Melatonin is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced by the pineal gland. Very small amounts of it are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits and vegetables. You can also buy it as a supplement.
Melatonin is normally released soon after it starts to get dark. The amount produced then increases until about two to four in the morning, and then drops off again. Melatonin is involved in many functional processes including regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
Some people believe that melatonin regulation may be abnormal in some people on the autism spectrum, causing them severe sleep problems. Those sleep problems may include difficulties falling asleep and difficulties staying asleep.
Some people believe that some of those sleep problems can be overcome or reduced by taking melatonin supplements, sometimes as part of a comprehensive, multi-component treatment plan.
There is some research which suggests that melatonin regulation may be impaired in some individuals on the autism spectrum. However the relationship between sleep problems and melatonin processing in people on the autism spectrum is complex and poorly understood.
There is a small amount of high quality research (seven controlled trials) and a small amount of low quality research (seven single case designs with three or more participants) into the use of melatonin as an intervention for people on the autism spectrum.
This research suggests that melatonin may be helpful in improving some sleep problems in some children and young people on the autism spectrum.
There isn’t enough high quality research to determine if melatonin is helpful in improving sleep problems in adults on the autism spectrum.
There isn’t enough high quality research to determine if melatonin provides any other benefits to people on the autism spectrum.
There is a need for more research into the relationship between sleep problems and melatonin processing in people on the autism spectrum.
There is also a need for more research into the use of melatonin as an intervention for people on the autism spectrum. This research should use more scientifically robust, experimental methodologies with a wider range of participants. It should investigate if there are different subsets of individuals on the autism spectrum (such as those with circadian rhythm problems) who might benefit most. It should also investigate how melatonin could be used as part of comprehensive, multi-component treatment plans.
If you are going to use melatonin supplements on a regular basis, we recommend that you should seek advice from a responsible health professional such as a GP or pharmacist. That health care professional should undertake a full evaluation of your sleep problems before prescribing melatonin. If they do prescribe melatonin, they should check the effectiveness and any side effects and stop treatment if there is no indication of a clinically important response at 4 weeks. They should start with a low dose, use the minimum effective dose needed and regularly review the benefits of any adverse events.
Please read our Disclaimer on Autism Interventions