Why Can’t I Fall Asleep at Night? Sleep and it’s Connection to Dyslexia, ADHD and Autism

“Sleep is the golden chain that binds health and our bodies together.”  ~Thomas Dekker

Sleep, O Elusive Sleep.” I have had many conversations with my clients about sleep. We talk about the importance of sleep, the goal of sleep, the need for sleep, and the fun of sleep. Talk is cheap; if willpower could make this happen, it would not be part of our conversation. Many people don’t know or understand that getting a good night’s rest for the neurodiverse isn’t always as easy or simple as it is for the neuro standard.

44% of adults with ADHD fight with insomnia, whereas in the general public 6-15% deal with it. Now if you look at adults with ADHD and sensory processing issues (SPD) the percentage of this population who struggle with sleep issues is closer to 85%.

Sleep disorders are thought to affect about 30% of the general population. Compare that with about 80% of the Autistic population.


Let’s start with the basics of sleep.

What are the sleep stages?
These are the stages of sleep that we go through while sleeping. Each stage has a different purpose and they have found that we pass through this stage many times in a good night’s rest. Typically, a cycle lasts between 70 to 120 minutes and then repeats until you wake up.

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM.
  • NREM – stage 1
  • NREM – stage 2
  • NREM – stage 3
  • REM – stage 4

 What are the markers of a good or bad night of sleep?

  • Sleep Duration
  • Sleep Efficiency
  • Number of Awakenings
  • Sleep Quality
  • Sleep Latency – the time it takes to fall asleep

What is considered a sleep problem?
Having a struggle with one or all of the following: going to bed at a consistent time, falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep.

 Why does sleep matter?

Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. The way you feel while you are awake depends in part on what happens while you are sleeping. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health.” NHLBI

Why these matters for the neurodiverse brain more than other people are because the dyslexic, ADHD, or Autistic brain is working really hard at navigating the world. The restorative beauty of sleep for the body and the mind is so vital to the function of the brain. It can be very apparent when you see the difference good quality sleep makes, as I have in clients over the years. Sometimes sleep is one of the first things we try to learn more about in coaching.

“Short-term sleep deprivation can negatively affect social skills and lead to “increased reward-seeking behaviors.”

“Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to increased mortality, increased accidents and injuries, lower quality of life, decreased family well-being, and poor overall health.” Jillian Enright

Where to start if you think you have a sleep issue.

The first thing to do if you think you or a loved one is having issues with sleep is to start to track when you fall asleep and when you get up. CLICK HERE for an example of a sleep diary. People have shown me that there are many more options than just a sheet of paper where you can track your sleep habits. Ways that some of my clients have tracked their sleep include their sleep number bed, devices placed on the bed, fitness tracking watches, and other digital virtual assist technology. I am always impressed with the creativity and ingenuity of dyslexic thinkers and their fellow ADHD and autistic gifted friends. The data will show a pattern and the current system of how your mind and body are engaging with sleep. From that data, you can now start to explore issues, symptoms, and solutions.

Sleep Issues

  1. Disruption of circadian sleep-wake rhythm from sensory hyper-reactivity and hyper-sensitive social skills
  2. Sensory sensitivity – lights, sounds, temperature, and more
  3. Delayed sleep phase syndrome – DSPS causes people’s sleep patterns to be delayed by two hours or more.
  4. Insomnia – hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up
  5. Sleepwalking – doing things while in deep sleep
  6. Sleep terrors – bad dreams with body movement
  7. Sleep apnea – when you stop breathing while sleeping
  8. Sleep paralysis – unable to move while waking up
  9. Narcolepsy – extreme sleepiness during the day and includes spontaneous falling asleep
  10. Melatonin dysregulation – when our brain doesn’t produce melatonin right and it messes with the sleep cycle
  11. Circadian rhythm sleep disorder (CRSD) – when the internal clock that tells you to sleep is out of rhythm
  12. Restless leg syndrome (RLS) – neurological disorder that causes pain in the legs and an urge to move them.

Causes of sleep issues – that they know so far, scientists are still exploring this area

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Irregular circadian sleep rhythm
  4. Lights
  5. Sounds
  6. “Iron deficiency and dopaminergic abnormalities, the presumed cause of restless leg syndrome (Konofal et al. 2010)”
  7. Existing breathing-based sleep disorders
  8. Genetics related to melatonin secretion and regulation
  9. Screen time at or near bedtime
  10. Caffeine
  11. Eating too late in the day
  12. Alcohol

Recommended/Suggested Solutions

  • Disruption of circadian sleep-wake rhythm – time outside in the sunlight
  • Sleep routine or hygieneClick here to learn more 
  • CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia)Click here to learn more
  • Sleep stimulus control – increasing the association between being in bed and asleep and decreasing being in bed and awake No phone in bed, sleep only in your bedroom, only use the bed for sleep or pleasure, and only get in bed when you’re tired
  • Relaxation exercises – Breathing exercises, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), and guided meditation
  • Sensory supports – Eye mask, earplugs, white noise, mattress, pillows, weighted blanket, sleeping alone, and blackout curtains
  • Phototherapy – the use of bright lights to help regulate the circadian rhythm. Typically, this is done with the help of a sleep specialist
  • Sleep specialist – works one-on-one with some to improve sleep quality

Sleep is too important to be ignored and to go unaddressed. There are people who get four hours of sleep and operate very well and have for years. I would point out that they are an anomaly and not a norm.

As I pulled together the research for this article it was clear to me that this is an under-talked about and under-supported issue for many people with neurodiversity like dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. What I found to be most telling was that for each of the sleep issues I could think of at least one person I knew with that issue, most of the time it was many people for each issue.

Now that we have started a conversation and got you thinking about how your sleep might be affecting your neurology, I recommend you explore more about any of the issues that affect you and seek out help and support when willpower is not enough to make the needed change.

I didn’t always get a good night’s rest. I spent years sleeping about four hours a night and lying in bed for about four hours counting the dots on the ceiling. I had a lot of stress, worry, and anxiety coursing through my body and mind. At times I would show the signs of narcolepsy and just fall asleep out of nowhere. I spent many years working on reducing my stress, defusing my PTSD, lessening my anxiety, taking classes, going to workshops, teaching myself to love exercise, Positive Intelligence, and learning to leave the “what if’s” at the bedroom door. It was worth every minute. Now, I don’t deviate from the schedule on weekends. I am an early riser and an early-to-bed (9:30pm) person. I get a solid seven to eight hours a night and I get up most days refreshed, renewed, and thinking about all of the great things I get to do that day. I can see a huge difference in my behavior, my disabilities, and my emotions now that I have a supportive sleep schedule.

I have some understanding of what I am asking clients to do when I recommend that they start to work on their sleep habits and schedule.

Each person is different and that is why it is so important for you to know what you need and make sure that you find the best ways to maintain and achieve those healthy sleep habits.


Thank you, 

JoyGenea Schumer
Business Owner, International Neurodiversity Coach, and Speaker

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