Literature Review

AAN publishes guideline on the treatment of sleep problems in children with autism



The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) has issued a new guideline for the treatment of sleep problems in children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The guideline was published online ahead of print Feb. 12 in Neurology.

“While up to 40% of children and teens in the general population will have sleep problems at some point during their childhood, such problems usually lessen with age,” lead author Ashura Williams Buckley, MD, director of the Sleep and Neurodevelopment Service at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., said in a press release. “For children and teens with autism, sleep problems are more common and more likely to persist, resulting in poor health and poor quality of life. Some sleep problems may be directly related to autism, but others are not. Regardless, autism symptoms may make sleep problems worse.”

Few evidence-based treatments are available

Dr. Williams Buckley and colleagues developed the current guideline to evaluate which pharmacologic, behavioral, and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) interventions improve bedtime resistance, sleep onset latency, sleep continuity, total sleep time, and daytime behavior in children and adolescents with ASD. The panel evaluated 900 abstracts of articles that had been included in systematic reviews, as well as 1,087 additional abstracts. One hundred thirty-nine articles were potentially relevant, 12 met criteria for data extraction, and eight were rated class III or higher and were included in the panel’s review.

The authors observed what they called a dearth of evidence-based treatments for sleep dysregulation in ASD. Evidence indicates that melatonin, with or without cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT), improves several sleep outcomes, compared with placebo. “Evidence for other interventions is largely lacking,” wrote Dr. Williams Buckley and colleagues. They observed a lack of long-term safety data for melatonin in children, which they considered concerning, because melatonin affects the hypothalamic–gonadal axis and can potentially influence pubertal development.

Screening for comorbid conditions and concomitant medications

The guideline recommends that clinicians assess children with ASD and sleep disturbances for coexisting conditions and concomitant medications that could be contributing to these sleep disturbances. They should ensure that children receive appropriate treatment for coexisting conditions and adjust or discontinue potentially problematic medications appropriately, according to the guideline.

Furthermore, clinicians should counsel parents or guardians about behavioral strategies as a first-line treatment for improving sleep function. These strategies could be administered alone or with pharmacologic or neutraceutical approaches as needed, according to the authors. Suggested behavioral approaches include unmodified extinction (i.e., imposing a bedtime and ignoring a child’s protests), graduated extinction (i.e., ignoring protests for a specified period before responding), positive routines (i.e., establishing pre-bedtime calming rituals), and bedtime fading (i.e., putting a child to bed close to the time he or she begins to fall asleep).

If a child’s contributing coexisting conditions and medications have been addressed and behavioral strategies have not been helpful, clinicians should offer melatonin, according to the guideline. Because over-the-counter formulations contain variable concentrations of melatonin, clinicians should write a prescription for it or recommend high-purity pharmaceutical grade melatonin. The initial dose should be 1-3 mg/day at 60-30 minutes before bedtime. The dose can be titrated to 10 mg/day. Clinicians also should counsel children and their parents about potential adverse events of melatonin and the lack of long-term safety data, according to the guideline.

In addition, clinicians should advise children and parents that no evidence supports the routine use of weighted blankets or specialized mattress technology for improving sleep. Parents who ask about weighted blankets should be told that the reviewed trial reported no serious adverse events with this intervention, and that blankets could be a reasonable nonpharmacologic approach for some patients, according to the guideline.


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