Research on Nightmares Conducted on Children with Autism

October 10, 2021

Study Also Examined Nightmares in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Typically Developing Kids

Nightmares are commonly defined as disturbing mental experiences that awaken the dreamer. They typically occur during the REM sleep cycle and include negative emotions of terror, fear, and anxiety. The first nightmare experience tends to happen around three years old and peaks between six and ten years of age. Nightmares experienced in childhood have been connected to anxiety and stress. It was this fact that inspired a team of British researchers to study sleep disturbances (nightmares) in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in order to compare those two groups to typically developing (TD) peers. The team utilized the Children’s Sleep Habits Questionnaire, the Child Behavior Checklist, the Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale, and the Behaviour Rating Inventory for Executive Functioning to survey caregivers online. A total of 277 caregivers of children with ASD (n = 61), FASD (n = 112) and TD children (n = 104)  took part in the study. Within the ASD group, 40.3% of caregivers reported their children experienced nightmares. That percentage jumped to 73.62% in the FASD group. Within the TD group, only 21.36% of caregivers reported their children had nightmares. The research group then conducted a correlation analysis which revealed significant associations between anxiety and nightmares, maladaptive behavior and nightmares, and executive functioning and nightmares in the TD and FASD groups, but not in the ASD group. However, they did report that waking emotions in children with ASD and FASD are most likely tied to nightmares but are unsure of the reason for that association. The study concluded by recognizing a need for more sleep interventions as part of clinical practice for children with ASD and FASD.  

Original Study

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