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Children with autism more prone to sleep problems, says focused study

Sleep problems are among the most urgent and recurring concerns for families grappling with autism. This is also an aspect of autism that is least written about. Now, a new study in the United States has looked at this issue in children with autism in an in depth manner.

It's being called one of the most detailed and extensive studies done on sleep disorders among children on the autism spectrum. The study done by researchers in the state of Ohio, United Stated, looks at a large group of children in the age group of two to five. Of this 200 children were on the autism spectrum. Over 500 parents were interviewed as part of the study.

The study found that over 80% of children with autism have sleeping problems. The biggest sleep problems include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep.
  • Inconsistent sleep routines
  • Restlessness or poor sleep quality
  • Waking early and waking frequently.

A good night's sleep is essential not just for children but for the whole family. The lack of it can affect everyone as Nandita Paul, a special educator points out.

Lack of sleep in children with autism usually result in hyperactivity, poor focus and concentration, aggression and even agitation which affect their performance, academically and behaviourally. Fatigue, drowsiness and anxiety issues can cause them to struggle with even performing simple tasks. - Nandita Paul, Special Educator

There is no clear reason known for why children on the spectrum have problems with sleep. There are many theories. One is to do with social cues. People follow normal cycles of light and dark and the body's rhythms to sleep and wake up. They use social cues as well. Like, children may see their siblings getting ready for bed. Children with autism, some of whom have difficulty communicating, may not understand these cues.

Another viewpoint is that the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep-wake cycles may be different in children with autism. To make melatonin, the body needs an amino acid called tryptophan. Research has found this to be either higher or lower than normal in children with autism. Studies have shown that some children with autism have high levels of melatonin in the day and lower levels at night.

A third reason is that children with autism may face sleep issues as they could have an increased sensitivity to outside stimuli, such as touch or sound. This may lead to them waking up suddenly. Anxiety is a factor too as children with autism tend to feel more anxious than other kids.

Coping techniques

So, how does one cope? There are a number of sleep aids and lifestyle interventions that can help. "These include relaxation exercises like meditation, playing soft music, deep breathing techniques, regular bedtime schedules, avoiding heavy meals before bedtime, good sleeping habits and sleep patterns, says Paul.

Lack of sleep or irregular sleep patterns is definitely a lifestyle crisis that needs to be tackled soon. Growing up, Sherin Mary, an author on the autism spectrum, faced many sleep issues. Her mother, Sangeetha, had a tough time coping given her work schedules. She went to a doctor for help.

"Sherin's doctor suggested a lot of physical activities. The other thing that helped was sensory integration, says Sangeetha. She also recommends massages as way to relax children. "If they love dance and music, ensure that they engage in it more. My daughter always loved the world of books and literature, so I used to read out stories to her which was also relaxing.

Better sleep is not a way to cure autism but what it does is help children on the spectrum to get back on a regular sleeping schedule. This help them to learn better, be less irritable and have fewer behavioural issues.

ALSO READ: ADHD Lullaby backed by neuroscience principles effective in helping kids with ADHD, autism fall asleep

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