If you’re autistic and having trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. Finding the right sleep routine is vital to your overall health.

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Good sleep is one of the most important aspects of good health, but it’s not uncommon for people to experience sleep troubles from time to time.

Whether because of changes at home, stress and anxiety, or underlying sleep disorders, sleep issues can affect anyone.

However, for autistic people, sleep issues are common — and can have significant effects on functioning and quality of life.

Ahead, we explore the relationship between sleep issues and autism, and cover some sleep tips for children and adults.

Research on the potential link between autism and sleep issues is relatively new. However, studies have found that sleep issues are actually quite common in autistic children and adults.

One article from 2021 shares that roughly 50–80% of autistic children and adolescents experience sleep difficulties. According to the article, some of the most commonly reported sleep-related issues in autistic children include:

  • sleep-related anxiety
  • difficulty settling at bedtime
  • trouble falling asleep
  • waking up during the night
  • poor sleep quality
  • impaired breathing during sleep

For many autistic children and adolescents, these sleep issues can remain well into adulthood and cause a significant impact on quality of life.

While experts still aren’t entirely sure of all the factors that link autism and sleep issues, some theories suggest that it’s likely due to changes in the brain.

A 2023 review of research explored the effects of various genetic and neural factors on sleep quality in autistic children.

According to researchers, various gene mutations were associated with sleep changes, such as prolonged awakening and disturbed REM sleep, in autistic children.

A review from 2022 investigated the relationship between sensory processing and sleep in autistic people. Researchers found that sensory processing differences were frequently associated with sleep difficulties in autistic people.

How much sleep do autistic adults need?

Most adults, whether neurodivergent or not, generally need the same amount of sleep each night.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended amount of sleep for adults is between 7 and 9 hours each night.

However, everyone has different needs when it comes to sleep. And between age, genetics, and other factors, many things can influence how much sleep someone needs.

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Sleep issues in autistic children can have an effect on both the children and their parents and caretakers.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child who is having trouble sleeping, here are a few tips you can try:

  • Follow a nightly routine: Routines are an important aspect of healthy development in children. For autistic children, they can offer familiarity and comfort. Creating an enjoyable and relaxing bedtime routine with your child can help set the stage for better sleep at night.
  • Wind down before bed: Calming activities before bed, like taking a bath or reading a book, can help wind down your child’s mind and prepare them for sleep. Plus, spending quiet time together before bed is also a great chance to bond with your little one.
  • Create a comfortable environment: Many autistic children experience sensory integration challenges, which can sometimes make sleep difficult. If your child struggles with sensory input, things like less noise, lower lights, and comfy fabrics can help. If they dislike silence and dark, a sound machine with soft lighting may be comforting.

All the tips mentioned above can also be helpful for autistic adults who find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. However, here are a few more helpful tips for adults:

  • Exercise during the day: Exercise is beneficial for our health in many ways, including improving the quality of our sleep. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. Activities like walking, gardening, or stretching can all help.
  • Reduce caffeine intake: Caffeine is one of the most common factors that affects sleep quality, especially too much caffeine. If you enjoy staying caffeinated, consider cutting back or stopping your intake earlier in the day. You could also switch to decaffeinated coffee in the afternoons.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Sleep hygiene” refers to all the sleep habits we do each night to get good sleep. Good sleep hygiene takes practice and consistency, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t see improvements right away.

Of course, if there are other underlying health factors affecting your sleep, it’s important to prioritize addressing those with a doctor. Learn more tools and tricks to get better sleep in this article.

Sleepovers are a great way for children to develop their independence and hone their socialization skills away from home. However, for autistic children, the idea of being in an unfamiliar situation like a sleepover can seem daunting.

If your child is interested in attending a sleepover but is nervous about it, here are some tips that may help them enjoy it:

  • Talk it out: Open the floor for discussion and allow your child to express their feelings. Maybe share stories of sleepovers from your childhood. Together, you can work through their concerns while offering assurance and support.
  • Set expectations: If you can, speak with the host parents about any planned activities and what bedtime looks like in that household. Letting your child know what to expect can help them feel more prepared for the change in routine.
  • Pack all the essentials: Find a few comfort items your child can take with them. Whether it’s a stuffed animal or a picture of you, having a small token of familiarity can help. If they use any fidget toys or other regulatory tools, make sure those are also packed.
  • Create a back-out plan: Let them know you will pick them up at any time if they want to come home, and that it won’t upset you if it’s late in the night. Knowing they can choose to stay or go can help them feel empowered to enjoy the sleepover.

Enjoying sleepovers as an autistic adult

It’s not uncommon for adults to sleep over at a friend’s or romantic partner’s place from time to time. But as an autistic adult, changing routines, unfamiliarity, or other experiences, like drinking alcohol or having sex, can feel overwhelming.

When you’re in these situations, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself and those around you. Talk with them about why you’re feeling uncomfortable and what might help you get a better night’s sleep.

If sex or intimacy is involved, clear communication is always important, too.

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Sleep issues tend to affect autistic children and adults more frequently than nonautistic people. For autistic folks, sleep disorders, sleep anxiety, and trouble with bedtime routines can all have a significant impact on sleep quality and overall quality of life.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child with sleep issues or an autistic adult who has been experiencing sleep difficulties, consider reaching out to a doctor with your concerns.