Children with autism needed for sleep research

23 July 2015

Two University of Canterbury (UC) researchers are seeking participants for a study into the effectiveness of treatments for sleep disturbance in children with autism.

Two University of Canterbury (UC) researchers are seeking participants for a study into the effectiveness of treatments for sleep disturbance in children with autism.

Dr Laurie McLay and Associate Professor Karyn France are keen to provide assistance to families of children with autism as part of the research process.

“Sleep is one of the major concerns reported by parents of children with autism. Our study will offer practical support to families, who will select an individualised treatment approach to use with their child to improve sleep behaviour,” says Dr McLay.

Participants can be based anywhere in the country and can include children right across the autism spectrum who have sleep disturbance issues and are not currently receiving treatment for this. Children should be aged between three and 12 years and have a formal diagnosis of autism.

Dr McLay says there are very high rates of sleep disturbance in children with autism and problems can develop due to physiological components, as well as environmental influences.

“As many as 70-80% of children with autism have some type of sleep difficulty,” explains Dr McLay.

“This can include delayed sleep onset, frequent and prolonged night awakenings – or a combination of both.

“Sleep disturbance can have an impact on a child’s learning, behaviour and socialisation, as well as affecting the overall well-being of parents, who can become stressed and also affected by lack of sleep,” says Dr McLay.

The study is supported by a research grant from the IHC Foundation and the UC researchers have been working in partnership with IDEA Services and various autism support networks to recruit participants.

“We’ve had a good response in Auckland and Wellington, but there is room for more children in the study right around the country,” says Dr McLay.

“We are especially keen to hear from families of children with limited verbal ability, as sleep disturbance can be a more significant problem for them.”

Information about children’s sleep behaviour will be gathered using sleep diary and video recordings, after which the research team will support parents to implement the chosen treatment option.

“It’s all about parent choice,” says Dr McLay.

“Treatment options are individualised based upon the needs of each child. The family then choose the approach they want to try and then we will work with them until they are satisfied that the sleep problem is alleviated, or until they decide they want to withdraw from the study.”

The study is focused on behaviour therapies and other treatments such as the use of white noise and massage therapy. Dr McLay says this study is about investigating the effectiveness of approaches that may minimise parent and child distress. A literature review conducted by Dr McLay and Associate Professor France identified some evidence for the effectiveness of white noise and massage therapy, but more research is needed.

The researchers are based in the ‘Pukemanu – Dovedale Centre, which is a teaching clinic run by the University of Canterbury Child and Family Psychology Programme. Families out of Christchurch are catered for by visits to home towns and local research assistants. Dr McLay teaches courses in specialist teaching and complex educational needs at UC, where she completed her PhD on children with autism. Associate Professor France is a qualified clinical psychologist who has spent many years working in the area of child and family psychology, with a strong research focus within the Canterbury Sleep Programme on child sleep behaviour.

Anyone interested in finding out more about being part of the research study, should contact Dr Laurie McLay on 03 364 2987 ext. 7176 or e-mail

About Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a life-long developmental disability affecting social and communication skills – it includes Asperger’s syndrome. People on the autism spectrum can have accompanying learning disabilities, but everyone with the condition shares a difficulty in making sense of the world. It is estimated that approximately 40,000 New Zealanders have Autism Spectrum Disorders, which means it is approximately four times more common than cerebral palsy and 17 times more common than Down's syndrome.

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