$160,000 for child autism and sleep disruption research

August 25, 2017

University of Canterbury researcher Dr Laurie McLay has received an emerging researcher first grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) valued at $160,825 over three years.

Dr McLay will use the grant to continue her research on developing effective treatments for sleep problems that affect the growing number of Aotearoa New Zealand children and young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

University of Canterbury researcher Dr Laurie McLay. Picture: University of Canterbury

A senior lecturer in Health Sciences in the College of Education, Health and HumanDevelopment, Dr McLay will be working with a team of psychologists, including Associate Professor Karyn France and Professor Neville Blampied also from the University of Canterbury, on her research titled: Functional behavioural sandman: Treating sleep disturbance in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Sleep disruptions such as delayed sleep onset and frequent and prolonged night-time awakenings, can have an enormous impact on how children function during the day and within their families. Such sleep problems are associated with poorer physical and mental health and wellbeing (for example: obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, and substance abuse), quality of life, cognitive functioning, learning, and academic performance.

Dr McLay says that up to 83 per cent of children with ASD experience sleep disturbances, and that these are unlikely to abate over time in these children without effective treatment.

“Sleep disruption or deprivation has adverse effects on the daytime functioning of children with ASD. This includes problems with social reciprocity, rates of stereotypic and ritualistic behaviour, health related quality of life, and adaptive behaviour. Sleep problems also have negative secondary effects on family functioning and parental wellbeing, including maternal mental health, and parent relationships,” she says.

Although these sleep problems have complex origins, she says evidence suggests there is a learned component that requires behavioural solutions.

“There are poorly understood biochemical differences in children with autism, such as irregular melatonin production and secretion, however, pharmacological strategies like melatonin and sedative medications only offer partial solutions,” Dr McLay says.

“There is a large, treatable behavioural component to the sleep problem that becomes entwined with the parental behaviours that can unintentionally exacerbate it. We are recruiting families nationally to take part in the study.”

The study has four primary objectives:

  1. a translational science objective of enhancing the connection between assessment and treatment by developing science-based, parent-implemented, individualised, comprehensive and socially valid interventions predicated on the results of Functional Behavioural Assessment;
  2. to measure the durability of treatment effects over time;
  3. to assess the secondary effects of improved sleep outcomes on parent, child and family well-being, and daytime functioning of children with ASD; and
  4. to better understand parents’ perspectives of the treatment process.

Dr McLay says the study outcomes will inform the translation of these assessment and treatment processes into a model of service delivery that is able to be used by clinicians working in the field.

Dr McLay is one of 13 researchers to receive emerging researcher first grants valued at a combined total of $3.03 million in the HRC’s 2017 funding round, up from $1.45 million in 2016.

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.





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