Autism spectrum disorders consist of a range of developmental disorders that cause social impairments, repetitive behaviors, and problems with communication. They are generally diagnosed when a child is very young and affect the child for his or her entire life. Children with autism tend to have low levels of melatonin in their bodies. This has led researchers to investigate the possible connections between melatonin and autism. Research has shown that melatonin may be able to help children with autism to stabilize their sleep-wake cycles.
Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland that helps the body to maintain its circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep-wake cycle. It lets the body know when to sleep and when to wake up. People with low melatonin or people who do not process melatonin correctly often have sleep problems. These can include insomnia, trouble falling and staying asleep, and daytime drowsiness. Children with autism often suffer from these issues as well, so doctors have long suspected a connection between melatonin and autism.
Low melatonin and autism tend to occur together. Studies of children with autism have shown that many posses a gene mutation that causes low melatonin levels and abnormal melatonin absorption. When this deficiency was first discovered, some people jumped to the conclusion that low melatonin caused autism; however, research has shown that low melatonin levels are a risk factor for autism spectrum disorders but do not cause them.
The real connection between melatonin and autism is that melatonin supplements may be able to help children with autism. Melatonin is often taken in supplement form as a natural remedy for insomnia or to help prevent jet lag. Studies have shown that melatonin supplements can be helpful to prevent the sleep problems common in autism spectrum disorders.
Parents of children with autism often prefer melatonin to drug-based sleep aids. Melatonin is a natural hormone in the body, so there is little risk associated with hormone supplements that return melatonin to normal levels. There seem to be few or no side effects resulting from giving melatonin to children with autism.
Helping children with autism to get a good night's sleep may have other positive effects. Children who are better rested tend to respond better to treatment, and they have more patience and less behavioral issues. Having a child sleep through the night is welcomed by parents as well. Further research is being conducted to further understand the connection between melatonin and autism.