Autistic kids’s sleep issues linked to behavioral regulation points | Spectrum
Lost Sleep Costs: Autistic children are prone to persistent sleep problems that can affect their executive function.
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Sleep problems in young children with autism are linked to behavioral regulation difficulties in later childhood, according to a new longitudinal study.
The result shows the importance of helping families with sleep problems in their young autistic children, says senior investigator Mayada Elsabbagh, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
In addition to the established importance of quality sleep to overall health, providing support and therapy to improve sleep quality in autistic children can also help them develop better behavioral regulation as they age, she adds.
“The exciting thing about this study … is that it might suggest some areas of intervention,” says Annette Estes, professor of languages and hearing at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the study. Estes previously suggested that insomnia in early childhood could hamper healthy brain development and thus contribute to autism.
The study is one of the first to directly examine a long-suspected association between sleep quality in autistic children and executive function, a set of mental skills that include the ability to monitor one’s own behavior in order to achieve goals. “This is further confirmation of the idea that these neural systems are interconnected,” says Elsabbagh.
In non-autistic children, sleep disorders usually resolve in the first few years of life. And in these children, poor sleep is linked to poor executive function.
This association and other findings have led to the hypothesis that sleep problems in autistic children, who are more likely to have persistent sleep disorders, may also contribute to their executive function.
For the new research, Elsabbagh’s team analyzed data from 217 autistic children who participated in Pathways in ASD, a longitudinal study that began in 2005. They rated participants’ sleep problems using the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire, a survey parents completed when their children were 2 to 4 years old and again about three years later. The researchers also rated the executive functions of children around the age of 7 to 12 four times using questionnaires completed by parents and teachers.
More severe sleep disorders in early childhood were associated with less behavioral regulation, the team found. Other types of executive functions, such as children’s ability to control their own thoughts, were not found to be associated with sleep disorders.
The age at which children have insomnia can make a difference. For example, children who took a long time to fall asleep between the ages of 2 and 4 showed only mild behavioral regulation difficulties around four years later. However, children who took a long time to fall asleep at the age of 6 or 7 showed more severe behavioral regulation difficulties about a year later.
The reason for the age-related results is unclear, say the researchers.
Frequent night awakenings between the ages of 2 and 4 years were not associated with later behavioral regulation problems, perhaps because such awakenings are common in all children, the team found.
The work was published in Sleep in May.
The study does not confirm a causal link between sleep and behavioral disorders, says Estes. It should be noted, however, that the sleep problems precede the manifestation of behavioral regulation problems in the children, she adds.
More precise measurements of sleep problems could clarify the connection with behavioral regulation, says Estes. Some children may have difficulty falling asleep while others wake up at night or early in the morning. The frequency of such problems also varies. Another complication is that children vary in their ideal bedtime and length of sleep, says Estes.
Children who sleep through the night can also have unusual sleep patterns that can only be detected through objective measures like monitoring their brain waves, says Amanda Richdale, director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Center at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who was not involved in the course.
Future studies could step in to help children with sleep problems early in life and see if this alleviates deficits in executive function, Elsabbagh says. Several factors beyond sleep quality are likely to contribute to executive function, she adds.
Quote this article: https://doi.org/10.53053/KWAC5933