May 17, 2012

Autism study focuses on young adults’ sleep issues

Autism study focuses on young adults’ sleep issues

Sleep difficulties affect as many as three-fourths of all children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but very little research has been conducted to help older children and their families sleep better through the night.

Previous research has focused on younger children, said Vanderbilt’s Suzanne Goldman, Ph.D., MSN, assistant professor of Neurology and Kennedy Center Investigator. Her new three-year study looking at young adults, funded by Autism Speaks, is the first of its kind.

“We are learning a great deal about the prevalence and types of sleep problems in younger children, but there is limited knowledge about sleep problems in adolescents and young adults with autism,” Goldman said.

“Adolescence and young adulthood is such a critical time for individuals from so many perspectives — education, relationships, transitioning into the workforce. We want them to be functioning at their best, especially if they are struggling with a disability such as autism. Sleeping better can help them do that.”

Goldman, the study’s principal investigator, said sleep issues can influence the course and severity of the disorder, while having a direct impact on quality of life and medical co-morbidities. The entire family can also be affected.

“There is a definite impact on the family when the child has sleep problems,” she said. “The literature supports the disruption and we have shown associations with maternal stress.”

The study, for those ages 11- 21, will enroll 48 adolescents and young adults with autism and 24 age-matched controls of typical development, with a goal of defining the phenotype of sleep and behavior in adolescents and young adults with autism.

Goldman’s collaborators are Rachel Hundley, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, Lily Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biostatistics, and Beth Malow, M.D., professor of Neurology and Pediatrics and Burry Chair in Childhood Cognitive Development.

Characterizing the causes of sleep disturbances across the age span holds promise for improving the quality of life, health, and daytime function for adolescents and young adults with ASD.

The study will use in-home wrist actigraphy to measure the naturalistic sleep-wake cycle and will determine the prevalence of delayed sleep phase as related to circadian function.

“We know in adolescents of typical development that they tend to have more of a delayed sleep phase — that’s where they go to bed later, like early mornings, and wake up in the afternoon,” Goldman said.

“But we don’t know if we are going to see that in adolescents with autism.

For more information about the study, contact Deborah Wofford at 936-2004 or