Sleep and Autism

Woman unable to sleepSleep problems are very common in people on the autism spectrum  but not all people with autism have sleep problems.

Those sleep problems include difficulty falling asleep, waking during the night, erratic/irregular  sleep patterns, shorter total sleep, other arousals/disturbances, and daytime sleepiness.

There are a number of factors associated with sleep problems in people on the autism  spectrum. These include 

  • The nature of autism itself, including an insistence on routines and learnt behaviours.
  • Neurological issues (such as an abnormal body clock) or developmental issues (such as co-existing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
  • Medical issues (such as reflux or constipation), mental health issues (such as stress, anxiety and depression) or difficulties with learning and with memory.

Taken together, all of these problems may make it difficult to function normally, to attend school/college and/or to hold down regular employment.

There are a number of interventions designed to overcome sleep problems in people. These include behavioural approaches, medications, and dietary supplements.

There is very little research evidence on the effectiveness of most of these interventions for people on the autism spectrum. 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Autism Treatment Network (ATN) Sleep Committee have each developed clinical guidelines on how to approach and treat sleep problems in children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.

These guidelines stress the importance of drawing up an appropriate treatment plan based on identifying the underlying cause or causes of the specific sleep problems.   

Further research is required to examine the impact of poor sleep on people on the autism spectrum and to examine those interventions which appear to be effective.

31 Oct 2017