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Sensory Problems May Cause Sleep Issues for Children with Autism, New Study Shows

The heightened sensory perception of children with autism may cause sleep issues starting around age 7, according to a new study from Micah Mazurek, an associate professor of human services at the University of Virginia, along with other researchers. According to a report by Spectrum News, the study found that sleep problems in autistic children can be alleviated by reducing background light or noise at bedtime.

Disordered sleep in autistic toddlers may forecast symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the study. Sleep problems are especially common among people with autism, as shown by a February 11 study in the medical journal Pediatrics. According to the study (one of the largest ever undertaken to examine this issue), nearly 80% of autistic children between ages two to five experience sleep issues, while autistic children as a whole are twice as likely to experience sleep issues as non-autistic children, or children with other developmental issues.

According to Spectrum, the study by Mazurek and her colleagues was based on an analysis of records from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, a network of 12 academic centers in Canada and the United States. The study focused on 437 children who visited one of the ASATN centers between ages 2-10, and returned around four years later. 70% of the children’s parents reported sleep problems on their first visit to one of the centers, with 32% reporting an improvement with age. However, 23% reported symptoms worsening over time.

The researchers found a link between disordered sleep among autistic children and financial status, with the children of wealthy and well-educated parents receiving better sleep than those from lower-income families. According to the researchers, this discrepancy may result from lower-income parents having more difficulty with bedtime schedules, and a harder time creating quieter, separate bedrooms.

Mazurek and her colleagues also found that among the 166 children who were younger at the time of their visit to the ASATN centers (between age 2-3), sensory problems tracked with sleeping problems by the second visit, and those sleep problems tracked with attention and hyperactivity issues later on. Among the second group of older children (271 children between ages 4-10 at the time of their first visit), sleep problems at the first visit were predictive of aches and pains, such as headaches and digestive problems, four years later.

Ann Reynolds, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, believes there may be a correlation between anxiety and sleeping problems among children with autism. The explanation for this connection is fairly simple. According to Reynolds, who was involved in the February Pediatrics study, “If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re likely to be more anxious, and if you’re more anxious, you’re likely to have more trouble going to sleep.”

Mazurek believes her study signifies the importance for parents of autistic children in managing sleeping problems. Spectrum reports that Mazurek and her colleagues are currently working on a behavioral therapy to help autistic children with insomnia, by working with families to develop strategies for minimizing anxiety and sensory sensitivities in their children.


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