Autism means sleep deprivation in our household—and in many, many others. For reasons still being investigated, many kids on the spectrum have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep longer than a few hours. Although it's not always been the case, these days, my son Liam, a 7-year-old with autism, goes to sleep quickly thanks to a nightly dose of melatonin and a strict bedtime routine (books, poems, goodnight recitations), but he's often awake again five hours later. Sometimes he goes back to sleep, but usually he's up for at least a few hours, if not the whole next day.
This is a grueling routine, both for my husband and me—we go to bed much later than Liam—and for him, as well. As most of us know from pulling all-nighters in school, working late, or from traveling, less sleep means slower thinking, impaired performance the next day, and a generally foggy brain. And if this is the case in adults, it stands to reason that it's also the case for kids.
A new study out of the Universite de Montreal proves this point exactly. The researchers there studied thirteen kids with autism and thirteen kids without it, and in both cases they found that just "one night of sleep deprivation significantly decreases performance on verbal IQ intelligence tests." They also studied the quality of sleep, and their findings really underscore the need for sleep—in all children—to help with development and cognitive growth.
While this study doesn't tell me much new—I'm fully aware that Liam (and everyone else in our house) works much better on a full night's sleep—it does make me think again about the effects of long-term sleep deprivation. If not-getting-enough-sleep is hard on my husband and me (both of us who loved sleeping 10+ hours a day before we had kids), how much harder is it on Liam? How much more could his brain be developing if he just got enough sleep? Would his language be more progressed if he slept more? How much of his autism is, in fact, sleep deprivation? I'm not saying this to dismiss the value of the parts of his neurology that make him unique (in fact, I celebrate those parts), but I would dearly love to find a way to help him face the world fresh-faced and well-rested each day, and then see what happens.
So, if any of you have found methods to help kids with autism sleep through the night—or want to comment on sleep and cognitive function—please, please send me a message/email/Tweet. I'd love to hear what's working for you and yours so I can use it in my own home and share it with the many, many other sleepy parents and kids out there.
Image "Handsome Boy Sleeping Peacefully" via Shutterstock