Autism and sleep issues seem to go hand in hand; in fact, ASD can significantly impact sleep patterns, making it more difficult for individuals with autism to fall asleep and maintain a consistent sleep routine.
One of the reasons for sleep disturbances in autism is the tendency for autistic individuals to get stuck in repetitive behaviors or thought patterns. This disruptive feedback loop can interfere with the ability to calm down and relax before bedtime, leading to difficulties in initiating sleep.[i]
Autism and sleep problems are quite common, with studies indicating that between 40-80% of children with ASD experience sleep difficulties. These difficulties can manifest in various ways, including difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings during the night, restless sleep, and early morning awakenings. These sleep disruptions not only impact the well-being and quality of life of individuals with autism but can also affect their caregivers.[ii]
Children with ASD have abnormal brainwave activity, with more than half of children on the autism spectrum exhibiting epileptiform activity on the EEG, though they’re not necessarily having a seizure. In some children with ASD, their brain is overstimulated, with excessive fast brainwave activity which interferes with normal sleep. At the Drake Institute, our treatment helps stabilize brain functioning which can improve sleep.
At the Drake Institute, we use advanced technologies to develop customized treatment protocols for patients with autism. Specifically, brain map-guided neurofeedback and neurostimulation help our ASD patients reduce symptoms, like insomnia or sleeping too much, and produce a better quality of sleep, which can help reduce other symptoms.
To learn more about how the Drake Institute treats autism spectrum disorder and other brain-based disorders, please fill out the consultation form or call us at 800-700-4233.
Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that ranges from mild to severe and includes repetitive behaviors, impaired social communication, restricted interests, and rigidity.
The exact causes of autism are not fully understood, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors is believed to contribute to its development.
Autism presents a wide spectrum of symptoms, including challenges in social interactions, communication difficulties, and repetitive behaviors, along with sensory sensitivities.
Traditional ASD treatment options include behavioral therapies, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, educational support, and social skills therapy.
Although there is no cure for autism, early intervention and tailored support can greatly improve symptoms. In fact, after completing treatment at the Drake Institute, some of our patients no longer meet criteria for an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.
Sleep disturbances are relatively common among children with autism, with estimates suggesting that 40-80% of autistic children experience sleep difficulties. Sleep difficulties in autistic children are not surprising to us at the Drake Institute because children on the spectrum have abnormal brainwave regulation. The brain can literally be stuck in a dysregulated pattern that makes it more difficult for the brain to transition to a state that’s conducive for sleep.
The specific underlying causes for sleep disturbances in autism are still being researched and can vary from one individual to another. [iii]
One possible reason is the presence of sensory sensitivities and sensory processing differences that are often associated with autism.
These sensitivities can lead to heightened responses to stimuli, making it challenging for children to relax and settle down for sleep. Sensory issues may include sensitivity to light, sound, touch, or certain textures, making the sleep environment uncomfortable or overwhelming for the child. [iv]
Another contributing factor is the presence of repetitive behaviors or rituals, also known as self-stimulatory behaviors or stimming. Autistic individuals may engage in repetitive movements, such as hand-flapping or rocking, which can interfere with their ability to wind down and transition into a restful state.
The worry or anticipation associated with bedtime routines or changes in the sleep routine can contribute to increased stress and difficulty falling asleep.[v] Transitions can be challenging for children on the autism spectrum, including transitioning to bedtime. Anxiety or difficulty regulating emotions may be present too, further impacting sleep patterns.
Many autistic individuals experience a range of sleep issues that can significantly impact their quality of sleep.
Autism and insomnia often run together. Insomnia, or difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, can cause distress for autistic individuals at night and during the day. It may take them longer to fall asleep, and they may have frequent awakenings during the night. This can result in sleep deprivation from shortened and disrupted sleep patterns, leading to daytime fatigue and decreased overall well-being.
In addition to insomnia, autistic individuals may also experience disruptions in their rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the stage of sleep associated with dreaming. Studies have shown that autistic individuals may have alterations in REM sleep patterns, including reduced REM sleep duration. These changes can affect memory consolidation and emotional regulation.
Other sleep issues that can affect autistic individuals include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and sleepwalking. Sleep apnea is characterized by stopping and restarting breathing during sleep, leading to disrupted sleep. Restless leg syndrome involves uncomfortable sensations in the legs, often leading to a strong urge to move them, which can disrupt sleep. Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is a condition where individuals engage in complex behaviors while asleep, potentially putting their safety at risk.
According to the National Autistic Society, having autism and sleeping too much is another possible problem for individuals on the spectrum. [vi]
Sleep issues are quite common among autistic individuals, with estimates suggesting that around 50-80% experience disturbed sleep. [vii]
These sleep problems can lead to decreased sleep duration, disrupted sleep patterns, and daytime sleepiness, affecting overall well-being and functioning. Recognizing and addressing these sleep issues is crucial for improving the quality of life for autistic individuals. Because autism and sleep disorders run together so frequently, clinical intervention to help sleep is a priority. [viii]
Not getting enough quality sleep can have significant consequences on both physical and mental well-being. Sleep plays a vital role in various aspects of our health, and chronic sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can lead to a range of negative outcomes. But just how does poor sleep affect autistic individuals? [ix]
For autistic individuals, the consequences of not getting enough quality sleep can be problematic and can exacerbate various symptoms of autism, leading to increased behavioral challenges and difficulties with self-regulation, communication, and social interactions.
Lack of sufficient sleep can contribute to heightened sensory sensitivities and sensory overload, making them more vulnerable to sensory stimuli. This can lead to increased agitation, irritability, and meltdowns. Sleep deprivation can also affect attention and concentration, causing increased attentional difficulties with task completion.
Furthermore, insufficient sleep can impact emotional regulation in autistic individuals, intensifying anxiety, low frustration tolerance, mood instability, and emotional dysregulation. It can also disrupt the ability to self-regulate and cope with stressors, leading to increased meltdowns or behavioral outbursts. In sum, sleep disturbances affect the overall well-being and quality of life of autistic individuals.[x]
The amount of sleep your child should get each night largely depends on age. As we get older, we require less sleep. The recommended sleep for an adult under 65 is 7-9 hours a night; a baby needs almost double that.
Below is a reference for how many hours of sleep your child should be getting: [xi]
Parents can play an important role in helping their autistic child improve their sleep. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine and schedule can provide structure and signal to the child that it's time to wind down. Creating a calm and comfortable sleep environment by minimizing noise, light, and other sensory distractions can promote better sleep. Encouraging relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or listening to soothing music before bedtime may help the child transition to a more relaxed state.
Creating a conducive sleep environment is important for promoting better sleep. This includes ensuring the bedroom is quiet, dark, and comfortable. Additionally, considering the individual's sensory sensitivities, such as providing soft bedding and/or weighted blankets can contribute to a more soothing sleep environment.
Establishing a consistent bedtime routine can signal to the autistic individual that it's time to wind down and prepare for sleep. This routine should include relaxing activities such as reading a book, taking a warm bath, or engaging in calming sensory activities. Consistency is key, so following the same sequence of activities each night can prepare the body and mind for sleep. It is important to allow sufficient time for the routine to unfold, ensuring a gradual transition from wakefulness to sleep.
Avoiding screen time 1 hour before bedtime is also recommended.
Some autistic individuals may have heightened sensory sensitivities that can disrupt sleep. Parents can help minimize sensory disturbances by identifying and addressing triggers that may interfere with sleep. This may involve reducing noise levels in the home and creating a comfortable and soothing sleep environment.
Maintaining a consistent sleep and wake schedule is important for regulating the body's internal clock and promoting healthy sleep patterns. Parents can establish regular bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends, to help stabilize their child’s sleep routine and cycle. Consistency in the child’s sleep schedule supports the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and helps stabilize sleep.
Teaching autistic individuals to fall asleep independently is beneficial for their sleep habits and development. Parents can gradually encourage the child to self-soothe and fall asleep without relying on external assistance. This can be done by gradually reducing the level of parental presence at bedtime, using comforting objects like stuffed animals or a favorite blanket.
Engaging in regular physical activity during the day can contribute to better sleep quality for autistic individuals. Exercise helps to release energy, promote relaxation, and can improve sleep. Encouraging activities that the individual enjoys, such as walking, swimming, or sensory-friendly exercises, can help them expend energy and prepare them for a better night’s sleep.
Limiting the consumption of caffeine and sugary drinks, especially in the evening, can support better sleep for autistic individuals. These substances can interfere with sleep by stimulating the nervous system and causing wakefulness. Instead, offering alternatives like non-caffeinated herbal tea, warm milk, or water can prepare the child for a better night’s sleep.
Consulting with healthcare professionals can help determine if sleep supplements are appropriate for an autistic individual. In some cases, natural sleep aids or supplements may be recommended to address specific sleep difficulties. However, it is important to seek professional guidance and follow recommended dosage guidelines when considering sleep supplements.
Bright-light therapy involves exposure to bright artificial light during specific times of the day, such as in the morning, to regulate the body's internal clock. This therapy can help improve sleep-wake patterns in individuals with sleep difficulties, including autistic individuals. Consulting with healthcare professionals experienced in sleep disorders can provide guidance on the appropriate use of bright-light therapy. [xiv]
Parents keeping a sleep diary of their child can be helpful in tracking sleep patterns and identifying potential triggers or factors that may affect an autistic individual's sleep. Parents can use the sleep diary to record details such as bedtime, wake-up time, sleep duration, and any observations about sleep quality or disruptions.
This can provide valuable information to identify patterns, recognize possible correlations between daily activities and sleep, and guide adjustments to the sleep routine or environment. By maintaining a sleep diary, parents can work collaboratively with healthcare professionals to develop targeted strategies for improving sleep based on the individual's specific needs.
Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder, and while some children with autism may show significant improvements in their symptoms, the core challenges associated with autism tend to persist into adulthood.
However, the Drake Institute has treated some ASD patients who by the end of their treatment program no longer meet criteria for a diagnosis of ASD.
Early intervention and targeted therapies can significantly reduce symptoms and enhance their skill development for individuals with autism.
It is important to recognize that autism is a complex condition with a wide spectrum of presentations, and everyone’s journey is unique. While progress and growth can occur, ASD individuals may still require and/or benefit from ongoing support, accommodations, and resources. [xv]
There is no known cure for autism, which is considered to be a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder. The core characteristics of ASD typically persist into adulthood, though some symptoms may attenuate. Various interventions and therapies are available to help individuals with autism manage or improve their symptoms.
Interventions and treatments for autism aim to support individuals in developing skills, addressing specific challenges, and enhancing their overall functioning. Early intervention, behavioral therapies, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills training are commonly used to maximize the potential and improve the day-to-day functioning of individuals with autism.
When brain regulation or functioning is improved initially through brain map-guided neurofeedback, the brain can become more capable and receptive to developing skills from other therapies.
Over the last 40 years, the Drake Institute has clinically pioneered the use of advanced treatment technologies to treat a variety of brain-based medical disorders such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, PTSD, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, insomnia, and more. Using a combination of brain map-guided neurofeedback and sometimes neurostimulation, our Medical Director creates customized treatment protocols to address each patient's needs.
To develop our individualized treatment plans, we first complete a qEEG brain map analysis foreach patient. Brain mapping helps us identify which specific regions or networks of the brain are dysregulated linked to symptoms.
To collect this data, 19 sensors are placed around the scalp in areas of the brain responsible for language, focus, memory, executive functioning, social/emotional understanding and behavioral/emotional regulation. The 19 sensors measure and record brainwave activity that is processed through a normative database of neurotypical individuals.
When we compare the patient's results with those of neurotypical individuals, we can identify regions or networks of the brain that are dysregulated and causing symptoms. This information also allows us to determine how these areas are dysregulated so that we can develop specific treatment protocols that help improve brain functioning and reduce symptoms.
During neurofeedback training/treatment, sensors are once again placed on the scalp. The sensors record and display instantaneous brainwave activity visually in real-time on a computer screen with simultaneous auditory feedback as well.
During neurofeedback sessions, the patient is seeing the results of how their brain is working and with this information, they learn to improve their brainwave activity by guiding it toward healthier, more appropriately functional brainwave patterns.
We do not administer any drugs or perform invasive procedures during this process. Instead, the patient is improving their own brain functioning, guided by visual and auditory feedback.
As an adjunct to neurofeedback, we may also use neurostimulation guided by qEEG brain map findings to gently stimulate the brain into healthier functional patterns. In our experience, some patients may benefit even more from neurofeedback if we also use neurostimulation. We have found this particularly helpful for lower-functioning children on the Autism Spectrum.
In the last forty years, Drake has helped thousands of patients with various disorders such as autism, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, insomnia, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and hypertension reduce or resolve their symptoms and thereby achieve a better quality of life. Call us at 1-800-700-4233 or fill out the free consultation form to get started.
If you or a family member need help, please fill out our confidential online form
Interview with Dr. David Velkoff
Interview with Dr. David Velkoff
Spanish News Feature
“David F. Velkoff, M.D., our Medical Director and co-founder, supervises all evaluation procedures and treatment programs. He is recognized as a physician pioneer in using biofeedback, qEEG brain mapping, neurofeedback, and neuromodulation in the treatment of ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and stress related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure. Dr. David Velkoff earned his Master’s degree in Psychology from the California State University at Los Angeles in 1975, and his Doctor of Medicine degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in 1976. This was followed by Dr. Velkoff completing his internship in Obstetrics and Gynecology with an elective in Neurology at the University of California Medical Center in Irvine. He then shifted his specialty to Neurophysical Medicine and received his initial training in biofeedback/neurofeedback in Neurophysical Medicine from the leading doctors in the world in biofeedback at the renown Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. In 1980, he co-founded the Drake Institute of Neurophysical Medicine. Seeking to better understand the link between illness and the mind, Dr. Velkoff served as the clinical director of an international research study on psychoneuroimmunology with the UCLA School of Medicine, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. This was a follow-up study to an earlier clinical collaborative effort with UCLA School of Medicine demonstrating how the Drake Institute's stress treatment resulted in improved immune functioning of natural killer cell activity. Dr. Velkoff served as one of the founding associate editors of the scientific publication, Journal of Neurotherapy. He has been an invited guest lecturer at Los Angeles Children's Hospital, UCLA, Cedars Sinai Medical Center-Thalians Mental Health Center, St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, and CHADD. He has been a medical consultant in Neurophysical Medicine to CNN, National Geographic Channel, Discovery Channel, Univision, and PBS.”