Sensory Sensitivities Linked to Sleep Disturbances in Preschool Children with ASD

April 19, 2021

Study Finds Sleep Quality Related to Sensory Issues, Not Cognitive Abilities or Autism Severity 

An Israeli autism sleep study focusing on young children has come to a surprising conclusion. Sleep disturbances experienced by preschoolers are tied to sensory sensitivities and not linked to their cognitive abilities or even the severity of their autism symptoms. Previous cross-sectional studies have repeatedly linked sleep disturbances with autism and other sensory issues such as sensation avoidance and self regulation. These earlier studies relied upon observations made on particular populations taken at a specific point in time. For the most part, this initial research lacked the ability to pinpoint reasons for these sleep challenges. However, the longitudinal design of this new study allowed for a more detailed understanding of why sleep problems occur in young children with autism. This current study involved 103 previously diagnosed children recruited from the National Autism Research Center of Israel. The study’s design included having the children’s parents fill out the Child Sleep Habit Questionnaire (CSHQ) and the Sensory Profile at two different time points, around 18 months apart. On average, the children were 3 years old at the first time point and 4.5 years old at the second. Eighty-three children went on to complete the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale 2 (ADOS-2). In the end, 64 children from the original cohort completed cognitive assessments using either the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (Bayley III) or the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI-IV). The study’s results showed that there is a significant longitudinal relationship between changes in the severity of sleep disturbances and the changes in the severity of sensory sensitivities. The preschoolers who improved in one symptom domain tended to improve in the other symptom domain, showing that sleep disturbances and sensory sensitivities are linked. Other sensory challenges such as sensation avoidance, sensory registration (self regulation) and sensation seeking behaviors did not show these same correlations. Additionally, this research discovered that sleep disturbances were not associated with the severity of core autism symptoms as measured by ADOS-2 or connected to cognitive abilities as measured by the Bayley III or the WPPSI-IV. Given the importance of sleep for children’s development, emotional regulation and cognitive development, the study’s authors hope that upcoming research will lead to sensory processing interventions to help improve sleep quality for children on the spectrum. 

Original Study

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