Studies have shown a correlation indicating that children with autism often sleep less than their peers. “Sleep monitoring studies have confirmed these reports, showing that children with autism take longer to fall asleep, are awake for longer in the middle of the night, and sleep for shorter periods than typically developing children do.” Although some people have speculated reasons for this, I will attempt to explain some of these reasons and give some of my own.
Some reasons I have realized for why I can’t sleep are that I’m thinking too much, that the environment is not conducive to sleeping for me, or that I haven’t followed my nighttime routine.
Nighttime is the ideal time for thinking. During the day, the world is too loud and crazy to think. Sometimes I can retreat to my room during the day to think, but it’s not the same as thinking at night. There is something about lying in bed in the dark and knowing that you don’t have any requirements for the next 8 or so hours. It’s finally a time away from people and loudness and brightness. It’s a time where you can think about things you haven’t had time to process during the day and to get things done so you don’t have to worry about them later.
However, this time of thinking can also be a negative thing. Because the world is so quiet around you, the thoughts of inadequacy, failure, and uncertainty flood your mind. You may go through the entire day in your head contemplating over whether you were understood the way you intended or if you unintentionally offended someone or if you lost a potential friend because you said one thing and not another. You may be frustrated by things you didn’t handle the best way possible or you may come up with new ways to handle a situation that happened earlier in the day or come up with the perfect response to a question you weren’t able to answer the way you wanted.
If you’re not thinking about things, or if you’re done with thinking, you may still not be able to sleep because there are things around you keeping you awake. It can be the feel of your blankets or the unending ticking of a clock or the sound of crickets or the sound of someone breathing in another room or that the room isn’t dark enough or the room is too dark or things are too silent or a number of other things that make the room uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable.
If it’s not something in the environment that’s causing uncomfortableness, a medical problem could also cause sleeping problems. This could include suffering from indigestion or anxiety or some type of pain or sickness. If you can’t breathe right, it may be hard to be able to fall asleep. Or if your heart is beating quickly or you feel restless, it’s hard to relax enough to fall asleep. And you may not even be aware that you’re suffering from indigestion and may think that you’re just uncomfortable.
In addition to things that keep you awake, there may also be things that keep you from sleeping. For example, if you always follow the same bedtime routine but skip a step one night, you may not be able to fall asleep until you complete that step. I tend to go on the computer before I go to bed, and then brush my teeth, change into my pajamas, and then I read scriptures and pray and then turn off the lights and go to sleep. If I forget to read one night, I usually can’t fall asleep until I turn the light back on and read. Or if I forget to brush my teeth, I may lay in bed for hours feeling like something is off but I don’t remember what it is.
Once I finally do fall asleep, I may wake up during the night and have more problems with trying to fall asleep again. If I woke up because of a dream or nightmare, I may need to think about and process the dream before I can go back to sleep. If I got up to use the bathroom, by the time I come back I may not feel tired anymore or may need to re-relax myself in order to fall back asleep. If I wake up because of a sound, I may not be able to go back to sleep until the sound stops and even when it stops I may be too awake to go back to sleep. Sometimes I will also just wake up naturally and feel like I’ve slept long enough when I have only slept for about 4 hours or so. Sometimes I wake up because I’m too hot or my pillow is too thick, which can also cause me to toss and turn quite a bit in my sleep.
Although I sleep better now than I did when I was younger, I still have problems sleeping sometimes. One thing that helps me sleep better are the blankets I sleep with. I have a soft blanket and two comforters that I sleep with. Depending on how I’m feeling I switch which blanket is on the bottom or how many of the blankets I sleep with. When I’ve had a rough day, I tend to like the soft blanket on the bottom because it helps relax me. The other blankets are usually just for added weight, but can be cooler than my soft blanket so I sleep with them closest to me occasionally as well. One day when I have the money to spend I may also get a pillow that I can sleep on my back and on my side with, which would probably help even more with how well I sleep.
Another thing that helps me sleep is taking some time before I have to go to sleep to calm down and relax from the day. I usually go on the computer for a while and I read before I go to bed. This doesn’t always stop the excessive thinking in bed, but it usually helps with the anxiety like symptoms. I also sometimes sing a well-known and happy song to myself when I’m trying to go to sleep and this helps me relax and fall asleep. I always try to keep my thoughts positive before bedtime to help prevent nightmares or unrestful sleep.
I hope this post helped you understand a little about why it may be hard for someone with autism to sleep. There are other reasons that we can’t sleep sometimes (like that we just don’t want to sleep for various reasons) but the ones I’ve said are some of the more psychological and controllable reasons. If you’d like to look at more reasons why people with autism may have a hard time sleeping, you can check out this site.
Hopefully this post gave you some ideas about how to sleep better or how to help your child sleep better. If you have any other questions, I’d be happy to answer them. 🙂
**I apologize for the use of pronouns in this post. When I say “you”, I usually really mean me and other people who may share the same thoughts as me. It’s just hard for me to know how to express that without making it seem like I’m only talking about myself or complaining about my specific issues. I want my posts to be able to be applied to many situations while still acknowledging that we’re all different and may not share the same problems, but sometimes I struggle with knowing how to do that. Thanks for your understanding.**