Sleep problems in autism, explained
A good night’s rest isn’t guaranteed for anyone, but it is downright elusive for many people with autism. Individuals on the spectrum often have trouble falling and staying a sleep.
And that may worsen certain features of their condition, such as repetitive
behaviors, which can, in turn, make sleeping even more difficult.
Given this disruptive feedback loop, sleep problems are among the most urgent concerns for families grappling with autism. But so far, this also happens to be among the least-studied aspects of autism.
Here’s what researchers know so far about the causes and consequences of — and treatments for — sleep problems in autism.
How common are sleep problems in children with autism?
A 2019 study, one of the largest to investigate the prevalence of sleep problems in autism, suggested that nearly 80 percent of autistic preschoolers have disrupted sleep. Sleep problems are twice as common among children with autism as they are among typical children or those with other developmental conditions.
What types of sleep problems are common in autism?
People with autism tend to have insomnia: It takes them an average of 11 minutes longer than typical people to fall asleep, and many wake up frequently during the night. Some people with the condition have sleep apnea, a condition that causes them to stop breathing several times during the night.
Sleep in people with autism may also be less restorative than it is for people in the general population. They spend about 15 percent of their sleeping time in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, which is critical for learning and retaining memories. Most neurotypical people, by contrast, spend about 23 percent of their nightly rest in REM.
Goldman S.E. et al. Dev. Neuropsychol. 34, 560-573 (2009) PubMed
originally published on Spectrum, the leading site for autism research news: