Patrick Pontificates: On College, Autistic Students & Sleep

I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything (unless the answer is forty-two). I do, however, happen to know the answer to another question:

What is the factor most strongly associated with quality of life for autistic adults?

According to this study, the answer is sleep. Out of all the variables the authors measured, sleep was the biggest predictor of subjective quality of life for autistic adults.

Unfortunately, getting a good night’s sleep is not easy when you’re a college student!

Many neurotypical college students struggle to get a decent sleep (which hurts their academic performance and their physical and psychological health), and autistics like us can have even more trouble.

Why do we struggle with sleep?

Well, the college environment generally tends not to be conducive to good sleep quality. Students often pull all-nighters studying for tests; social activities can also sometimes keep one up excessively late. Even neurotypical students may find that stress and mental health challenges can impact their sleep, and the many stressful experiences we can have as autistic people can very naturally lead us to struggle even more with our mental health.

Indeed, there might be a number of ways in which autistic people could struggle to sleep even more than neurotypical college students. Autistic people are clearly neurobiologically different from neurotypicals,[1] and some of these biological factors might interfere with sleep. Many of us have sensory sensitivities, which can also interfere with sleep – especially if we live in college dorms with roommates and other sources of sensory distraction. We might be taking medications that could interfere with sleep.

What can we do to sleep better?

Now, that’s all very well and good to know, but what can we actually do to sleep better? There are actually a number of good habits that can promote better sleep (some call these habits good “sleep hygiene”).

→ First of all, we need to set aside enough time for a good sleep. Assuming you don’t have the technology to manipulate space-time, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting your mandatory eight hours of sleep if you’re only in bed for periods of six or seven hours at a time. If you find yourself forced to study late at night, why don’t you see if some of my suggestions about scheduling can help?[2]

→ Secondly, it’s generally a good idea to go to sleep at a consistent time. Our body clocks get terribly confused when we go to bed at 10pm one day and 2am the next. Try to figure out a good “bedtime,”[3] gradually shift your sleep schedule (giving your body clock time to adjust) until you are consistently going to bed at that time, and then try to stick as closely to that bedtime as possible.

→ Third, you probably don’t want to be having naps during the day. They can confuse your body clock, make it harder to get to sleep when night comes, and can be a sign that you didn’t sleep enough the night before. (That being said, naps might be okay if you can schedule them consistently in early afternoon and if you can keep them short enough. More details here.)

→ Fourth, try to follow a consistent bedtime routine. Use the routine to let your body know that it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Try not to ingest caffeine, nicotine, or rich food as you prepare to sleep. As you’re getting closer to going to bed, try not to do anything overstimulating (computers and smartphones are probably not your friends here – you might instead want to do something like reading a book[4]). I’ve heard some people suggest that you shouldn’t actually go to bed until you are ready to go to sleep – so that your body associates the bed with sleep – so perhaps reading could occur in a comfy chair.

→ Fifth, if you can’t eliminate sources of sensory distraction from your environment, you might find earplugs useful. They help me sleep.

There are also medications that may help with sleep. But I’m a graduate student in experimental psychology, not a doctor, so I don’t want to give you any recommendations about medications! If you’re considering something like melatonin, maybe look at summaries of the evidence like this one before making a decision.

→ Finally, I want to emphasize that these are just some general suggestions to promote sleep in the absence of any of the more complex sleep disorders, like sleep apnea or narcolepsy. If you think you might have a more complex sleep problem, or if these suggestions aren’t working for you, I strongly advise you to seek out medical help. Some doctors specialize in treating sleep problems.

I hope this “pontification” has been helpful.

If you have any ideas or comments, feel free to “pontificate” right back at me!
Please leave comments below.


[1] Though I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean there is some single biological feature distinguishing autistic people from neurotypicals: there isn’t. The category of autism has no clear neurobiological underpinnings; it is a social construct. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a very useful social construct, and an identity that I’m proud of – but we define autism based on mental and behavioural features. Very different biologies might give rise to similar mental and behavioural features, especially when you consider that there’s a huge amount of heterogeneity in autism even at the mental and behavioural levels. Thus, while we’re clearly different from neurotypicals, we’re not necessarily that similar to each other at the biological level. Just saying.

[2] Some people have a different problem – they go to bed too early and then take ages to get to sleep. If this describes you, you might want to try going to bed a bit later – as long as you are still leaving yourself enough time to get a good night’s sleep.

[3] I know “bedtime” sounds like something that’s for children, but really, everyone should have a bedtime. Our body clocks demand it. Children aren’t mature enough to hold themselves to a bedtime (so parents force them to), but frankly, most adults lack this capacity to enforce bedtimes as well. (In fact, I must confess that this is an area where I often struggle to follow my own advice.) Being able to hold yourself to a bedtime shows a high degree of maturity and responsibility.

[4] I suppose an eBook would work, if you have enough self-discipline to just read the eBook and not get distracted by something else on your device.

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Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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