Researchers from La Trobe University conducted a pilot study investigating a sleep intervention for autistic adults, showing promising evidence of reducing insomnia and co-occurring anxiety symptoms.

Two in every 100 Australians is on the autism spectrum, according to the researchers. People with autism can have trouble falling asleep and may wake for long periods at night, contributing to significant social, psychological, and health burdens.

Led by adjunct professor Amanda Richdale, PhD, from La Trobe University, and published in the Journal of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, the study looked at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy adapted for insomnia (ACT-i) and tailored to autistic adults.

Richdale says it is estimated that sleep issues affect up to 80% of people with autism across the lifespan. “Poor sleep is linked to more behavioral difficulties, poorer mental health—particularly anxiety and depression—and some physical health conditions for autistic people,” says Richdale in a release. “Poor sleep may be related to the high anxiety and sensory issues often experienced by autistic people. Also, autistic people often experience disrupted sleep-wake circadian rhythms.” 

The sleep-wake rhythm is synchronized to 24 hours by sunlight and darkness, which affect levels of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is often given to help people with autism sleep, with mixed results, Richdale notes.

In the study, eight individuals (six male, two female) aged between 18 and 70 years with a clinical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and mild, moderate/severe, or severe insomnia participated in the trial.

Participants were assigned to one of two intervention groups (four per group) within a multiple baseline over time design for the group. Participants completed sleep and mental health questionnaires before and after intervention and at two-month follow-up. They also completed actigraphy one week before and after intervention and a daily sleep diary before intervention until one week after intervention and one week at follow-up.

Richdale says there were significant improvements in the group that received the ACT-i therapy, suggesting this may be a way to treat both insomnia and anxiety in people with autism disorder.

Better sleep can result in improvements in mental health and behavior,” Richdale says in a release. “Providing intervention supports for common co-occurring sleep issues in autism may provide an effective way to assist autistic children and adults to thrive. Despite the clear need for a focus on sleep in autism across the lifespan, good intervention research is still limited in children and is lacking for adults.” 

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