One of the greatest breakthroughs today’s psychologists made regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is establishing that it is, in fact, a spectrum. That means no two people with ASD are exactly alike.
Despite that, however, there are still plenty of things they have in common and one of them is difficulty sleeping. This goes especially for young children who are still in the middle of having their autism diagnosed and properly managed.
Why does this happen? Parents fear they already have enough on their plate knowing their child is autistic and the prospect of dealing with it in the waking hours makes it all even more exhausting.
However, understanding the connection between autism and poor sleeping habits is the first step to finding a solution. It is also important to remember that it is not just parents who feel this struggle, the children themselves feel it too. Sufficient sleep is naturally vital to their health. It doesn’t matter if they don’t quite express it, show it or act upon it, the effects of poor sleeping habits will ultimately lead to more illnesses and more sleepless nights for the rest of the family.
The good news is that the connection between ASD and sleep struggles is already the subject of much research. Here are three of the top primary reasons why this difficulty exists:
This is one of the most well-known signs of ASD, but sometimes its impact on sleep is overlooked. When people think of an autistic person’s high sensitivity, they immediately think of their meltdowns, sensory overload or sudden freezing from sudden barrages of noise, lights, etc. They don’t automatically consider that such sensitivity can still affect them even in the quiet hours of the night.
In reality though, it still does. In fact, that is why hypersensitivity can be both a weakness and a strength. The slightest change in the environment has a high chance of stimulating activity in the child’s brain and makes sleep difficult.
Another common cause is anxiety and other similar problems with their mental well-being. Whether it is through hypersensitivity or just another way their brains are wired differently, children with ASD are very prone to anxiety and this in turn affects their ability to sleep.
There are many ways that this can manifest as well. For example, if a child has a big test tomorrow, their fears of failure might keep their minds racing to retain the right answers. The same can also happen when the child is excited about a big family trip and they can’t stop thinking about what they’re going to do. It can also be linked to fearing the hypersensitivity overload that can come with it. Hypersensitivity and anxiety can be feeding each other too.
#3. Circadian Rhythms
The circadian rhythm is the term used to describe the body’s natural cycle for sleeping and waking. But when a child’s brain is wired differently due to ASD, then it logically follows that their circadian rhythm might also be compromised.
However, the tricky part here is that this can occur alongside many other causes (such as the other two). A child’s disrupted circadian rhythm might be the result of prolonged anxiety and hypersensitivity. It can also be due to them simply not understanding the social cues that indicate that it’s time for bed. It can even happen in reverse, with the abnormal circadian rhythm worsening hypersensitivity and anxiety.
Now, these three are not just the only connection between ASD and sleep difficulties. However, they certainly emphasize the importance of better understanding an individual child’s unique condition with ASD when choosing a solution.
Often times, some parents resort to just keeping a child in their room at night or forcing themselves to stay up late and praying for signs of sleepiness so they can tuck him or her in with less fuss.
The effectiveness of such methods are obviously limited, so it’s better to consult professionals on the real underlying relationship between their child’s sleeplessness and their autism. After that, you can then proceed to apply the right therapies (like Tomatis’ integrated listening program to help their brains filter sounds better and work on the sensory integration linked to the vestibular system). That way, parents can now finally begin their journey towards a good night’s rest for them and their young ones.
Want to learn more about how better listening leads to a better life? Get a free 20 minutes consultation with Francoise Nicoloff, our Senior Psychologist and Tomatis Consultant.