Interventions for sleep problems and autism
Strong evidence – there is lots of high-quality evidence that some young people find this treatment option helpful.
What are sleep problems?
Sleep problems are common for autistic children and young people, which means that you could experience:
- difficulty settling, winding down and going to sleep
- waking up a lot during the night, or finding it hard to go back to sleep after waking up
- more anxiety, which will make it harder to sleep
- problems making the connection between others in the house going to bed and your own need to sleep
- neurological conditions such as epilepsy (which could affect your sleep)
- increased sensitivity to blue light from smart phones, laptops and other screens
- sensitivity to certain sounds or white noise, which may be upsetting or distracting
- problems with food intolerances, which could lead to stomach trouble and make it harder to sleep
- sleeping too much because you might be too tired
What kind of support is available?
If you are having sleep problems then you or your parents or carers should ask for help from your GP or another professional involved in your care. They should put you in touch with a specialist who will ask about:
- the specific difficulties you are experiencing (e.g. difficulty falling or staying asleep)
- whether you have a regular bedtime
- if anything in your room (e.g. noise or light) could make it harder to fall asleep
- whether you have other mental or physical health conditions which could make it harder to sleep (e.g. hyperactivity as part of ADHD)
- the amount of exercise you usually do each day
- whether you have any physical pain or discomfort that makes it hard to sleep
- any medication which could be affecting your sleep
- whether you might be anxious about something (e.g. at school), which is keeping you awake
- whether you snore or have any breathing problems when you sleep
- how the sleep problems are affecting your family
If your sleep problems could be a symptom of medication or a different physical or mental health condition, then your professional should offer you help with this. You could also be referred to another specialist if you might have sleep apnoea, sleep-walking problems or seizure like symptoms.
If there is no obvious reason for your sleep problem, your professional should help you and your parents or carers to improve your sleep routine, including regular bedtimes, thinking about your room set-up and a regular evening routine.
Your professional might suggest trying a sleep plan (which is also called a behavioural sleep intervention). This involves recording your sleep pattern in detail over a couple of weeks and reviewing this with your professional. They can then suggest a plan to help you improve your sleep.
If you have tried interventions to help you sleep but things haven’t improved, then you might be offered melatonin medication. Your family could also be offered respite care or short breaks. These usually involve you spending a night away or sometimes paid carers staying in your family home so that your family can catch up on their sleep. This is something that is usually arranged by your professional and organised by social care, although your parents can request a short break.
Treatments outlined on these webpages may not be available in every local area. It’s important that you discuss with your GP or mental health professional the treatment options available to you. You can also search for services near you on our Youth Wellbeing Directory and find out more about referral processes here.