A good night’s sleep isn’t guaranteed for everyone, but it’s almost impossible for many people with autism. We all know that a poor sleep will make us feel grumpy the next day, and the same is true for people with autism. Whether they can communicate how they’re feeling or not, they need their rest as much as anyone. However, people on the spectrum often have trouble falling and staying asleep, and this can turn into a serious problem. Poor sleep may also worsen certain features of their condition, such as repetitive behaviours. In turn, this can make sleeping even more difficult. The good news is that there is a way to help autism and sleep go together, rather than be foes.
What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that can affect how a person communicates with and relates to other people. It’ll also affect how they experience the world around them.
Autism and Sleep Problems
People with autism tend to have insomnia, as they can take an average of eleven minutes longer than other people to fall asleep. Many people with autism will wake up frequently during the night and might find it hard to go back to sleep. You can read more about insomnia here.
Some people with autism may also have Sleep Apnoea, a condition that affects breathing several times during the night. Read more about this sleeping disorder here.
Why Do People with Autism Have Trouble Sleeping?
There still is no answer to this question, but research is going on to find out more about the connection between autism and sleep. However, there are some ideas as to why autism and sleep don’t go hand in hand.
Melatonin, the sleep hormone, helps the body to regulate its sleep cycles. Usually, melatonin levels rise when it’s dark, and dip when the sun is out. So, when your body is producing melatonin, it knows that it’s time to sleep. Some studies have suggested that people with autism don’t release melatonin at the right times of day. Instead, their melatonin levels are higher during the day and lower at night, so their body’s sleep cycle is nocturnal.
If someone is highly sensitive to certain things, it could be that it’s hard for them to relax. No-one sleeps well in a bright, noisy room. If someone is super-responsive to light coming from the hallway, or finds ordinary background noises too loud, then they could be experiencing a poor sleeping environment.
Social Communication Difficulties
Being unable to communicate clearly can make everything in life more difficult. There could be something that’s bothering someone with autism, like an uncomfortable mattress, a clicking radiator, or maybe a noise from outside. However, they don’t know how to tell you. There’s also the problem that someone with autism doesn’t really understand convention. Even though other people sleep at night and wake in the morning, people with autism mightn’t have fully grasped that concept. Or, if they have, they might be unable to spot the social cues that bedtime is on its way. For them, it could just be confusing; one minute everyone’s up and about, and the next they’re all in bed. Making transitions from one thing to another can be hard for people with autism, and this can include the transition from ‘up and about’ to ‘bedtime’.
Rigid Thoughts and Behaviour Patterns
People with autism may feel that they need a particular ritual or object every time they get into bed. It they can’t follow their repeated behaviour or thoughts for some reason, they may not be able to understand that it’s bedtime.
How Can You Help Someone with Autism Get A Good Night’s Sleep?
There are some ways you can help someone with autism have a better sleep.
Have a good sleeping environment. Make sure that the bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. You might have to put thick blackout curtains over the windows, especially if there’s a streetlight outside your home. Oil the door hinges often so that they won’t groan when the door moves. Check all pyjamas and blankets for scratchy or uncomfortable bits, and make sure that the detergent you use doesn’t set off any skin sensitivities.
Consider a weighted blanket. The extra weight offered by these blankets can create a sense of security, and they may help calm or comfort restless or stressed individuals. You can browse our selection of weighted blankets here – it’s recommended that you choose one that’s about 10% of your overall weight.
Exercise. Exercise is known for making people tired and releasing a lot of energy, so people are more likely to sleep at night. However, make sure that exercise is avoided about 3 – 4 hours before going to bed. You can read more about how exercise helps improve your sleep in our article, ‘Five Ways Exercise Helps You Sleep’.
Avoid caffeine and sugar. These are too energising, so it’s best to avoid them in the evening.
Establish a bedtime routine. It’s a good idea to help someone with autism relax so that they’re ready to rest when it comes to bedtime. This’ll also help them understand that it’s almost bedtime. Have a period before bedtime that is completely devoted to being calm and relaxed. During this period, keep screen time limited – TVs, laptops, phones, video games, or tablets can stimulate someone through activity, sound, and light. Instead, fill the time with a relaxing bath, changing into pyjamas, maybe a quick snack, and finish with reading before going to sleep. It’s important that you’re consistent with this every night. Remember, changing a routine can lead to meltdowns, but stick with the routine. If you can get it accepted as part of their ritual, it’ll get easier.