Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome often have difficulties falling and staying asleep. Treatment for Asperger’s and insomnia should address the sleep environment, methods to reduce anxiety and the impact of diet, medications and lifestyle on sleep patterns.
According to the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE), studies have found that approximately 73% of children with Asperger’s syndrome experience sleep problems. Sensory sensitivities contribute to difficulties falling and staying asleep. Children with Asperger’s and insomnia may be sensitive to the feel of sheets and pillows, the weight of blankets, sounds and lighting
Determining treatment techniques may take some trial and error with any individual. Some people prefer to be very snug inside heavy blankets or a sleeping bag and wearing tight-fitting pajamas. Others prefer wearing loose fitting clothing and using light sheets and blankets. Here are several other suggestions which may help to lessen the prevalence of Asperger's and insomnia :
- The texture of flannel sheets may be less irritating than cotton ones that can form little pill-like bumps.
- Darken the room to a comfortable level and offer use of eye shields.
- Some children benefit from sleeping inside a play tent that provides a secure, enclosed feeling while at the same time darkening the room.
- Headphones or ear plugs help to block out sounds.
- Individuals who do not tolerate feeling earphones on their heads or earplugs in the ears may benefit from a fan, white noise machine or relaxing music that drowns out environmental sounds.
- Squeezing a body pillow or large stuffed animal provides additional sensory input and comfort.
Reducing anxiety is another important component to reducing the instance of insomnia for those with Asperger's. General anxiety, and thinking about problems, can impact the sleep of people with or without Asperger’s syndrome. However, since anxiety disorders frequently co-exist with Asperger’s syndrome, it is important to address factors that impact anxiety. Begin by looking at ways to reduce stress such as improving time management with visual schedules, academic supports, counseling or a job coach. Eating a diet packed with whole grains, fruits and vegetables and reducing caffeine and sugar may also help reduce anxiety.
Children need guidance to reduce time spent on the computer and increase time spent exercising, as it is well known that the neurotransmitters released during exercise reduces anxiety. However, keep in mind that exercise should occur earlier in the day to avoid over-stimulation in the evening. A warm relaxing bath before bedtime, on the other hand, helps promote sleepiness.
Anti-anxiety medications prescribed to reduce generalized anxiety may help reduce the thoughts that keep a person awake at night. However, patients should first discuss possible side effects that can interfere with sleep. Melatonin, a natural brain hormone (available over the counter and in health food stores) may also be helpful in promoting sleep. Use of any dietary supplements should first be discussed with a physician.
Most children benefit from consistent bedtimes and a bedtime routine that might include time talking with a parent, listening to or reading a story or listening to soft music. Introduce slight variations into the routine such as wearing different pajamas or changing the music so that the child learns about flexibility and accepting that sometimes routines are disrupted. Avoid daytime napping if possible and of course, a busy day and tired body will help a person with Asperger's and insomnia achieve sleep.
Myles, B., Cook, K, Miller, N., Rinner, L and Robbins, L.; Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues; Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing Co.; 2000.
“Autism: A comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach"; Heather Miller Kuhaneck & Renee Watling; 2010.