Medical Moment: Putting issues to bed when it comes to autism and sleep

Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 5:43 PM EST
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - At least half of autistic children on the spectrum struggle with sleep patterns.

High anxiety, medication, or sleep apnea are often part of the issue. Up to 16% of neurotypical children suffer from poor sleep, compared to 50% of kids with autism. The other is how these children process medications and hormones.

“Different genes can affect how we either synthesize or make melatonin in the body or how we break it down,” explained Dr. Beth Malow, sleep division director at Vanderbilt.

Anxiety, chronic insomnia, and middle-of-night awakenings are triggers for kids with no “off switch.”

“Anxiety versus over-arousal can be really tricky, especially if your child has limited language and can’t tell you what they’re experiencing. And the idea is that you just can’t turn your brain off,” Dr. Malow said.

Rather than tackling problems at 3 a.m., parents are advised to rewind.

“I even go backward to what’s happening during the day. Because what’s happening during the day is gonna feed into what happens at night.”

Before bed, set the stage with quiet and low light. Plus, if sleep apnea is the cause, CPAP masks are now much less claustrophobic.

“Even people with autism, who have sensory sensitivities, can tolerate it,” Dr. Malow said.

And we all need our sleep!

Doctors say this advice should also increase REM sleep. It’s most important for mental health, especially in those with autism, who get 10% less REM restorative sleep than neurotypical kids.