Sleep problems factor in development of autism spectrum disorder, study suggests

Young children with sleep problems have a higher risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) than those who sleep through the night, a study has revealed.

The research, published in peer-reviewed journal The American Journal of Psychiatry, points to sleep problems as a possible factor in the development of ASD in very young children.

Carried out by the National Institutes of Health, the researchers studied children of between six and 12 months of age, some with siblings with ASD (high-risk) and others without.

For almost two years, parents were asked to complete a questionnaire about their children’s sleeping habits, such as difficulty falling asleep and difficulty falling back to sleep after waking during the night.

At the end of the study, the children received MRI scans and at 24 months, were assessed for ASD.

The results show that high-risk children (those with a sibling with ASD) scored higher for sleep problems, compared to those without siblings with ASD, pointing to an association between ASD development and sleep problems, rather than a cause and effect relationship.

Commenting on the study, lead author Alice Kau said the results are a “promising lead”.

“If confirmed by more in-depth studies, patterns of sleep disturbance in early life might be used to pinpoint increased risk for ASD among young children already at risk because they have a sibling with ASD.”

The authors noted that the findings may also suggest interventions to reduce the effects of sleep problems on the health and development of children, adding that more research in this area is needed to identify how overall sleep quality impacts on the development of ASD.

According to the latest statistics, autism affects around one in every 100 people, meaning there are around 700,000 individuals on the autism spectrum in the UK.

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