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Tailored treatments for improving sleep may ease all forms of autism

While sleep disorders are widespread among children and adults with autism, treatments should be tailored to underlying causes 

By behavioral child neurologist Shafali Jeste, of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment. Autism Speaks is funding several research projects overseen by Dr. Jeste.

The following excerpt is from an article published on Spectrum that illustrates how genetic testing can provide crucial guidance for choosing the right interventions to ease physical and mental health challenges related to autism. Harnessing genetics to deliver more-effective, personalized treatments is the driving goal of MSSNG, Autism Speaks’ groundbreaking whole genome sequencing project.

In a clinic I run at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I see children who have various genetic syndromes associated with autism. These children have a wide range of features, including intellectual disability, language problems and seizures. But they have one thing in common: poor sleep.

The inability to fall or stay asleep, called insomnia, can have far-reaching consequences. Sleep helps us to consolidate memories, learn and grow. Insomnia can aggravate cognitive and social and communication problems, behavioral challenges and anxiety; it can also exacerbate seizures.

Behavioral interventions and medications can help children with autism-related syndromes sleep better, but the treatments must be tailored to the cause of each child’s sleep disturbance.

For instance, dup15q syndrome is a condition characterized by intellectual disability, seizures and autism, caused by an extra copy of a stretch of DNA on chromosome 15. A child with this syndrome who wakes up throughout the night because of seizures is likely to need a different treatment than a child with, say, fragile X syndrome, who has difficulty falling asleep because of anxiety.

Understanding how sleep patterns vary across these genetic syndromes, and how disrupted sleep affects development, may improve our ability to treat each child’s specific needs.

For evidence-based strategies to promote sleep in children and teens with autism, see Autism Speaks ATN/AIR-P sleep tool kits, available for free download from the Autism Speaks tool kits page

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.