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Sleep difficulties are very common in young children and even more so in children whose development is unusual.

There is a range of reasons for this including difficulties with relaxing or winding down and irregular melatonin levels.

Problems with sleep can be an issue for both adults and young people. It can also be disruptive for parents of young people with neurodiversity as their own sleep is affected.

Causes of disrupted sleep:

  • Lack of understanding about day and night – Sometimes young people with additional needs require help to learn when it is day time and when it is time to sleep. Strategies, like visual timetables, should be considered to reinforce this. Click here for an example.
  • Hunger - it can be difficult to fall asleep if you are hungry, you could try having a later evening meal
  • Allergies or Food Sensitivities – young people with neurodiversity can be more sensitive to foods like sugar, caffeine and additives which keep people awake.
  • Melatonin – this is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland which has been shown to regulate sleep patterns. It is thought that in young people with autism their patterns of melatonin secretion may be irregular – so they may not produce it at the right times of the day. Melatonin supplements can be prescribed within the UK but for further information you should consult your doctor. Foods that are rich in melatonin include: plums, bananas and brazil nuts, but these alone may not be effective in helping sleep. Click on this link to download a Melatonin leaflet.
  • Lack of routine –  see How to Improve Sleep
  • Too much information – young people with autism can have significant problems with hypersensitivity to touch, visual stimuli or sound. This can be both distracting and distressing and make the process of falling asleep very difficult.
  • An overstimulating room – Consider creating a more restful bedroom environment.
  • Noise – is there any noise inside or outside the home that may be disturbing sleep? Young people with sensory issues can be particularly sensitive to noise – what may seem quiet for others can seem very loud to them.
  • Light – is the room dark enough? Melatonin is produced when the room is dark. You may want to consider buying black-out curtains to make the room darker.

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