Sleep Problems May Predict Autism Diagnosis

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As many as 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder have sleep problems, often from an early age. As parents and professionals seeking accurate diagnoses are encouraged to look to signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder in early childhood, researchers at the University of Washington have started to research the effect of sleep patterns on brain development in teens on the spectrum. They recently published findings that sleep problems in a baby’s first 12 months may not only precede an autism diagnosis but also may be associated with altered growth trajectory in a key part of the brain, the hippocampus.

Effect of Sleep Patterns on Brain Development

Especially among young children, time spent asleep is a prime time for brain development, when neural connections form and sensory memories are encoded. In the study conducted by the University of Washington, they found that infants who were later diagnosed with autism were more likely to have had difficulty falling asleep, which led them to consider the role of disrupted sleep in brain development. They found that changes in the size of the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and memory, is associated with poor sleep in both children and adults.   

“Sleep is a major concern for parents of young children and is one of the most common reasons that parents seek out professional help and assessments for their children. If their child isn’t sleeping, parents aren’t sleeping either, which creates stress for the entire family,” lead researchers, Estes, explains, “Behavioral interventions to improve sleep don’t work for all children with autism, even when their parents are doing everything just right. This suggests that there may be a biological component to sleep problems for some children with autism.”

Other studies have confirmed their findings that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to have enlarged hippocampi, which explains their brain’s capacity for rote memorization, hyperfocusing on small details, and learning about their special interests. But, this may also explain why it is harder for them to self-regulate and slow down their thoughts before going to sleep. They may also be more likely to have vivid dreams, whether or not they can repeat them, which leads to disrupted sleep patterns.

Early Predictors of Autism Diagnosis in Children

As the categories of signs associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder are quite broad, neuropsychologists believe the best predictors of an autism diagnosis are determined by symptoms that have persisted over time. At its core, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder rather that related to problems stemming from social skill issues. This means that it is important to consider developmental milestones and early childhood behavior when considering diagnostic criteria, even when one is not assessed until adolescence. 

Some signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder in children include:

  • Sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep and disrupted sleep
  • Difficulty with emotional control and problem solving
  • Difficulty with movement and motor control
  • Delayed language development and speech impairments
  • Echolalia and repetitiveness

The Power of Routine in Residential Treatment 

One of the benefits of residential treatment for teens on the spectrum is that they follow a consistent daily schedule. Teens on the spectrum thrive in structured environments, where rules and expectations are clear, activities are scheduled, and they know what to expect. This helps reduce their anxiety around transitions and unstructured free time. 

While a school environment offers routine for several hours a day, many teens feel overwhelmed when they return home, as it is harder to stick to a routine. Depending on their academic workload and the stress they feel around assignments, they may spend hours on schoolwork after school. The overstimulation of studying, technology, and interactions with family members can make it difficult to get to bed at a reasonable time. They may keep themselves up at night worrying about interactions during the day or the next day’s responsibilities.

New Focus Academy believes all teens deserve the chance to lead productive, independent lives. Our focus is on helping young people develop healthy habits and daily routines that will prepare them for independent living. Self-care routines are just one way that students begin to integrate these healthy habits into their daily lives. Students are encouraged to self-monitor how their sleep, physical activity, and eating habits affect their mood and energy throughout the day and to make adjustments accordingly to support their wellbeing. 

New Focus Academy Can Help 

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. While many teens with autism have tried to mask the symptoms they experience, identifying situations they struggle with helps us create personalized treatment plans to help them meet their personal goals. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interactions, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits

For more information, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!