A new study has found that some behavioral problems in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), such as aggression, irritability, and attention problems, may be due to a lack of sleep rather than the disorder itself.
The findings show that children with autism who wake up frequently during the night have the most difficulty regulating their own behavior during the day, according to the researchers from the University of Missouri.
“Past research has found that children with ASD often have trouble sleeping at night. Many children with ASD also struggle with regulating their behavior during the day,” said Dr. Micah Mazurek, assistant professor of health psychology in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and co-author of the study.
“Research on children without ASD has found that lack of sleep can contribute to these behavioral problems. In this study, we were specifically interested in whether sleep is related to challenging behavior in children with ASD.”
To analyze the link between sleep and behavioral problems, Mazurek and co-author Dr. Kristin Sohl surveyed parents of 81 children with ASD. They asked the parents to report whether their child had experienced any common sleep problems, such as having trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and other specific sleep issues.
The researchers then looked into whether these problems were related to common behavioral problems in children with ASD, including aggression, irritability, inattention, and hyperactivity.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the children’s sleep difficulties were highly connected to daytime behavioral problems. Children who weren’t sleeping well had greater problems with aggression, irritability, and paying attention during the day. Children who awakened frequently throughout the night had the most trouble regulating their behavior.
The research on sleep and behavior in children with ASD is ongoing, and future studies will look into what might be causing these difficulties and which treatments could potentially work best. In the meantime, the researchers encourage parents to talk to their doctors about their children’s sleep issues.
“If parents are noticing that their children are having behavioral problems, it may be helpful to make sure they are sleeping well at night,” Mazurek recommended. “For all children with ASD, it is important that parents and professionals routinely screen for sleep problems. Addressing these issues will help children be at their best during the day.”
Source: University of Missouri-Columbia