Sleep and Sensory Problems Predict Repetitive Behaviors in Children With Autism, New Studies Find
Sleep disturbances are a common problem for many children on the autism spectrum. Two separate studies from researchers at the University of Washington Autism Center, and the University of North Carolina, have found that early sleep problems in children with autism predict repetitive behaviors later in childhood, and that toddlers who overreact or underreact to sensory stimuli will have more repetitive behaviors later on. The sleep study was led by Annette Estes, director of the University of Washington Autism Center, while the study of sensory differences was led by Linda Watson, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of North Carolina. According to a report by Spectrum News, the studies findings suggest that early behavioral differences may foreshadow the restrictive and repetitive behaviors that are core traits of autism. The sleep-related study is unique in linking sleep problems with repetitive behaviors and interests, as well as an insistence on sameness. 38 children with between 2 and 6 years old were involved in the study, as well as 19 children with developmental delays between 2 and 4 years old. The study found that children with sleep problems at age 4 showed more repetitive behaviors than their peers without sleep problems. The children with sleep problems were also found to experience a more rapid increase in repetitive behaviors between 2 and 4 years old. The results of the study were published in March in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Meanwhile, the study on sensory issues and repetitive behaviors focused on 87 children at age 1 whose scores on an early test suggested a high risk of autism. The children’s reactions to sensory stimuli were tested between 14 and 23 months of age. The researchers found a link between autism and sensory underreaction in the toddler years, and autism traits such as restrictive interests and repetitive behaviors. The study was also published in Match in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
The study was led by Linda Watson, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of North Carolina. For their next step, Watson and her colleagues are working on an intervention that would help parents identify when their children are responding abnormally to sensory stimuli, and would help with developing coping strategies.