Following our recent study with the National Autistic Society, we wanted to delve into the research a little further and understand the link between autism and sleep patterns a little better.
Here is what we found, as well as a few helpful tips:
What Does the Average Autistic Person’s Sleep Pattern Look Like?
Autism news and analysis site Spectrum states that ‘people with autism tend to have insomnia: It takes them an average of 11 minutes longer than typical people to fall asleep, and many wake up frequently during the night.’
Spectrum also reveals autistic people may experience sleep apnea or other conditions which disrupt sleep, and the sleep had is less restorative. Just 15% of sleep is spent in REM stage, compared to the average 23%, meaning less processing time.
This lack of restorative sleep can lead to tiredness during the day and mood changes, as well as wider-reaching influences on family life, school or work.
We recently ran a project with the National Autistic Society, surveying Autistic people and their families about sleep, and found:
- A good night’s sleep is important, but most don’t achieve it.
- 4 in 5 reported difficulty getting to sleep and/or restless sleep.
- 70% of autistic people said anxiety keeps them up at night.
- Fewer than 1 in 4 family members always get a good night’s sleep.
Read the full report: 4 in 5 Autistic People Struggle to Sleep: Understanding the Effect on Slumber.
How Are Autistic Children’s Sleep Patterns Different?
In 2013, a medical journal article named ‘Sleep patterns in children with autism spectrum disorders: a prospective cohort study’ reported the findings of a study into the longitudinal sleep patterns of children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and found that children between the ages of 30 months and 11 years with an ASD were likely to sleep less than their peers.
They found night-time sleep was shortened by up to 43 minutes per day due to later bedtimes and earlier waking times – something possibly caused by the struggle to produce enough melatonin – and frequent waking was very common, possibly due to an increased sensitivity to outside stimuli, such as touch or sound.
However, before the age of 30 months, there was no significant difference in sleep duration for those with an ASD.
Similar findings on shortened sleep duration have been discussed by many other studies and reports, including a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry ‘Sleep Patterns in Preschool-Age Children with Autism, Developmental Delay, and Typical Development’.
In fact, a 2019 study published in Pediatrics suggested that nearly 80% of autistic children aged between 2 and 4 have disrupted sleep, and autistic children are twice as likely to have sleep issues as ‘typical’ children.
Do Autistic Babies Sleep More?
As a new parent, you often worry about your child’s behaviour and whether it is ‘normal’. And, if your baby sleeps more than that of others their age, you may count yourself lucky, or it may raise some concerns?
Autism and sleep in babies is a tricky subject and we would always recommend you speak to a medical practitioner about any concerns you may have. However, excessive sleepiness during the day could be reflective of sleep problems at night.
Autism Sleep Tips
Helping a child on the autism spectrum to sleep better can be difficult, especially if they’re non-verbal and cannot explain what is bothering them i.e. itchy pyjamas or an annoyingly bright street light. However, no matter how old you are, adult or child, the following tips could help improve your slumber.
Establish a Routine - A basic routine which can be followed at home, or if travelling, can create a sense of normalcy and expectation, easing anxiety.
Limit Screen Time – Avoiding tv screens, phones or computers for an hour or two before bed could help with the natural production of sleep hormone melatonin.
Make the Room More Comfortable – Consider investing in comfortable, yet supportive, orthopaedic mattresses, black-out blinds, and thick, noise-reducing carpets. Removing distracting objects and decorating in a minimalistic style could also help remove sleep blockades.
Consider Supplements – There are numerous tablets on the market which can aid sleep, including natural remedies which can aid anxiety and help you relax. However, these are not advised for young children.
Remember: it’s important to speak to your local GP or specialist before taking any supplements as synthetic melatonin supplements are only available on prescription in the UK, and some supplements could interfere with other medications.
Let’s Work Together to Get a Better Night’s Rest
Do you have any tried and tested techniques for tackling autism sleep problems in adults or children? We’d love to hear them. Join the conversation with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and make sure to use #AutisticSleep.