Sleep Quality and Children with Autism

Parents and caretakers of children with autism and their doctors will attest to being familiar with sleep disturbances. A few of the many sleep disturbances reported are fragmented sleep patterns, difficulty falling asleep, frequent arousals, and periods of excessive sleep, alternating with periods of very little sleep. Lack of good quality sleep can result in daytime sleepiness that may hinder a child’s educational and behavioral programs, as well as bring added stress to the sleep-deprived family.(1)

A study published in the Journal of Autism and Development Disorder aims to shed more understanding on the sleep patterns of children with autism ages 4-12.(2) Sleep studies conducted on children with autism are commonly done using informal observation and questionnaires. Although widely used, the results of these studies are considered subjective because they rely on data collected by observers with varied levels of experience and skills.

The study compared sleep patterns of children with autism with those of normally developing children of the same age group. The data was collected from two sources; sleep assessment questionnaires and data obtained from an actigraph unit, a device which records body motion of the sleeping child in order to analyze their sleep patterns. The results collected by the actigraph unit were thought to be more accurate and objective because they weren’t based on the variable skills and experience of an observer.

The outcome of this study is enlightening. The questionnaires revealed that autistic children had earlier morning wake-up times, along with multiple and early night wake-ups. The actigraph results showed that besides the early morning wake up times, sleep patterns of children with autism were similar to those of their normally developing counterparts.

It’s easy to understand why parents are concerned about the quality their child’s sleep, but this study suggests that it may be possible that parents of children with autism are overly sensitive to their child’s sleep disturbances when really their night time activity is not all that different from those of other children.

1) Honomichl RD, Goodlin-Jones BL, Burnham M, Gaylor E, Anders TF. “Sleep Patterns of Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders.” Journal of Autism and Development Disorders. 2002 Dec:32(6):553-61. PMID: 12553592 (PubMed –Indexed for Medline)

2) Hering E, Epstein R, Elroy S, Iancu DR, Zelnik N. “Sleep Patterns in Autistic Children.” Journal of Autism and Development Disorders. 1999 Apr:29(2):143-7. PMID: 10382134 (PubMed – indexed for Medline)