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Autism and Sleep

If only everyone could sleep as soundly as my granddaughter does. Sleep creates a healthier immune system and heart, decreases risk of infections, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease, and increases our ability to focus and react to danger. As many at 80% of autistic adults have difficulty sleeping.

Sleep: It is complicated!

Sleeping is like a big science experiment that requires so many things to come together for good, comfy sleep. Our brains has over 100 types of neurotransmitters. Acting as our body's chemical messengers, neurotransmitters are released during sleep, which help your mental health and mood.

Some common sleep disturbances for autistic folks include restless leg syndrome, limb movement disorders, and periodic limb movement disorder, as well as circadian rhythm, sleep-wake disorders, insomnia, melatonin dysregulation, and narcolepsy.

Anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, and depression can play a role in poor sleep. And, sensory sensitivities can mess with falling asleep and also result in poor quality sleep. These same sensitivities may be causing you to avoid light during your waking hours thus disrupting both your circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. Autism has shown to include gene mutations which impact melatonin regulation, leading to poor sleep. If you want better sleep, you really have take some time and adjust your approach but it is absolutely possible!

So how do you get a good night's sleep?

Mindfulness-based practices have shown some promise in improving sleep problems. A small study attempted both ACT(acceptance and commitment therapy specifically for autistic adults suffering from sleep and mental health issues.) and BT (behavioral therapy),

ACT is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy to help you develop psychological flexibility. It aims to reduce insomnia and anxiety in autistic adults. ACT also focuses on acceptance versus rumination and worries. Some found an improvement in insomnia severity and sleep quality. Participants found the mindfulness exercises and learning not to worry or battle with sleep were the most useful aspects of the intervention. The 2022 study looks promising but more studies are needed.

Different approaches are available to reduce the severity of some of the sleep symptoms associated with autism. This includes sleep hygiene, behavioral modifications, pharmacological treatments, melatonin supplementation, and sleep-inducing medications.

Paying attention and making note of what triggers an inability to sleep and committing to actions that reset your sleep cycle can cause significant improvement. We recommend checking out Dr. Megan Anna Neff's The Neurodivergent Sleep Workbook which provides guidance for noticing when your sleep cycle is off and what triggers the disruption. It also helps you build a sleep plan. She has created a Sleep Hygiene Checklist and helps you identify the sleep and relaxation supports that will work for you. This inexpensive, downloadable workbook offers detailed help and is written by a clinician who is both autistic and an ADHDer herself.

If you think you need help in researching and sticking with a sleep plan, Sacred Space coaches can be by your side as you work toward "a better night's sleep."

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