Sleep Problems and Autism

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Many parents I talk to in my practice struggle with their child’s sleep.  This is something that pretty much any parent can relate to on some level.  The kind of desperation that sets in after weeks or months of dogged tiredness….

‘Take all my money, the shirt of my back, but pleeeeeeeaaaaaasseeeee just let me sleep through for ONE NIGHT…. just ONE!!!!’   

A kind of Fear of Night sets in, as one anticipates yet another horror show of broken sleep, utter desperation, frustration and desolation in the wee hours of the morning.  There ain’t a lot of love left at 3am for the 253rd night running.

So that’s the experience of parents of so-called ‘normally’ functioning children.  When it comes to children with special needs …..welcome to the Olympic Team for Sleep Deprivation.  Something that one might expect to be an issue for a couple of years with a normal child can stretch into the double figures with children who are developmentally delayed.

And so I thought it might be time to amalgamate my own knowledge with the experts in the field (AKA parents who have gone through it, such as fellow homeopath Tahira Bartolo, who herself has a child on the autistic spectrum) and try to piece together some sort of useful set of goto tips to try to alleviate the torture that is Extreme Tiredness.

1. Does your child tend towards allergies?  If so, some sleep disruption can be to do with an overload of histamine in the brain.  A high percentage of autistic children have allergic tendencies which leads to overproduction of histamine. Histamine, in excess, causes hyperarousal in the brain, making it hard to switch off.  Often allergic responses can rumble on for several days, and thus disrupt the sleep/wake cycles of the brain.   Once this happens, the child’s sleeping pattern can be all over the place.  It is crucial at this point to help them ‘relearn’ the correct cycle, by being super strict for a period of time that ‘night time is for staying in bed and trying to sleep!!‘  Homeopathic Histaminum Muriaticum can really help in this instance (30C Potency) to try and calm down the imbalance, or good old Chamomilla as a general ‘calmer’ to antidote this hyperaroused state.  In desperate times in the midst of an allergic attack, antihistamine certainly has its place, and the associated drowsiness can be blessed relief.

2. Is this a mineral deficiency issue?  Lots of autistic children have mineral deficiencies or imbalances of one kind or another.  Magnesium, zinc, calcium, are among the key suspects, and all of these tend to have a very negative effect on sleep if out of balance.  A lot of parents are trying out various restrictive diets with their children, but it is definitely worth considering a very high quality calcium supplement if you’re on the GFCF, or any dairy-free diet.  If you are in the UK, I recommend the Natural Dispensary for high quality supplements.  For magnesium (and much needed sulfate), Epsom Salt baths are a relatively cheap way of getting more magnesium in.  Of course a lot of the time, it is the underlying toxicity issues that have sent their systems into disarray, so addressing this underlying problem is always my main advice.

3. Is their Nervous System in hyperdrive?  There is often a general ‘hyperarousal’ of the nervous system in autistic children.   There are various ways to calm this down.  The supplements mentioned above, alongside Omega 3 supplementation can really help.  This is generally in short supply in the body, and making more available seems to make a real difference to many children.  It can be expensive, so if they don’t object, good oily fish in the diet is a cheaper alternative, although bigger doses are desirable.  Whilst homeopathic remedies should really be individualised, the tissue salt Kali Phos can work wonders to pour oil on troubled waters.  It can be given every evening/morning to calm the entire nervous system.

4. Is there a melatonin problem?  It is well documented that Melatonin levels are often out of balance in autistic children.   This is the hormone responsible for sleep/wake cycle.  Again, I feel this stems usually from underlying toxicity, with glandular tissue being particularly susceptible to certain neurotoxins such as heavy metals.  So what to do to combat this?   There are certain foods thought to be high in the building blocks of melatonin: oats, sunflower seeds, poultry, dairy… but as dairy is often off the menu, some of the others are worth thinking about.  Porridge with bananas on top and a spoon of ground up sunflower seeds is a great combo if your child likes it, as it provides the carbs that are necessary as an accompaniment to the tryptophan in order to make it usable in the body (read here for more detail).  A homeopathic form of melatonin is also available.  Contact me for more details.

5. Have you got good night time habits?  Behavioural techniques are extremely important in sleep training. Parents of autistic children may have to work twice as hard and twice as long to establish a good ‘sleep routine’ but it is worth being militantly consistent, unbending, and persevering.  So if it takes an average child a week to establish good bedtime/sleep behaviours, you might be looking at 3 times that.  Try not to engage in arousing interactions if they wake at night.  Simply repeat the same phrase ‘it’s sleep time’, without making eye contact, put them back in the bed, and leave.  You might have to do this 20 times a night to begin with, but the message will eventually get through.  Ultimately, the gift of self-soothing is what you’re trying to drive home.

6. Calming techniques.  There are things to incorporate into the bedtime routine that really can help bring your child from hyperdrive to a relaxed state, ready for sleep.   A very hot bath with a few drops of Roman Chamomile essential oil (and the epsom salts of course) can work wonders.  It is truly soporific stuff, the Roman Chamomile!  A nice bedtime tummy rub with valerian, sandalwood or lavender oil can be great…it has the multiple benefits of alleviating any gas/stomach issues, and chilling mum out to boot!  An oil burner in the room at the same time could double the effect.  It can become a lovely evening ritual if time and energy permits (which I fully appreciate it doesn’t always!).  In addition, be mindful of any stimulating activities before bedtime – screen time with iPads etc. all add to the ‘hyper alert’ state, and should be withdrawn a good amount of time before bedtime.

I would love to hear from other parents with things they have tried with success, so this could become a ‘work in progress’, rather than the finished article..…

Article written by Anna Rayner, in consultation with Tahira Bartolo 

Suggested further Reading:  Sleep Difficulties and Autism Spectrum Disorders by Kenneth J Aitken 

Additional Suggestions from Parents

nb: I don’t have clinical experience of these, but am putting them down for your information

1. SAD Light Therapy.  It is thought that some children have a dysfunctional HPA feedback link to pituitary, and the SAD Light Therapy can help with this.  This is related to melatonin levels, and has added anti-depressive effects, if your child is prone to low moods/increase in behavioural problems in the winter months. Lumie is a great website for lamps here in the UK.   The details of light therapy in terms of duration, distance from the lamp etc. are a subject in itself.  Here and Here are some FAQs, although there is a great deal of information out there to be researched if this is something you feel might help.

2. 5 HTP (a precursor needed for synthesis of melatonin & seratonin, found in certain foods but also taken often as a supplement) and Phosphatidylserine (an amino acid complex that helps with synthesis of neurotransmitters) has apparently worked for a lot of people with kids under ten.   There has also been the suggestion that GABA can help, and that parents should check that Iron levels are balanced, as apparently this is something that can impact sleep.  I would like to stress though, that I am not massively pro lots of supplements, as it tends to get very confusing as to what is doing what, and a lot of the times adding one thing in can create other problems if levels rise to excess.  I prefer to always be looking at ‘root cause’ and trying to redress the underlying imbalance. I wrote a previous blog post with my views on supplements in treatment of ASD.  

3. Here in the UK, there is a service provided by Cerebra, who offer a ‘sleep service’, which I believe is behavioural techniques for encouraging good sleep patterns.   They do not cover all of the UK, but get in touch to see if you are eligible.

One Response to Sleep Problems and Autism

  1. G March 20, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Hi, we have a 12 year old autistic son, who has not slept regularly since the day he was born. However, we have managed to create a system where we and our other children can sleep. We fought very hard with him for years until we finally gave up and accepted that our son’s sleep pattern cannot be controlled by us, no matter how much we try.
    Our house is fortunately designed in such a way that we can lock off access to the upstairs, giving our autistic son half the house to roam around in at night. This area includes his bedroom, a bathroom, a utitity room and the kitchen. If he has a problem with something (he only wants to watch dvds or cartoon/kids programs on YouTube) he can generally sort it out himself. We leave him out snacks and drinks. It works, we sleep, he doesn’t, but it no longer tortures us.

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