Children with Autism Study Sleep, a World First | Review of northern beaches

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At eight years old, Chase Mazurek rarely got a good night’s sleep.

He suffers from autism and ADHD and has trouble falling asleep, wakes up at night and gets up around 4:45 am.

Her mother, Melanie, says it was exhausting and took its toll on relationships and family life.

“The lack of sleep you have with a newborn baby, I’ve had it for eight years,” she told AAP.

School has also been a challenge for Chase – he’s struggling in class and is in his third school.

“We see very erratic behavior, he has trouble regulating himself, he is obsessed with things, gets very emotional and can be violent,” his mother says.

About one in 54 children is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, and those who also suffer from insomnia have significantly worse outcomes.

A first global study from Flinders University aims to see if cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) could help children with autism sleep better – in the hope that it could also help their schooling and their families.

Researcher and clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Short says CBT is the gold standard treatment for insomnia, but so far there is no evidence that specifically examines how it might work for children with autism.

“People have looked at sleep, but they’ve seen it in a bigger way; we’re the only ones in the world looking at it and it’s really exciting,” she told AAP.

Dr Short says that for some families, CBT has made a huge difference so far, with children falling asleep faster, waking up less and needing their parents less at night.

“If you have a child who has trouble sleeping, it’s the whole family’s problem, no one sleeps well,” she said.

“School is hard work for children with autism and dealing with it all with sleep debt only makes life miserable.”

Study participants begin with a phone call to talk about their sleep problems, followed by three weekly zoom sessions in which families learn techniques for better sleep.

The Mazureks were among those involved from the start and Melanie says things have improved for Chase.

The family moved their bedtime to 7:30 p.m. and dimmed the lights to do quiet activities in the hour before bedtime.

Melanie says she also learned to leave a fan or nightlight on, so Chase had the exact same environment all night.

She said the whole family has been sleeping more since participating in the study and that hundreds of families could benefit from it.

“It can’t hurt to try. I slept more since taking the study than before.”

Up to 80 percent of autistic children have trouble sleeping and this can be exacerbated by medication.

But Dr Short said CBT could even mean that some children with autism might not need medication.

“At the moment in the community autism and sleep problems are drug-like and we want to say ‘there may be another alternative, let’s try first’.”

The study has recruited 16 participants so far, but would like to have at least 60.

The research team is looking for families with children aged 7 to 12 diagnosed with autism who do not have an intellectual disability.

The research is supported by the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation.

Dr Short would like all families interested in participating in the study to contact sleep.autism@flinders.edu.au for more information.

Associated Australian Press


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