Sleep Deprivation in Children with Autism


As diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are on the rise, affecting 1 of every 68 children, parents of children with autism are increasingly seeking answers to issues that accompany the diagnosis. One of those conundrums is insomnia. The latest research is confirming that the majority of children and adolescents with autism are likely to experience sleep disturbances.

Parents report that between 50 and 80 percent of children with an ASD have difficulties sleeping. According to researchers who conducted one survey of parents of children with ASDs, the prevalence of sleep problems was at 73 percent, whereas the parents of typically developing children reported sleep issues in 50 percent of cases. In particular, children with Asperger’s Disorder, which is a form of ASD, were “significantly more likely to be sluggish and disoriented after waking and had a higher Behavioral Evaluation of Disorders of Sleep (BEDS) total score.”

While the reasons for sleep problems in children with ASDs are still unclear, it is certain that they need correcting. Sleep deprivation has been proven to worsen the capacity for emotional regulation, which is already an area of vulnerability in this demographic group. Additionally, getting regular, sound sleep helps the bodies of children with ADSs to self-regulate in health-inducing ways: healthy slumber prevents the onset of diseases and illnesses, fights infections, helps them retain memories, improves concentration, and reduces hyperactivity and restlessness. In sum, lack of sleep makes the symptoms of ASDs worse. The good news is that the reverse is also true: Getting good sleep counteracts the troublesome symptoms of autism.

What can parents do to help their children soundly sleep the doctor-recommended 8 to 10 hours per night? Here are 10 helpful steps:

  1. If you haven’t already done this, teach your child to sleep alone. Using tactics such as a reassuring bedtime routine, making your child’s bedroom fun and soothing, and other tricks, make your child’s sleep independent of your presence.

  2. Stick to regular sleep and wake schedule, even on the weekends. It helps the body maintain and stick to the body’s internal clock.

  3. Do not allow the use of electronics two hours prior to bedtime. The blue-spectrum light that the screens emit has been shown to have rousing properties. Same goes for the blue light given off by some energy efficient light bulbs.

  4. Make your child’s bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Slightly cooler temperatures, darkness, and quiet at night all induce drowsiness.

  5. Ensure that your child sleeps on a comfortable, properly sized mattress.

  6. Explore teaching your child the basics of a mindfulness meditation practice. The “mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment” has been demonstrated to diminish anxiety and help people get rest at night. At minimum, a meditation practice can be as simple as counting to 100 or observing one’s breath.

  7. Avoid giving your child caffeine and sugar close to bedtime.

  8. Make sure that your child gets plenty of exercise during the day on a regular basis. According to a 2013 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, vigorous, moderate, and light exercisers are significantly more likely to report that they had a good night’s sleep on work nights than people who do not exercise (67-56 vs. 39 percent).

  9. If your child suffers from sleep apnea, sleepwalking, night terrors, or restless legs syndrome, take him to see a specialist. Some underlying medical conditions can be helped either with behavioral therapy or a course of prescription medication.

  10. What tends to soothe your child? Whether it’s you reading a story or another thing that tends to be reliably calming to your child, incorporate that at bedtime on a routine basis.

Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck Sleep. She holds two master’s degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps best after a kettlebell workout, with a window slightly cracked in a dark room, and on a medium-firm mattress in Portland, Oregon.