Sleep Disorders

For children with autism, who are already more susceptible to mood and behavior issues, the problems of poor sleep are magnified.

About two-thirds of children with autism have sleep disorders, and the biggest problem is insomnia (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep).

“It’s a huge problem because it affects not only the children but also their families,” said Beth Malow, M.D., M.S., professor of Neurology and Pediatrics. “Poor sleep affects attention, mood, memory and behavior. Improving sleep can improve many daytime behaviors in children with autism and help parents be less stressed.”

Malow leads many research studies that investigate possible links between autism and sleep, including ones related to genetics, hormone levels and behavioral interventions.

To record sleep, children with autism often wear a device called an actigraph, which looks like a wristwatch. It senses when a child has stopped moving and fallen asleep.

One current study provides educational sessions for parents on how to help their child sleep, such as establishing a bedtime routine and making sure children are not watching TV before bed.

“We measure not just their sleep with questionnaires and the actigraphy, but also parent stress, parent sense of confidence, and aspects of the child’s daytime behavior to see if the children improve,” Malow said.

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