Causes of Sleep Disturbances for Those with ASD

A good night’s sleep is important. Without it, children can be irritable, struggle with academics, engage in more repetitive behaviours, become easily fatigued, and are more likely to suffer from unintentional injury. Over the long term, poor sleep can lead to adult obesity, anxiety in adulthood, and sleep problems throughout adulthood.

Examples of sleep disturbances are taking a long time to fall asleep, waking up in the night, nightmares, or waking too early in the morning. A new study suggests that sleep disturbances could be linked to genes. Lead researcher Takanori Yamagata, professor of pediatric developmental medicine at Jichi Medical University in Shimotsuke, Japan says, “My hypothesis is that some circadian genes may be related to some of the genetics of autism.”

Other causes of sleep disturbances could be a result of using technology devices at night in bed. A new study shows that their use at night can cause sleep disturbances due to reduced levels of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that typically increases in the evening and helps induce sleepiness.

“During a two-week inpatient experiment involving a dozen adults, some participants were asked to read on an iPad for four hours each night before bedtime, for five consecutive nights. Others read printed books in dim light. After a week, the groups switched.” The results – participants using iPads had reduced levels of melatonin, took longer to fall asleep, and spent less time in restorative rapid-eye movement sleep.

While this study did not involve people with ASD, it is a cautionary tale as this population often experiences sleep difficulties. It is important to have a regular routine around bedtime that involves bathing at least one hour before bed, low arousal activities, a dark room to sleep in, and limiting the use of tech devices before bed.

Greg Hanley has done some excellent work in the area of sleep and how to eradicate problem behaviors around sleeping. Have a look at his PowerPoint presentation on sleep. There is also this You Tube presentation by Dr. Gail Williams on sleep disorders and autism.

Two good resources for parents to read on solving sleep difficulties are Solving Sleep Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Guide for Frazzled Families and Sleep Well on the Autism Spectrum.

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  1. Renee Gallant says:

    Unfortunately I did not find this information helpful for my son’s sleep problems. He is 15 now and has never slept well. Electronic devices have never been an issue and non-compliance hasn’t been an issue since he was about 5. He simply cannot “shut off” when he goes to bed and is chronically tired. He gets plenty of exercise but never close to bedtime, he is very careful with his sugar intake especially in the afternoons and evenings, he has a very dark quiet room and wears an eye mask. He’s tried melatonin and meditation, neither with much success. Most of the articles I read do not seem to address the “active brain” problem with kids like my son. I wish I could help him. 
    Renee

  2. Shirley Sutton says:

    Great up to date info … as always Maureen!  You are a great resource .

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