A new study confirms that autism-related sleep disturbances go hand in hand with daytime behavioral problems. The finding underscores the need for doctors, therapists and caregivers to look for and address sleep issues among kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
"Past research has found that children with ASD often have trouble sleeping at night,” says psychologist and study co-author Micah Mazurek, of the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. "Many children with ASD also struggle with regulating their behavior during the day. In this study, we were specifically interested in whether sleep is related to challenging behavior.”
The Thompson Center is one of 14 Autism Speaks ATN sites across the U.S. and Canada.
To study the connection between sleep and behavioral problems Mazurek and co-author Kristin Sohl, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, surveyed parents of 81 children affected by autism. They looked at a range of sleep problems known to be common among children with autism. These include trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and early wakening. They then examined whether and how these problems related to autism-related behavioral problems such as aggression, irritability, inattention and hyperactivity.
Mazurek and Sohl found sleep difficulties to be highly related to daytime behavioral problems. In particular, those children who weren't sleeping well had greater problems with aggression, irritability and paying attention during the day. And children who wakened frequently through the night had the most trouble with daytime behavior.
Going forward, the researchers plan to explore underlying causes and improved interventions for autism-related sleep difficulties. In the meantime, they encourage parents to discuss their children’s sleep issues with their doctors.
“Addressing these issues will help children be at their best during the day." Mazurek says.
Based on the pioneering work of ATN sleep researcher Beth Malow, Autism Speaks has published three age-appropriate ATN/AIR-P Sleep Strategies Guides for children and teens with autism. All three can be downloaded free of charge from the Autism Speaks website here.
“It’s important that individuals with ASD are routinely screened for underlying medical conditions including sleep disturbances,” concludes Donna Murray, Autism Speaks vice president for clinical programs and the Autism Treatment Network. “As part of its mission, the ATN is making sure that our clinicians are identifying and addressing these vital issues.”
To learn more, see our Q&A with the study's author:
Your ATN@Work: Exploring the links between autism, sleep and behavior
Subscribe to a daily feed of Autism Speaks Science News here.