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Children with ASD more likely to have sleep disorders; medications may help

Child with ASD sleeping
Child with ASD sleeping

A new study indicates that children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more sleeping problems than those without the disorder, especially at certain ages. Researchers at California State University in San Bernandino had 108 mothers of children with ASD and 108 mothers of typically developing children fill out questionnaires about their children's sleeping patterns.

The questionnaire asked about the children's overall sleep quality and looked at specific types of sleep problems such as resistance to going to bed, delay of onset of sleep, sleep duration, and night wakings. The study also looked at sleep problems by age.

The researchers report that children with ASD had "poorer sleep quantity and quality," especially at ages six to nine, and were likely to continue as the children grew older.

"Our findings suggest that it is important to examine specific domains of sleep as well as overall sleep patterns" in the children as they grew up, they add.

Another study of 1,859 children, conducted in 2012 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, found that older children and adolescents with ASD had more problems with delayed sleep onset, shorter sleep duration, and daytime sleepiness.Younger children had more bedtime resistance, sleep anxiety, night wakings and other problems.

"The results suggest that sleep problems persist through adolescence in ASD with differences in types of problems experienced and emphasize the need for clinicians to address sleep behaviors not only in young children with ASD but throughout the age span," the authors wrote.

What do experts recommend to deal with the problem? Some medication may help. A 2013 review suggests that melatonin supplements appear to be effective in helping children with ASD sleep by helping with longer sleep duration, fewer nighttime awakenings, and quicker sleep onset. There are few side effects with melatonin, although it can cause daytime grogginess and vivid dreams at higher doses.

Psychotropic medications such as the antipsychotics aripiprazole (Abilify) and risperdone (Risperdal) may also be helpful in improving sleep in children with ASD as well, another recent review notes.

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