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Largest Study to Date Confirms Autism’s Link to Disordered Sleep

Shortened sleep & frequent wakenings extend into adolescence; Autism Speaks addresses issue with clinically tested training and tool kit for parents
September 30, 2013

The largest study of its kind has confirmed that children with autism have poorer sleep quality than do other children. They both sleep less overall and are prone to frequent night wakening.

The findings appear today in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. (Free full text here.)

The authors compared information on 39 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with more than 7,000 typically developing children in South West England. Parents answered questions about their children's sleeping patterns from age 6 months to 11 years.

Clear differences in sleep patterns began to emerge around 30 months of age and continued through the 11-year end point. Over this span, children with ASD slept, on average, significantly less per night than other children their age. They tended to both fall asleep later and wake earlier than their peers. The largest sleep gap – averaging three quarters of an hour – occurred between 6 and 7 years of age.

Parents of children with autism were also significantly more likely to report three or more wakings per night. By the time the children were 7 years old, more than one in ten children with autism were waking three or more times a night. By contrast, this was true of just 1 in 50 of other children this age.

“For many families of children with autism, sleep issues can be overwhelming,” comments neurologist and autism sleep specialist Beth Malow, of Nashville’s Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. The center is a member of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (AS-ATN). Inadequate sleep affects a child’s ability to learn and cope, she notes. It can also affect quality of life for everyone in the household.

Dr. Malow, who was not involved in the new British study, has conducted extensive research on autism and sleep disorders. (See “Researching Sleep Tirelessly.”) Most recently, she and her colleagues conducted a study on the effectiveness of teaching parents of children with autism how to improve their children’s sleep. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published the encouraging results earlier this year. The parent training improved children’s sleep, reduced their daytime anxiety and repetitive behaviors and increased attention and overall quality of life.

Much of the parent-training material used in Dr. Malow’s study came from Autism Speaks’ ATN/AIR-P Sleep Tool Kit.* (Click the link for more information and free download.) For more information on Dr. Malow’s parent-training study, see “Empowering Parents to Help Children Sleep.”

If children are having difficulties with sleep, it is also important that a medical team rule out other medical issues that could be interfering with pain such as GI distress, Dr. Malow adds.  

* Dr. Malow’s research and the ATN/AIR-P Sleep Tool Kit were made possible through the AS-ATN’s role as the federally funded Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P).