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Characterizing sleep disorders in autism spectrum disorder

Ruth O’Hara, Ph.D.
Stanford University

Sleep problems are a common feature of autism spectrum disorders. Impaired sleep causes significant distress to both patient and caregiver and may lead to, and exacerbate, the cognitive and behavioral core symptoms of autism.

Sleep disturbances can reflect a wide range of sleep disorders, such as insomnia, circadian rhythm disturbance, periodic limb movement, sleep apnea and rapid eye movement sleep disturbance. Some of these can be effectively alleviated through treatment. Characterizing the type and severity of sleep disorders in people with autism is essential for an effective treatment approach. Still, in this patient population, it has proven difficult to obtain objective overnight measures of sleep by polysomnogram, which involves connecting the person to electrodes that monitor many body functions during sleep.

Using a combination of standard and novel objective assessments of sleep, Ruth O’Hara and her colleagues at Stanford University aim to characterize the range and type of sleep disorders experienced by 80 participants on the autism spectrum, aged 6 to18 years. They also plan to examine the impact of various sleep disorders of differing severity on cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Finally, their work aims to improve upon current approaches to polysomnography, including a single-channel sleep electrode (for encephalography) and a SensorBed Mattress, which may be a more user-friendly method to assess sleep disturbances.

The researchers have significant expertise in the area of sleep disorders and their impact on cognitive processes in older patients with cognitive impairment and dementia. O’Hara serves on the sleep disorders in psychiatric illnesses workgroup for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She plans to extend her research on sleep and cognition to the field of autism.