How can children with autism get more sleep at night? A collaboration of researchers from Vanderbilt University, University of Colorado Denver and University of Toronto has found that educating parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can benefit the whole family. After parents received training from sleep educators, their ASD children demonstrated improved quality of life and the parents reported more competence in parenting skills, too.

The researchers assessed families of 80 children with ASD aged two to ten. Before the study, the children were evaluated for conditions that could cause sleep problems like gastrointestinal disorders or seizures. Then, their parents learned about healthy sleep habits for daytime and evening like exercising more, consuming less caffeine and turning off electronic devices like video games well before bedtime. The parents received instruction in either a one-hour on-on-one discussions with a sleep educator or in a four-hour group class. During the sessions, parents made visual schedules for their children as a way to help them establish bedtime routines and they learned techniques for helping children get back to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night. After the initial training, parents received two follow-up phone calls.

After the instruction, there were demonstrated benefits for the ASD children who previously had difficulty with falling asleep. The children’s sleep habits improved and they also exhibited improvements in anxiety, attention, repetitive behaviors, and overall quality of life. Additionally, the parents’ skills were boosted; they reported increased parenting competence after the education sessions. The parents from the one-on-one and the group training exhibited similar levels of competence. However, a previous study that provided parents with educational pamphlets about sleep habits found much less benefit than the methods used in this study.

The researchers report that more research is needed on the best way to deliver sleep education to families. They suggest that telemedicine and internet-based technologies should be investigated.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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