Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in children with autism, affecting up to 80% percent of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The impact of insomnia on children with autism can take a heavy toll on the entire family, resulting in sleep loss and additional stress for parents. Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the MU Thompson Center for Autism now believe that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help relieve insomnia in children with autism, benefitting their parents as well.
The study into the benefits of CBT as a treatment for insomnia was led by Christina McCrae, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the MU School of Medicine. According to a report this month by Eureka Alert, McCrae and her team studied 17 children with autism, between 6 to 12 years old, who were also diagnosed with insomnia. 17 of the children’s parents also participated in the study. Both parents and children completed daily electronic sleep diaries detailing how long it took to fall asleep, total sleep time, and other factors. They were also equipped with electronic devices to measure limb movement, which is a method of measuring sleep quality. Each family completed eight, fifty-minute CBT sessions to address the problems interfering with sleep.
Ultimately, the researchers found sleep and behavior improvements in the children who had used the devices and electronic diaries. After one month, 85% no longer experienced insomnia, according to Eureka Alert’s report. The children’s parents also experienced less fatigue and improved sleep, according to their own monitors and diaries.
“We looked at how many sessions the families attended,” McCrae said, “how well the families understood the treatment, and the subjective and objective outcomes. As the paper shows, the outcomes are amazing. While it makes sense that child sleep impacts parental sleep, I didn't expect the parents to see as much improvement as they did in the study."
The study, titled “Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Insomnia in School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Pilot Feasibility Study,” was recently published in the official journal of the International Society for Autism Research. For her next step, McCrae hopes to introduce a video version of CBT for families in rural areas or those who are unable to travel.