Autism & Sleep Troubles: A Critical Concern and Least Studied Feature of the Spectrum

February 28, 2020

Ask any parent raising a child with autism about their daily challenges, a list will be produced fairly quick. Whether it is dealing with picky eating, rigid dressing and grooming routines, self-stimulatory behaviors, echolalia or all the above; managing these autism related issues takes an enormous amount of patience and dedication to remaining calm. By the end of the day, most parents are ready for peace, quiet and most of all rest. However, the respite that these parents desperately need is unlikely to easily occur. As a 2019 Pediatrics study reports, nearly 80% of preschoolers with autism suffer from disrupted sleep. Which makes sleeping problems one of the cruelest challenges of parenting a child with autism. Parents have to do twice the work on half the amount of sleep.

A new article highlights the agony of sleep problems for individuals with autism. The two most common issues are insomnia and diminished time spent in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage. The insomnia people with autism experience not only makes it difficult to fall asleep but it also makes it a challenge to stay asleep. People with autism face challenges with REM sleep as well. The general population spends about 23 percent of their sleep in the REM cycle. People with autism only spend 15 percent, making their sleep less restorative. Lower quality sleep can lead to poor social skills, more severe repetitive behaviors and lower scores on IQ tests.

Features of autism including gastrointestinal issues, hyperactivity, anxiety, sensory integration dysfunction, medications and gene mutations inhibiting melatonin production are reasons why sleep can be so elusive for those on the spectrum. Tests used to examine the brain’s activity during the sleep cycle are difficult to administer due to use of sensors worn on the body, which is a terrible proposition for people prone to sensory issues. Sleep research as it relates to autism is nearly impossible.

Sadly, there isn’t a long list of suggestions to help children with autism get the best rest possible. Drugs for insomnia are approved for adults with autism but not for children. Commitment to a calming and consistent bedtime routine is advised. Melatonin sleeping aid supplements can also be beneficial.

Better sleep is associated with improved learning, less irritability and fewer behavioral problems for children with autism. Disruptive sleep affects everyone in the household, therefore improved sleeping patterns are vital.


Lewis First, MD, MS. Sleep Problems in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Other Developmental Delays: A Study That Raises Awareness. AAP News & Journals. Publish Date: February 11, 2019.

Hannah Furfaro. Sleep Problems in Autism, Explained. Publish Date: February 6, 2020.

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