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Sleep across the spectrum: Autism

On weighted blankets, circadian rhythm disorders, melatonin, and sleep deprivation

child at bed time with pet for comfort autism Autism (more formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder) is a disorder of the brain that can lead to cognitive dysfunction, impairment of communication skills, socializing problems, and unusual behavioral patterns. According to the Autism Quick Facts page sponsored by the American Autism Association, it emerges before the age of 3 and affects 5 times more boys than it does girls.

Autism and Sleep

A study published in Pediatrics in 2012 revealed that while around 30 percent of “typically-developing children” are known to have sleep problems, that number climbs as high as 78 percent for those with autism. Reasons for this are unclear, but there are theories:

  • Nervous system imbalances. The sympathetic nervous system is in hyperarousal, while the parasympathetic nervous system is in hypoarousal for many with ASD. The sympathetic nervous system is what creates our “fight or flight” responses to behaviors. Meanwhile, our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for normalizing functions while you are asleep or at rest (the opposite of the stress response). Because of this imbalance between the two systems, the process of sleep may be difficult because the ASD sufferer may never achieve the relaxation necessary to fall asleep and to stay asleep.
  • Anxiety. Children with autism commonly suffer from higher levels of anxiety than their peers and can struggle with falling asleep at night as a result.

Tricks for better sleep with ASD

The American Autism Association recommends that a regular bedtime routine can help the child with autism to better achieve sleep. This routine should include strict enforcement of an age-appropriate bed time; 20 minutes of low-key activities prior to bed to allow them to wind down (such as a bath or story time); keeping the bedroom free of distracting noises or lights; and a comfortable room temperature.

The Autism-Sleep Connection: A curation

Here are ten links to sleep and autism that might be useful to parents of children with ASD.

MAR 30: MyAutism.org
New research on effects of lack of sleep and learning acquisitions for individuals with autism
From the article: “Research from the Sleep Language and Memory (SLAM) lab at the University of York has examined the relationship between sleep and language learning, and found that sleep plays a crucial role in strengthening our ability to learn and memorize new words.”

MAR 9: MPR
Sleep Interventions Reviewed for Children with ASD
From the article: “Children with ASD often experience sleep problems. The aim of this review was to investigate the effectiveness of five sleep interventions across 17 sleep problem domains in children with ASD. The five interventions included melatonin, drug therapy other than melatonin, alternative therapies (ie, massage, aromatherapy, multivitamin/iron supplementation), behavioral interventions and parent education/education programs. Eight systematic reviews were included in this meta-synthesis.”

FEB 14: CBS Local Chicago
For The Sleep-Deprived, Can A Song Be The Cure?
From the report: “Sarah says the song helps calm down her young children, and Jessica has played it for her niece who has autism and says it relaxes her as well.” Watch the music video for “Weightless” in YouTube.

FEB 13: Hypersomnia Foundation
A Service Dog Can Do That?
From the website: “The service dog can help to calm or ground an individual who has autism via tactile or deep pressure stimulation.”

NOV 22, 2016: Sleep Review
Positive Top-Line Results from Phase III Trial of Pediatric Prolonged-Release Melatonin for Sleep Disturbances in Children with Autism
From the article: ” ‘There are no approved sleep medications for the pediatric population,’ says Nava Zisapel, PhD, chief scientific officer of Neurim Pharmaceuticals. ‘We are proud to bring a potentially new effective and safe treatment to children with ASD living with severe sleep disturbances and their families.’ ”

NOV 3, 2016: Clinical Advisor
Melatonin use in children with a neurodevelopmental illness
From the article: “Most children in this study had autism and the parents noted that when the children slept better, their autism symptoms also improved.”

AUG 31, 2016: News-Medical.net
Family-based cognitive behavioral therapy may be key to improve sleep in children with ASD
From the article: ” ‘Sleep problems for any child, but especially children with ASD, may cause issues in behavior and mood as well as impact learning abilities,’ said Christina McCrae, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions and director of the Mizzou Sleep Research Lab. ‘In treating insomnia and other behavioral sleep issues, I have found that there is no substitute for cognitive behavioral therapy; yet, it is still unclear how to best use such therapy for children with ASD who struggle with communication.’ ”

AUG 6, 2016: Happily Blended
The benefits of weighted blankets
From the blog: Weighted Blankets Autism are known to create a deep pressure touch stimulation, and this stimulation produces a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is a calming chemical that influences their sleep, appetite, memory and overall mood.”

JAN 4, 2016: Lifehack
Sleeping With Weighted Blanket Helps Insomnia And Anxiety, Study Finds
From the article: “Traditionally, weighted blankets are used as part of occupational therapy for children experiencing sensory disorders, anxiety, stress or issues related to autism. ‘In psychiatric care, weighted blankets are one of our most powerful tools for helping people who are anxious, upset, and possibly on the verge of losing control,’ says Karen Moore, OTR/L, an occupational therapist in Franconia, NH.”

NOV 24, 2015: Unstrange Mind
Zebras and Giraffes – N24 Day 2015
From the blog: “Today, November 24th, is N24 Awareness Day, a day set aside for raising awareness of non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Syndrome, a rare and serious circadian rhythm disorder that anyone can have, but that is more common among Autistic people and much, much more common among totally Blind people.”

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