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For Many With Autism, Sleep Problematic Into Tween Years

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Children with autism are waking up frequently and getting less sleep than their typically developing peers, researchers say, and the troubles may contribute to learning and behavior issues.

In a long-term study published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, researchers found that poor sleep is affecting many children with autism into the tween years.

Researchers looked at data on more than 14,000 children born in 1991 and 199­2 in England, 86 of whom were ultimately diagnosed with autism. Parents were asked about the kids’ sleep habits at eight different points when their children were between the ages of 6 months and 11 years. The children’s intelligence, social and communication skills were also assessed at age 7.

While there appeared to be no difference in the kids’ sleeping habits before 30 months, after that point those with autism tended to get between 17 and 43 minutes less sleep per day. This came as the result of later bedtimes, earlier wake times and frequent waking during the night, the study found.

What’s more, 13 percent of kids on the spectrum woke more than three times per night compared to just 5 percent of typically developing kids, with the problem becoming more pronounced as they grew older.

The differences persisted even when researchers accounted for factors like prematurity, low birthweight, maternal education and social class, the researchers said.

Although it’s unclear what’s causing the sleep troubles, previous studies have suggested that the issue may be related to problems with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin in some children with autism.

“This research emphasizes the importance of assessing sleep disturbances early in children with ASD, to offer support and anticipatory guidance to parents and to consider the use of melatonin to reduce sleep latency,” wrote British and Canadian researchers in the study.

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. Barbara says:

    I would have expected more drastic differences, and at a younger age of onset. I would like to see more studies. Melatonin and SI therapy have been very effective for my child.

  2. Lori Mele says:

    I find this to be very true. Two of my three on the spectrum take the melatonin and one of the two has had to see a sleep specialist. My oldest, also on the spectrum, has started to have sleep issues as well and he just turned 14. I think the melatonin is very helpful and turning all electronics off 30 to 60 minutes before bed is important. If they choose to read before bed make sure the book isn’t too engaging, one they can’t put down because that will also fire up those neurotransmitters. I also learned that my kids were low on iron because part of their sleep issues were that their legs would twitch and they couldn’t physically get settled. If anyone is struggling with this you should take them to the doctor and have their iron levels checked but don’t get the iron on your own. Too much iron is very dangerous and must be monitored through a doctor & blood work, etc. Hope this helps!

  3. Angela jandera says:

    No matter what my son always wakes up . You take melatonin at night. We have a regular strict schedule every day and night. About 3 hours after sleeping he will wake up . he sits up and starts to shake his head side to side and hum. Then he will lay down and fall asleep. Maybe twice every night.

  4. flip schrameijer says:

    With regard to the unknown causes of frequent sleep problems of autistic people, especially children:
    Has the research considered the possibility that oversensitivity to light may be (one of the) cause(s) of sleep problems of autistic people? It’s a well known fact autistic people on the whole suffer many sensory problems, among which oversensitivity to (day)light is rather prominent. The hypothesis would involve the following mechanism. Oversensitivity to day-light may lead to avoidance of it. Less daylight means less light enters through the eyes, causing less stimulation of the pineapple gland which normally suppresses the production of melatonin in the daytime. Consequently the lessening of daylight wouldn’t stimulate the production of melatonin either.
    Put more generally: the melatonin metabolism could be hampered by avoidance of daylight and be at the root of sleep problems through its effect on the melatonin metabolism.
    This hypothesis could easily be probed by starting with an analysis of a possible concurrence of light-oversensitivity and sleep problems.
    I had the idea when I read an article which stated sleep problems of the elderly are caused by a clouding of the cornea, letting in less light.

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