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Sleep and Autism

Medically reviewed by Smita Patel, DO, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 19, 2023

A good night’s sleep is crucial for our overall health. Adequate sleep is important for every individual, but is it even more important for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their family members? Let’s explore how those with ASD are affected with sleep problems and how they can improve sleep quality:


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 children without or those with other developmental conditions.


What types of sleep problems are common in autism?


Insomnia is often a related issue for people with autism, as it takes them on average several minutes longer to fall asleep than those without ASD. There can also be episodes of sleep apnea that cause breathing to stop sporadically through the night for short periods of time, which results in poor sleep quality. This also leads to waking up frequently throughout the night. There is also a reduction of time spent sleeping in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, which is critical for learning and memory retention.


What are the consequences?


There is increasing evidence that lack of sleep and/or poor quality of sleep can result in the exacerbation of some of the primary features of autism, such as poor social skills, repetitive behaviors, and at times, poor performance on tests or while learning. It is not certain, however, if these issues are directly related to poor sleep or if it is a contributing factor, or both. One 2009 study found that children with autism who have sleep difficulties are more hyperactive and easily distracted than those who sleep well.


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Insomnia - Symptoms

Insomnia - Symptoms

What are some available treatments?


There are some very practical approaches to remedy sleep behaviors, such as establishing routines, and adjusting the lighting and/or temperature of the room. There are FDA approved drugs such as Ambien, however these are only for adults and not children. CPAP machines can also be used for those with more serious sleep apnea issues.


But for many sleep issues, melatonin supplements may be a good option. Some research suggests the supplements help children with autism fall asleep faster and get better-quality sleep.


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Insomnia - Steps to a Good Night's Sleep

Insomnia - Steps to a Good Night's Sleep

Would quality of life for those with ASD improve with better sleep?


Better sleep is “not going to cure autism,” says pediatrician Angela Maxwell-Horn, assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. But, she says, children with autism who get back on a regular sleeping schedule seem to learn better, are less irritable, and have fewer problem behaviors.




While sleep disorders/disturbances do appear to be prevalent among children with ASD, there are ways to improve sleep over time. Methods include setting up bedtime routines and guided, limited and regulated assistance from pharmacotherapy.


Written by Sherri Abergel

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