated a reduction in REM time in autistic children. This deficit was compared to REM times for typically developing children and developmentally delayed allistic children, indicating that the REM difference was because of autism and not intellectual ability.
Autistic people differ in how they produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Usually, melatonin production responds to changes in daylight and increases as night falls to help with sleep. But some autistic children produce more melatonin during the day and less at night.
Sensory differences can impact sleep. It’s estimated that about 69% to 95% of autistic children have sensory issues, compared to only 3% to 14% of typically developing children.