Stephen Borgman

Stephen Borgman

Spectrum Solutions


If You Want To Better Understand Autism and Sleep, Here's Hope!

What I learned from LinkedIn could help you sleep in!

Posted Dec 07, 2011

"O Sleep, O Gentle Sleep, Nature's Soft Nurse, How Have I Frightend Thee, That Thou No More Wilt Weigh my Eye-Lids Down And Steep My Senses In Forgetfulness?"

- William Shakespeare

"I think insomnia is a sign that a person is interesting."
- Avery Sawyer, Notes to Self

Little did I know that my own struggle with sleeping a few years ago would lead me to write this article.

Nor did I know that sleeping problems are even higher among individuals on the autism spectrum.


I recently wrote an article called Sleep and the Autism Spectrum, in which I outlined general statistics about insomnia around the world; some specific research about insomnia trends in autism; and some sleeping tips and resources.

I then posted my article for feedback in one of my favorite LinkedIn groups, the Autism Researchers Link.  If I thought I had learned a lot in doing my research for the first article, I learned even more from the many comments I got from that group.

In this article, I'm going to share some of their insights with you so that you can better understand some of the causes and cures (or partial remedies) for sleeplessness.

Sleep Is A Problem For Many on the Autism Spectrum

Here's a quote from Richard Mills, Director of Research for the National Autistic Society in the UK.Prof Paul Gringrass and his team at Guys Hospital in London are well into a major research study on this topic
 A small help booklet published as part of this study is available free via Research Autism ) who helped to fund it. 

In a survey of the membership of the National Autistic Society UK that Lorna Wing and I did in 2005 sleep problems came out as one of the most pressing priorities identified by parents and adults with autism.
On the back of this we held a forum in London to explore these issues in more depth and autism was subsequently included as a distinct category in the major sleep study being undertaken by Guys.

Causes for Sleep Challenges on the Autism Spectrum

I'll be honest.  I'm not a sleep specialist, nor have I officially researched the actual causes for sleep challenges on the autism spectrum.  

What follows are some 'educated hypotheses'.  I'm open to feedback from more knowledgeable professionals and individuals on the spectrum in the comments section!

Mary Cavanaugh is a social worker who made a strong case to her insurance company to get coverage for services for her child with autism.  She hypothesies that indiviudals on the autism spectrum may be in a constant state of anxiety due to some of the challenges that come with navigating the social world.  This constant 'fight or flight' state may lead them to be more prone to anxiety and therefore also to insomnia.

Ariana Lise Newcomer is a Listening Programs-Voice Coach.  She shared this research she heard about:

I heard from researcher Vera Brandes (who studies how to use music prescriptively and has developed a music treatment for depression that has been picked up by the Cleveland and Mayo Clinics) that those on the autism spectrum tend to have bio-rhythms that are double-speed. This would certainly affect sleep! (Vera is in Austria, and works with Chronobiologists in creating her programs.)

Autism Spectrum Sleep Solutions

Medication and the autism spectrum is a sensitive topic.  There are pros and cons.

Most of my LinkedIn colleagues provided behavioral tips and resources to help put insomnia to bed.

Don't Fight It

Here's a quotation from one of my autism research link colleagues:

Thanks Steve, enjoyed the article. I watched a show recently about sleep and problems with sleep in which you might add one more point. Namely that if you go to sleep but find that after about half an hour sleep does not occur, not to stay in bed and keep trying to count sheep, but rather get out of bed and go and do something mundane like wash the dishes or do some ironing (yes, even for men).

End Screen Time Well Before Bed

Here's a quotation from Matthew Lehman, MA, BCBA, Clinical Director of Able Pathways:

Please, please, please: Parents of teenagers and young adults. Be cautious about video games that have point systems and built in reinforcement systems for continuous playing - these games are practically tailor designed to keep our kids awake all night playing for MONTHS. If you just got him or her on a good or even tolerable sleep cycle, this can mess it up FAST (I know it looks like they might be socializing but usually it isn't)
Oh, and let grandma/uncle/etc know that is probably not the ideal gift too!

Consider These Resources and Tools

Breathing Exercises

Mary Cavanaugh, social worker and mother of children with autism, has the following sleeping tip:

I believe since many of these children are in a constant state of fight or flight their breathing is compromised which includes while you sleep. I found this website which belongs to an optimal breathing specialist. I would like to share it with you.
 If your breathing is compromised so is the oxygen level in your brain.

(Another site I've come across in research for evidence based interventions for younger individuals with autism is called Animal Agentz: your child watches clips of cute cartoon characters modeling cognitive behavioral techniques for lowering stress and anxiety).

Work on the Sleeping Environment

Here's a suggestion from Melanie Phillipson, a parent of a young man with autism:

As a lone parent to a 17 year old young man who has autism, and experienced difficulties within this area as a young child. I am afraid I am not an advocate for medicating for sleep, and would rather go down a more holistic path, for us this consisted of candles, lavender massages, and milk, and social stories which I used as a reflective of my son's activities of that day. This was very structured, and for us it worked, now my son goes to bed and is able to go to bed at a set time, and is able to self reflect, which is also good for many other reasons, and sleeps through beautifully.

Use Music As A Sleep Aid

Connie Hammer, school social worker and parent coach at Parent Coaching for Autism, agreed with me that music can be a great way to help kids, teens, and adults go to sleep.

I will also affirm the recommendation for Indigo Dreams: Kids Relaxation Music Decreasing Stress, Anxiety and Anger, by Lori Lite for parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Here are the resources she and I both recommend:

Indigo Dreams: Kids Relaxation Music Decreasing Stress, Anxiety and Anger, improve sleep, by Lori Lite


Indigo Dreams: Teen Relaxation Music Decreasing Stress, Anxiety and Anger, Improve Sleep, by Lori Lite.

Ariana Lise Newcomer,  Listening Programs-Voice Coach, recommended the following audio resource:

I recommend using music to help de-stress, calm down and get ready for sleep, as Connie mentioned. There are a lot of CDs out there, but I use the Sound Health series from Advanced Brain Technologies. Also, those who do ABT's The Listening Program find that sleep improves.

Ms. Newcomer also had a suggestion regarding light therapy:

Another avenue is light therapy; there is very interesting work being done with certain wavelengths of light. I'm finding my own sleep improved from using the DreamSpa from Light Health Research.

I hope these sleep tips and suggestions from my LinkedIn colleagues prove helpful to you.

In addition, I encourage you to search the Psychology Today blogs and articles on the topic of sleep.

Here are just a few that I found:

Do You Talk To Your Doctor About Sleep?, by Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.

Sleep: Off The Beaten Path Ideas That May Help, by Emanuel H. Rosen, MD in Psychiatry Made Simple