Autistic children frequently suffer from sleep problems ranging from the inability to fall asleep to frequent nighttime awakenings. This problem is so common that it’s believed to affect up to three-quarters of autistic children to some degree. This can be a problem for both parents and children. Sleep disorders in autistic children have been shown to increase autistic behavior with studies demonstrating that children who have sleep problems have more autistic symptoms than those who don’t.
It’s unclear why sleep disorders in autistic children are so frequent. One theory is that children with autism secrete lower levels of melatonin at night. Melatonin is a hormone responsible for circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is secreted in higher quantities when the body perceives darkness. For some reason, autistic children seem to lack the normal nighttime rise in melatonin levels and may paradoxically have higher levels during the day.
Fortunately, there may be hope for the treatment of sleep disorders in autistic children. A study presented at the 23rd annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies showed that giving autistic children low doses of melatonin may help to correct their problems with falling and staying asleep. In this study, autistic children between the ages of four and ten who received at least one milligram of melatonin fell asleep more quickly and slept longer than children who didn’t. Some of the children in the study required up to six milligrams of melatonin prior to bedtime to help their sleep symptoms, but all experienced benefits.
Are there risks associated with the use of melatonin to treat sleep disorders in children? The side effects of melatonin include daytime sleepiness, headache, vivid dreams, dizziness, and mild intestinal upset. It can also interact with other medications. The biggest problem may be that melatonin is sold as a natural supplement and it isn’t always clear whether the bottle contains what it says it does or that it contains any melatonin at all. It’s also unclear whether melatonin is safe for long term use.
Should melatonin be used for the treatment of sleep disorders in autistic children? Since autistic children are thought to secrete insufficient amounts of nighttime melatonin, this treatment could hold some promise; but the lack of standardization of melatonin supplements could be a problem. There is pharmaceutical grade melatonin available, but it’s only approved for the treatment of insomnia in those over the age of fifty-five. The best solution may be to get professional medical counseling before treating an autistic child with this or any other supplement.