• Mason Hancock

Sleep and Autism

Sleep's link to autism may be more than you think. When i mean sleep i don’t just mean a person’s ability to sleep but its the neuroplastic changes that take place while we sleep and their consequential effects such as autism.

While learning more about why we sleep, how sleep affects our health and how we can optimize it, I read about a strong correlation between autism and the amount of light and deep sleep individuals get.

The most interesting part however is that an unborn baby's sleep in the womb (which should be 80% of the time in the 3rd trimester) has just as large of an effect as their sleep post birth does. Here I was assuming babies sleep 100% of time until their time of birth.

Before I explain the link between sleep and autism it is important to understand the different types of sleep and how the brain is changing during those different types. The first half (4hours) of our nights sleep is dominated by Deep NREM sleep. NREM sleep is not deep enough for you to dream and you are still aware of your surroundings so sound,light,touch and smell are still processed. But more importantly deep NREM sleep is when synapses are generated in the brain during a baby's development.

Synapses are small spaces within the brain's make-up which allow for messages to be passed. The more synapses the higher level of function for that area of the brain. The fewer synapses the lower level of brain function.

This is where the link to Autism can be found. Autism is an altered state of brain function where some areas of the brain have an excess (too many) synapses and other areas have fewer synapses. This creates varying levels of brain functionality which can lead to autism symptoms such as difficulty communicating in social situations, logical thinking, empathy and much more.

Sleep scientists are unsure which came first the altered brain function or the lack of deep NREM sleep (first 4 hours of sleep) but there has been difinit links made between the two. Some believe that as the deep NREM sleep is when synapses are created within the brain, that possible changes to quantity and quality of sleep for the baby either during pregnancy or early life could occur first. Thus resulting in the altered level of brain function but this has not been definitely proven.

What could be a logical statement based on the evidence above however is to ensure babies and children have adequate sleep ( average 12-15 hours per day) to allow their brains sufficient time to create synapses to promote healthy brain function.

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