Children with symptoms of autism scored worse on nearly all aspects of sleep. Only in a couple of areas — sleep apnea and daytime sleepiness — did they appear to have about the same level of difficulty as other kids, Reynolds said.
Autism itself can play havoc with sleep hygiene. Kids with autism can have problems transitioning from one activity to another, or may become so ramped up that they can’t calm down, she said.
“Sleep is a big transition,” Reynolds said. “You’re moving from playing or reading or whatever you’re doing to falling asleep.”
Kids with ASD are more likely to have anxiety or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which can also affect sleep, Reynolds said.
Also, those with autism might have problems with their sleep/wake cycle, suffer from seizures that disturb sleep, or have lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, according to Autism Speaks.
“The impact on the child and the family of poor sleep is just huge,” Reynolds said. “It can increase difficult behaviors during the day and decreases attention span. For kids who already have some struggles, lack of sleep can make things even more difficult.
“It also has an impact on your physiologic health — obesity, insulin resistance and even immune function are influenced by poor sleep,” she said.
And poor sleep affects everyone in the household. “It also impacts the family, especially in these young children who, if they’re up, mom and dad are up as well,” Reynolds said.
As each child with autism is unique, so too are their sleep problems, said Donna Murray, vice president of clinical programs and head of the Autism Treatment Network at Autism Speaks.
That means parents and doctors will have to figure out the specific causes of each child’s sleep problems and address them individually.
“We may have a number of issues that contribute to sleep problems at the same time,” Murray said. “We may have to run to some simultaneous interventions to address sleep.”
For example, some kids may need to take melatonin supplements under their doctor’s supervision, Reynolds said. They also may need a specific calming routine prior to bedtime.