Getting less than a good night’s sleep usually precedes what is called a bad day. But for children with autism and their parents, this is just not a drowsy morning. Loss of sleep for these children means more severe symptoms of autism and lower intelligence scores when compared to children who slept more.
Typically, loss of sleep means avoidance of social interactions on those drowsy mornings, but for children with autism, it can mean severe avoidance of social impairments. As explained by Karla Helbert, LPC, E-RYT, C-IAYT, “Autism is a complex developmental disability that causes difficulties in many areas, with varying degrees of severity, most notably with social interaction and communication.”
Who Loses Against Insomnia
This may not be alarming for most, as the scenario is typical. Getting children to sleep is not an uncommon struggle for parents – be it the tantrums before bedtime, refusal to fall back to sleep and waking up in the middle of the night.
One out of three parents encounters these as according to estimates 26 to 32% of typically-developing children experience sleep problems. Unfortunately, that number doubles for children with autism as 53 to 78% of them suffer from insomnia.
Some researchers attribute this predicament to the biological causes that lead to symptoms of autism.
- Insufficient physical activity
- Abnormal melatonin regulation
However, regardless of the cause, this sleep loss may develop into chronic sleep deprivation for both the individual and the family.
What We Lose Against Insomnia
According to Wendy Iglehart MA, LCPC, LLC, “inability to sleep at night and/or a feeling of detachment could be signs that your anxiety is in fact, a mental health disorder.” Anyone who slept minimally is probably familiar with its adverse effects on one’s thinking, mood and/or body – thereby, creating the bad day. Likewise, any parent is certainly against having their children experience one, much less on a daily basis.
In most cases, researchers categorize enough sleep within the range of 8-10 hours. At one end of the spectrum, children who sleep longer than 11 hours. At the other end, children who slept 7 hours even less.
Comparing both ends of the sleep spectrum, researchers found that children who slept less had more problems with thinking, attention, and behavior at school. Often times, they encounter a lot of anxiety and are prone to a depressed mood.
As stated, children with autism have a tendency to sleep less than their classmates, it is not concluded whether or not their need for sleep is different. However, it is confirmed that the consequences are worse such as severe social problems. Furthermore, they exhibited compulsive rituals serving no evident purpose. Challenging behavior, depression, attention deficit disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are similarly attributed to minimal sleep.
How We Win Against Insomnia
Regardless of the situation, all developing children lose sleep for one more reason: behavior. Sleep is affected mostly by the children’s diet, activities, routine, or other habits in the evening. Children commonly resist bedtime, but for children with autism, one thing parents need to understand is that they simply have an even harder time falling asleep.
Dr. Aaron Kaplan, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist explains that “Sleep can restore your mind and body. The immune system repairs itself and the brain rests and recharges while you sleep. Without enough sleep, you can’t function at your best.” As such, experts advise parents to come up with behavioral strategies that specifically cater to falling asleep. For example, they can:
- Create a calming and predictable bedtime routine
- Keep the bedroom dark
- Remove caffeine from the diet
- Reduce night-time use of cell phones and other electronic devices
Of course, every child is different, and it falls under the responsibility of a parent to check whether or not this works for his or her child. What may work for one may not work for another. As such, the child’s response is essential to take into account.
At the end of the day, before falling asleep, one thing parents of children with autism need to realize is that:
Aside from the further importance of sleep, even if the effects are more severe for children with autism, the problems they encounter are similar to what their typically-developing peers encounter. Likewise, the solutions do not necessarily entail extraordinary means, but simply require a parent’s love and understanding of their children.