Autistic children’s sleep problems linked to behavioral regulation issues

By Michael Marshall for

Sleep problems in young children with autism are associated with behavioral regulation difficulties later in childhood, according to a new longitudinal study.

The finding points to the importance of helping families address sleep problems in their young autistic children, says lead investigator Mayada Elsabbagh, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Beyond the well-established importance of high-quality sleep to general health, providing support and therapy to improve sleep quality in autistic children also may help them develop better behavioral regulation as they grow older, she adds.

“The exciting thing about this study … is perhaps it suggests some areas of intervention,” says Annette Estes, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved with the study. Estes has previously proposed that sleep disruptions in early childhood could impede healthy brain development and thus contribute to autism.

The study is one of the first to look directly at a long-suspected link between sleep quality in autistic children and executive function, a set of mental skills that includes the ability to monitor one’s own behavior to achieve goals. “This provides further confirmation for the idea that those neural systems are linked,” Elsabbagh says.

In non-autistic children, sleep troubles usually resolve in the first few years of life. And in these children, poor sleep is linked to poor executive function.

This connection and other findings have led to the hypothesis that sleep issues among autistic children, who are more likely to experience persistent trouble sleeping, may contribute to their executive function, too.

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