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Autism and Sleep

Autism affects 1 in 100 people worldwide, 1 in 66 in Canada and 1 in 44 in the United States.  It is well known that sleep can affect your mental wellbeing and overall health.  How does sleep, or lack thereof, differ for people with autism?

Sleep is important for everyone, and sleep disorders are a common issue for many.  Of people diagnosed with autism 50%-80% experience a sleep disorder during their lifetime.  This is compared to 9%-50% for other kids and adults.  This is can be due to several differences in the autistic brain, which results in several specific changes in sleep.

  • Melatonin Disruption:  Melatonin is the natural hormone that controls the timing of sleep.  There is believed to be a genetic mutation that causes a “flattening of the melatonin curve” in individuals diagnosed with autism. 
  • Restless Leg Syndrome: This is a sensation that feels like an uncontrollable need to move the legs.  This condition is common with autism.
  • Circadian Rhythm Dysregulation: Circadian Rhythm is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle and repeats roughly every 24 hours. There is believed to be a mutation of the “clock” gene that causes a disruption in the rhythmic regulation of the sleep-wake cycle in autistic brains.   
  • Increased prevalence of insomnia: This includes difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.  It takes an autistic brain roughly 11 minute longer to fall asleep that a normal brain and also tends to wake more frequently throughout the night. Daytime sleepiness is very common due to lack of proper sleep and over stimulation during the day.
  • Higher rates of parasomnias such as sleep terrors, sleep walking and sleep paralysis are also associated with autism.

The brain is typically in REM sleep for roughly 25% of the sleep cycle, whereas the autistic brain is un REM sleep for 15% of the sleep cycle.  These disruptions can impact daily function, affecting mental health, learning, memory, repetitive behaviors, and mood. It can  also increase hyperactivity.  If you or someone you know has autism and is not sleeping well, it is time to look into the issue further.  There is no cure for autism, as it is a difference in the brain from birth (congenital) that persists across the lifespan.  Taking steps to improve sleep patterns where  possible is essential to help in the management of the difficult attributes associated with autism. Talk to your doctor right away if you notice sleep disturbances for yourself or anyone you know.