Understanding Sleep Disorders with Autism

Understanding Sleep Disorders with Autism

Understanding Sleep Disorders with Autism

According to the August 2017 “Autism Parenting Magazine” (APM), no matter where a child is on the autism spectrum, sleep problems are a common occurrence.

Many children with ASD have problems falling asleep; others eventually fall into sleep, but wake up during the night, and require a loved one’s attention. These sleep issues create disruption for the whole household. 

If your child is old enough to get out of bed on his/her own, problems are only compounded. Their wandering about in the middle of the night poses the additional issue of safety.

Your child’s insomnia can adversely affect not only your child, but you as well. You may become plagued with sleep deprivation.

Parenting a child with autism can be physically and emotionally draining. A lack of sleep further complicates your caregiving role.

If sleep issues affect your child, how are you coping?

Causes of sleep problems for those with ASD

You may already know common factors that can cause sleep disorders for those with autism.

But, a brief review of the most common reasons may help guide you in coming up with some new approaches:

  • Some people with autism struggle with sleep apnea. This condition briefly, but repeatedly, stops a person's breathing during the hours of sleep. This interferes with brain rest and may harm memory and learning function. It can also lead to an increase of the repetitive behaviors which are a hallmark of autism.
  • Other medical issues may also keep the person with autism awake: chronic diarrhea or colitis, anxiety, depression, even seizures (Autism Speaks).
  • Children with autism are also more prone and sensitive to stimuli. This can be disruptive to your child while getting to sleep and if they wake up in the middle of the night. It’s been found that leaving a light on will help them get to sleep easier and to not be so anxious when they wake up in the middle of the night.
  • ADHD is common for those with autism. To treat ADHD, stimulants are commonly used, which are known to cause sleep problems.


When a child lives with both ASD and ADHD, the combined behavioral issues can also negatively affect sleep. Problem behaviors span from mild to severe.

From Interactive Autism Network/IAN, we learn that “problem behavior may result from deficits in children's ability to express their needs, desires, and preferences, or to understand and respond to naturally occurring social cues and norms.”

The worst-case scenario is when chronic and severe behavioral issues of autism are combined with severe ADHD behaviors.

Such behaviors could not only have an adverse effect on your child’s bedtime ritual, but on the day-to-day routines of your child.

Whether your child has co-existing ADHD or not, “Treatment is recommended for chronic and severe behaviors that pose a high risk of harm to self or others.” (IAN)

If the above reflects the behaviors of your child, consult your pediatrician as soon as possible for a referral to a childhood behavioral specialist.

Read on to learn more about how lack of sleep affects your child and what you can do to help.