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Study targets sleep challenges for children with autism and their families

COLUMBIA, MO (March 6, 2017) — A common issue for parents of children with autism is sleep trouble. Whether it’s trouble settling into sleep or waking up repeatedly in the night, sleep disturbances are reported by half of families who have a child with autism.

An ongoing study at the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center hopes to help families improve their children’s sleep.

Dr. Christina McCrae, a senior scientist in the Department of Health Psychology at MU, is testing the efficacy of sleep interventions with children with autism who have sleep troubles and their parents.

To tackle the range of sleep disturbances reported across families, the study model offers eight training modules that address the most common issues. In addition, the modules are supplemented with one hour per week of one-on-one consultation with sleep therapists who are trained to individualize the techniques to their families’ unique situations.

“The new treatment we have developed is based upon established techniques for improving sleep in children,” said McCrae. “Our team has adapted those techniques to develop an autism-specific sleep treatment that takes into account the needs of children with autism and their families.”

The 19 children who participated in the first arm of the study, which concluded in January, were monitored for sleep activity with an actigraph, a wearable device that resembles a FitBit, that recorded sleep data for McCrae’s team.

Based on pre-study assessments and sleep diaries completed by parents, the appropriate modules were offered to the parents to help develop plans for individual sleep issues in the children over eight weekly appointments at the Thompson Center.

Parents then completed sleep assessments after trying the techniques in the modules and consulting sessions.

For the second phase of the study, which is currently underway, participants follow the same protocol but attend their weekly consultations remotely via a Zoom video call rather than an in-person appointment.

The research team will try to determine if the remote video calls for the sleep intervention are as effective as in-person sessions.

McCrae’s ultimate goal is to provide a more widely available sleep support treatment to families facing this common struggle.

“Our initial results suggest this new treatment may improve not only sleep, but also daytime behaviors in these children. Families may also benefit,” McCrae said. “As their child’s sleep and daytime behaviors improve, parents may start sleeping better at night and feeling better during the day as well.”