Autism and Disrupted Sleep

Sleep is an essential yet underrated aspect of human functioning. It is just as important as good nutrition, exercise, and staying hydrated. Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity-a crucial period of memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance. Sleep affects our mental health just as profoundly as it does our physical health. Sleep deprivation has been found to have a strong association with almost every mental health condition, including Autism.

A recent report from the advocacy group Autism Speaks examined how and why the neurodevelopmental disorder is linked to disrupted sleep. The report states that over fifty percent of children with Autism have one or more chronic sleep problems. These sleep difficulties include problems initiating sleep, frequent awakening during the night and early rising. Sleep difficulties in Autism go hand in hand with daytime behavioral problems, including repetitive behaviors, communication problems, attention problems, irritability and aggression. Sleep deprivation takes a great toll on one’s cognitive performance, memory capacity, emotional regulation, self-regulation and social competence-all areas that are impacted in individuals with Autism. Sleep problems can also complicate efforts at intervention. If an individual with Autism is chronically sleep deprived, the opportunity for memory consolidation of therapy techniques is limited. Fortunately, neurologists and Autism sleep specialists are working to develop parent-education programs to teach autism-specific sleep guidelines. The benefits of such programs for children include decreased daytime anxiety, inattention and challenging behaviors. Parents also reported reduced family stress and improved quality of life.

For more information on sleep programs for individuals with Autism, the reader is encouraged to visit the Autism Speaks website.