Autism and Sleep

Autism and Sleep

sleep and autism


Autism and sleep disorders often go hand in hand.  We all know how important a good night’s sleep is to our general health, mood, wellbeing and daytime performance.  Poor sleep can lead to a whole host of health problems including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, depression, reduced immune function, heart failure, or stroke. While everyone deals with barriers to good sleep from time to time, folks with autism have additional sleep disorders that can impair their rest on a regular basis.


One theory suggests that folks with autism may have a malfunction in their body’s ability to produce melatonin which allows the body to rest and repair itself.  This disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm or 24-hour cycle of physical, mental, and behavioral changes which respond to light and dark.  With autism, it takes longer to fall asleep and stay asleep.  Nighttime wakening is more frequent.  Sleep is less restorative as the REM stage (rapid eye movement) is shorter. The REM stage is critical for learning and retaining memories.  Repetitive movements and restless leg syndrome are more common resulting in the kicking off of covers which disrupts sleep. Sensitivity to light, noises, temperatures, and fabrics may be more intense.  Although not too common, sleep apnea may be an issue as well.  All these conditions of autism can lead to poor sleep.

autism and sleep


Poor sleep not only has an impact on our general health, but it also worsens the characteristics of autism.  It leads to daytime behavior problems and parental stress. Social interactions may be more awkward, aggression may surface, learning is delayed, cognitive functions are poor, brains are sluggish, irritability comes easily, and aches and pains are more common. Additionally, you see low motivation, more repetitive movements, lower test scores, increased hyperactivity, and frequent distractions.


Furthermore, co-conditions can make the features of autism and poor sleep worse. Many folks with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience such things as gastrointestinal problems, constipation, abdominal pain, and cramps, sensory processing issues and even ADHD.  Medicines taken for these conditions can further lead to insomnia.  Genetic conditions may even play a part in sleep issues related to autism such as depression and chronic stress.


Obviously, a good bedtime routine promotes better sleep for all of us.  Turning the TV and digital devices off well before retiring to bed is just one good tip that helps all of us.  But for folks with ASD, more steps can be taken to improve the quality of their sleep.

1. Get everyone on board:  Since everyone in the house can be impacted by the sleep issues of one person, everyone in the house should be on board with the plan. If necessary, post the plan as a reminder.  Keep the plan simple so it’s not overwhelming. It can start at dinner time and culminate with the bedtime routine that may vary for each person.

2. Sticking to the plan:  Making a plan is essential but sticking to it is also important.   Consistency is key to success.  Even if you have been out for the evening, it’s important to get in to the routine as soon as you return.

3. Bedtime routine:  The bedtime routine for folks with ASD should be about 15-30 mins. Activities should be progressively relaxing and include such things as a light snack, warm bath, getting into PJ.s tooth brushing, reading a story, prayers, lights out.  Make sure all stimulating activities are done early in the day, and not within 2-3 hours of bedtime.  Because we are all unique, what is soothing to one may be stimulating to others.  That is true with ASD as well.  Keep this in mind when planning the routine.

4. Lights: Keep the room dark.  Use heavy curtains if the streetlights shine in. If the room is too dark, a small night light may be preferred.  In the morning, be sure to open the curtains and let the light in to assist the body’s circadian rhythm.

5. Temperature: The ideal room temperature for sleeping is 65–67 degrees Fahrenheit unless you are sleeping without covers.  Then it can be a little warmer but a room that is too hot or too cold will disrupt sleep and encourage kicking off covers, another major disrupter to sleep.

6. Sounds: Noise is distracting and even noise from another part of the house can disrupt the sleep of a very sensitive individual. Sounds like running water or the dishwasher running can be disruptive to someone who is highly sensitive.  Keep all household noise quiet at bedtime and throughout the night. While some folks like to fall asleep to soft soothing music, even that can disrupt sleep when it stops.  If white noise is used like a fan, it should be used all night.

7. Fabrics: PJ’s and bedding should be made in soft, comfortable fabrics like cotton, silk, bamboo.  Loose or tight depends on the preference of the individual.

8. Weight or no weight:  Weighted blankets have been shown to give a sense of security to folks with ASD. The benefits of pressure go beyond just cover to relieve anxiety, depression, insomnia, and pain.  However, some sensitive folks do not like the feeling of the weight on their body or the blankets are too hot for them.  Another product, ZipSheets, give a tucked in, covered, and secure feeling yet the breathable cotton is cooler and loose against the skin.  ZipSheets have been shown to be calming for folks with ASD as well.  So, it all depends on the preference of the individual when it comes to covers and weight.  If you are choosing ZipSheets, neutral colors of sand, grey, and white as well as sand flannel may be less stimulating than the brighter, vibrant colors of the brand.

9. Relaxation Techniques:  Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.

10. Melatonin:  Check with your doctor about using a melatonin supplement if you feel it’s necessary.

autism and sleep

Remember, sleep issues with one person in the house will result in sleep issues for everyone.  And good sleep promotes good health as well as our best daily performance of tasks.  This is especially important when folks are dealing with ASD.  So, when it comes to sleep and autism, it is important to establish a progressively relaxing bedtime routine for everyone, create a positive and comfortable sleeping environment unique to the individual, eliminate distractions, and if necessary, talk to your doctor about a melatonin supplement to assist the natural circadian rhythm of the body if that is lacking.  To learn more about how more severe autism affects sleep, visit the Interactive Autism Network.