If you’ve ever shared sleeping quarters with an autistic, you may have some idea of what I’m talking about when I say sleep problems: trouble falling asleep, waking at the slightest disturbance, recurrent and awful nightmares, waking and staying awake for long periods during the “wee hours” for weeks or months on end, when it’s very difficult for others to stay awake and keep us safe.
While not all autistics have every symptom (after all, which symptoms we do or do not have is how we figure out which root causes to deal with, to optimize the gifts and minimize the challenges of autism), sleep problems are very common in the autistic spectrum.
So let’s start with why autistics have trouble falling asleep. In order to fall asleep, you have to be able to relax. For many autistics with high body tension and nervous systems on high alert, relaxing is very difficult and requires great effort. Why do we have trouble relaxing, and falling asleep?
There are two main parts of your nervous system: the sympathetic system, and the parasympathetic system. When your sympathetic nervous system — which is the part that gets you revved up and engaged and able to pay attention to things — is on high alert, it can be really, really hard to turn off your internal alarms, and back down the stress and tension you’re feeling, so that the parasympathetic nervous system can take over and let you heal, digest food, learn things, and sleep.
When I was about three years old, my father began to teach me some Yoga breathing exercises he’d discovered, trying to deal with some of his own severe back pain. He hoped to help me to learn to consciously bring to the fore the parasympathetic nervous system, to allow me to be able to relax, and then to be able to fall asleep. It is one of the least expensive and easiest ways to help an autistic get better rest.
Now, autistics tend to wake regularly during the night, too. Why is this? This is pretty interesting! If you look up the Chinese organ clock on Google, you’ll find images that have a 24 hour clock divided into two-hour segments. Each of these two-hour segments is the time period during which an organ or system of the body is either at its most active, getting its work done, or at its least active, getting its repairs done.
When we wake at night at the same time, say 2 until 4 am regularly, and have trouble falling back asleep, it’s a really good clue as to which organs or which systems of the body are either over-performing, or under-performing, and therefore which organs or systems need support in order to do what they’re supposed to do, effectively.
Nightmares are also extremely common for people in the autistic spectrum. When we have really bad nightmares repeatedly, often the same ones over and over again, this is one of the best clues that there is unresolved trauma that person has experienced. Unresolved trauma is one of the five root causes of autism.
Unresolved trauma is also one of the five types of injury that will cause autistic symptoms in an adult who has never shown any autistic symptoms before, and one of the five types of injury that, if you provide the appropriate treatments to an autistic, you’ll often see really great improvements in both quality of life, and functional capacity.
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