Vanderbilt University neurologist Beth Malow, MD, has received a three-year, $249,660 grant from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to establish a community-based educational program for improving sleep in children with autism spectrum disorder.

Beth Malow, MD

Focusing on both urban or rural communities in Tennessee, Georgia, and Colorado, the project aims to reach families who have limited access to health care.

The project builds on Malow’s prior research into behavioral interventions for sleep problems in autism spectrum disorder. About 80% of children with autism spectrum disorder experience sleep difficulties, which can exacerbate daytime symptoms. While behavioral approaches have proven effective, many families lack access to trained professionals.

Malow, professor of neurology and pediatrics, will lead the project with Susan Brasher, PhD, of Emory University. Malow says the program is intended to be generalizable to children with a variety of other intellectual and developmental disabilities and more broadly to children of typical development.

Previously, Malow’s team trained community therapists to educate parents on strategies tailored to a child’s needs for better sleep habits. A pilot study in which therapists worked with families of 33 children showed improvements in sleep quality and duration, daytime behaviors, and family well-being. The new project will disseminate this training model to help more therapists assist families who may not live near specialty clinics.

“One of the greatest challenges in behavioral sleep training is getting helpful information and resources to the families who stand to benefit the most,” Malow says in a release. “With this grant, we hope to break down some of the barriers keeping children with autism spectrum disorder from getting the high-quality sleep they desperately need.”

Across the three states, Malow aims to support at least 30 therapists in educating at least 300 families over the course of three years. The project includes a stakeholder advisory board, with parents, therapists, and clinicians guiding development and assessing outcomes.

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