Sleep disruptions in children with autism studied
This week, a new study has been published in the Journal of Developmental Disorders that examines why children with neurodevelopmental disorders experience higher levels of sleep disturbance. Researchers at the Universities of Leicester and Birmingham studied children ages 2-15 years old with a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Smith-Magenis Syndrome, tuberous sclerosis complex, and Angelman Syndrome. These children were studied opposite a group of 47 of their neurotypical peers. Thirty of the children with neurodevelopmental disorders had been previously diagnosed with ASD.
What did the autism sleep study reveal?
This study used the Modified Simonds and Parraga’s sleep questionnaire to identify syndrome-specific profiles of sleep disturbance in various neurodevelopmental disorders and sought to “enable syndrome-sensitive treatment approaches.” The researchers found that children with autism were 30% more likely to have trouble settling and falling asleep as well as 43% more likely to struggle to stay asleep and maintaining a healthy rhythm than their neurotypical peers. Unlike children with other neurodevelopmental disorders, children with ASD were less likely to experience severe night walking and early morning waking, but still more likely to do so than their typically developing peers. Every group of neurodevelopmental disorder studied displayed higher instances of the night walking, daytime sleepiness, nightmares, and night terrors. Additional symptoms including gastro-oesophageal reflux, overactivity, and poor impulse control created variations in the severity of sleep disruption experienced. These sleep disruptions might cause higher levels of difficult behavior in the child with ASD and increased irritability and fatigue for their caretakers. (Trickett, Heald, Oliver, & Richards, 2018)
How do I get my autistic kid to sleep?
Helping a child with autism regulate sleep patterns can seem impossible to an exhausted caregiver, but practicing good sleep hygiene can be beneficial to both the child and their caregiver. According to Sujay Kansagra, MD, sleep hygiene is “a combination of our behaviors and the things that can help or hurt our sleep.” Kansagra identifies the following four components as crucial to good sleep hygiene: routine, schedule, environment, and the avoidance and treatment of sleep disruptors. (Kansagra, 2017)
When creating an effective sleep routine for your child try to keep it to 20-30 minutes. You might consider reducing screen time before bed as the blue light can alter the brain’s ability to produce melatonin. Screen time can be substituted for calming activities including yoga or reading a story.
This chart can help parents determine an appropriate sleep schedule for their child by age. When it is time for your child to go to bed, identifying the best room temperature and lighting to create a comfortable and familiar environment for your child can help. Using a weighted blanket or other comfort items can help children relax and reduce anxiety around sleep.
Finally, addressing underlying issues contributing to sleep disruption including reflux, constipation, excess caffeine consumption, sleep apnea, allergies, eczema, or restless leg syndrome is crucial to making sure your child can get a good night’s sleep. For children who continue to struggle with sleep, caregivers can discuss a low-dose of melatonin with a pediatrician as a sleep aid for children. (Magazine, 2018) If your child has persistent sleep disruptions, you can ask your child’s doctor for additional recommendations, explore medications, or request a referral to a sleep psychologist.
Trickett, J., Heald, M., Oliver, C., & Richards, C. (2018, March 01). A cross-syndrome cohort comparison of sleep disturbance in children with Smith-Magenis syndrome, Angelman syndrome, autism spectrum disorder and tuberous sclerosis complex. Retrieved February 2018, from https://jneurodevdisorders.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s11689-018-9226-0
Kansagra, M. S. (2017, November 21). Helping Your Child with Autism Sleep: An Overview of Sleep Hygiene and Behavioral Strategies. Retrieved February 2018, from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/helping-your-child-with-autism-sleep-an-overview-of-sleep-hygiene-and-behavioral-strategies/
Magazine, A. P. (2018, January 31). A Closer Look at Sleep Disorders with Autism. Retrieved February 2018, from https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/sleep-disorders-autism/
Katherine G. Hobbs is a freelance journalist and university student studying English, with an emphasis on journalism, and psychology. She is interested in the impact of having a special needs child on the family dynamic. Katherine is dedicated to bringing awareness of resources to families and providing help to those who love their autistic children. You can find her online at katherineghobbs.com.