Ruth O’Hara and her colleagues at Stanford University investigated the types of sleep disorders that are most prevalent in autism. Their findings provide a clearer picture of sleep disorders associated with autism and, in turn, increase our knowledge of which treatments may be most effective at improving sleep in autism.
O’Hara and her team began their investigations by replicating a previous study, which observed a relative deficit of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in children with autism compared with children with developmental delay and those with typical development1. O’Hara’s findings, however, suggest that the reduced REM sleep affects behavioral symptoms more than cognitive symptoms. Compared with controls, individuals with autism were found to have significantly increased levels of sleep-disordered breathing. More than 40 percent of individuals with autism had significant levels of sleep-disordered breathing.
Their findings also suggest that sleep-disordered breathing is associated with poorer cognitive functioning in individuals with autism. Further, they found that children with autism have more insomnia and increased levels of periodic limb movements than controls do.
Finally, by implementing systematic desensitization approaches, O’Hara and her colleagues have contributed to the field more broadly by making it easier to conduct objective measures of sleep with full ambulatory polysomnography on children with autism and on controls.