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Sleep Treatments May Help Alleviate Depressive Symptoms In Adults With Autism

New findings illuminate the need for clinicians to address sleep issues for patients with autism.

Research suggests that treating poor sleep in adults on the autism spectrum may lead to reduced depressive symptoms.

Studies have shown that adults with depression often have sleep disturbances, and since autistic adults report widely suffering from sleep disturbances, this study was seen as important and new territory. The research was led by Linnea A. Lampinen and Shuting Zheng of the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“This study aimed to describe the patterns of sleep disturbances in autistic young adults, and their associations with depressive symptoms while controlling for relevant demographic factors,” Lampinen and colleagues wrote.

The study helped the researchers to expand upon what is already well-documented in the general population regarding sleep and depression, and drew attention to the effects of autism on sleep patterns for young adults.

Research and Methods

The investigators used data from 315 autistic young adults, gathered from the Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge (SPARK) research match registry. Those recruited had to be 18 - 35 years old, legally consenting adults with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) during childhood.

The research team assessed only those of the 315 adults who gave information regarding ≥1 of the 3 sleep variables in the SPARK questionnaire. Depressive symptoms were analyzed through the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II) in which a scale of 0 - 3 is used to measure symptom severity.

The investigators also developed a sleep questionnaire, made up of 6 main items assessing study participants’ sleep over the previous week. It helped them to calculate:

  • Waking after sleep onset
  • Sleep latency
  • Minutes of time spent in bed
  • Total sleep time
  • Sleep efficiency

The researchers both generated descriptive statistics for the sleep characteristic variables and then used a multivariate linear regression using BDI-II scores to examine the relationship between sleep and depressive symptoms. Demographic variables such as age, gender, relationship status, school status, children, and paid employment were also added as control variables to the investigators’ regression model.

Study Results

The investigators found that at least 1 of the primary sleep disturbances was reported by about 86% of the participants in the study. Of the listed sleep disturbances, 60.07% experienced poor sleep efficiency, 39.5% reported shorter total sleep times, and 36.18% experienced delayed sleep phase. Both sleep efficiency and delayed sleep phase were found to be heavily associAted with symptoms of depression, whereas advanced sleep phase and total sleep time were not associated.

The research team also found that over a third of the sample received less than 7 hours of sleep, while around 20% slept over 9 hours per night. An analysis of the data also demonstrated that both waking after sleep onset and sleep latency were associated with sleep efficiency and symptoms of depression.

Those with delayed sleep phase experienced higher depressive symptoms than those with intermediate sleep phase among the participants. The researchers also found that among the young adults with autism, both delayed sleep phase and lower sleep efficiency were associated with increased symptoms of depression on the BDI-II.

“Our findings suggest that a large proportion of autistic adults experience sleep disturbances, and lower sleep efficiency and delayed sleep phase are associated with increased depressive symptoms, even after controlling for demographic characteristics not considered in previous studies of individuals with ASD,” they wrote.

The study, “Patterns of sleep disturbances and associations with depressive symptoms in autistic young adults,” was published in Wiley Online Library.