Getting a good night of sleep is crucial to a child’s development in the areas of attention, learning, memory, mood regulation, and behavior. Poor sleep quality in children also affects parents’ sleep quality. If a child isn’t sleeping well, chances are his/her parents aren’t sleeping well either.
Many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, but research into this has been limited. A study conducted by a team at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) School of Nursing and CHOP aimed to answer two critical questions: how many children with ASD have sleep problems, and what types of sleep problems are most common in ASD.
For the study, families were asked to answer sleep questionnaires and keep a sleep diary over a 17-day period. Parents noted the time the child went to bed, night wakings, morning wake time, naps, and health status during this period.
The children also wore a device that measures motion, called an actigraph, for 10 nights. An actigraph is a miniaturized wristwatch-like computer, and it is now a part of many fitness wristbands and cell phones. The actigraph measures how much children move at night and provides a measure of how much time children spend in different sleep phases. There were concerns about the children’s ability to fall asleep with something on their wrist, so the researchers created a special pocket for the actigraph that could be sewn into the upper sleeve of a pajama top.
When the researchers analyzed the sleep diaries, actigraphy, and sleep questionnaires, they found that 66.7% of children with ASD had some form of insomnia. The children with ASD took longer to fall asleep and had longer waking episodes during the night.
The most prevalent sleep disorders in this group were behavioral insomnia and required intensive strategies to be implemented by the parents to help their children fall asleep. Strategies included repeated reassurance about fears, rocking, patting, and frequently returning them back to bed. Of note, about a third of the children with ASD that had insomnia had strong bedtime routines, fell asleep by themselves, and did not have any medical conditions that might disrupt sleep. Insomnia in these children with ASD may be due to intrinsic causes. Research suggests that a fairly high state of hyperarousal or anxiety may be causing insomnia in these individuals. Ongoing treatment studies are testing whether alleviating the anxiety will also alleviate sleep difficulties.
Greater understanding of insomnia in the ASD population is critical because good sleep is strongly tied to the ability to attend, learn, and self-regulate. The UPenn School of Nursing and CHOP are presently conducting a Pilot Randomized Control study for sleep impairments in ASD. This study is funded by the Department of Defense to develop and refine a tailored behavioral intervention for children with ASD and insomnia that includes a calming module that addresses arousal dysregulation and anxiety.
Source: Souders, M.C., Mason, T.B., Valladares, O., Bucan, M., Levy, S.E., Mandell, D.S., Weaver, T.E., Pinto-Martin, J. (2009). “Sleep Behaviors and Sleep Quality in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Sleep, 32(12), 1566-1578. PMID: 20041592