Kids with autism and related disorders are
prone to sleep disturbances but a new study finds that screen time, especially
in the bedroom, may make their sleep problems worse.
When researchers compared boys with autism
spectrum disorders (ASD) to other boys, they found that all the kids with
bedroom access to media slept fewer hours, but the relationship was twice as
strong for the boys with autism.
"In-room media access was associated
with about 1.5 fewer hours of sleep per night in the group with autism,"
said Christopher R. Engelhardt, who led the study at the University of
"This association can potentially be
problematic, particularly if the reduction in sleep interferes with other daily
activities, such as school, homework, interactions with other people, or
driving," he told Reuters Health in an email.
Past studies suggest that up to 80% of kids
with autism, and related conditions like Asperger's disease, experience sleep
troubles, including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep through the
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) also are known to have a high rate of sleep disturbances. With
both conditions, it's unclear why sleep is so difficult.
Theories include a disruption in sleep-wake
cycles that are regulated by the hormone melatonin, which is often deficient in
kids with ASDs, Engelhardt and his colleagues write in Paediatrics. Because kids with autism spectrum disorders,
like those with ADHD, also tend to spend a lot of time watching TV and playing
video or computer games, the researchers wondered whether that could be
contributing to their sleep problems.
So they recruited the parents of 49 boys
with autism spectrum disorders, 38 with ADHD and 41 comparison boys with
typical development to fill out questionnaires about their children's bedroom
screen access and sleep patterns.
the kids were between ages eight and 17. Boys with autism who had TV, computers
or video games in their bedrooms got less sleep than all the other boys,
including boys with autism who didn't have media in their bedrooms.
Without a TV in their room, boys with
autism spent an average of about nine hours sleeping, compared to less than
eight hours among kids with an ASD and a bedroom TV.
In contrast, bedroom TVs didn't seem to
make a difference for boys with ADHD or typical development. Boys with autism
with computers in their rooms slept nearly two hours less than boys with autism
and no bedroom computer.
A lot of time spent playing video games,
regardless of where they were located, was also linked to shorter sleep times
among boys with ASDs. Even for typical children, too much time with TV or video
games has been linked to attention problems, hyperactivity, arguments and
physical fights, Engelhardt said. "We can't say that access to a TV causes
less sleep," only that the two are linked for some kids, he said.
Last month, the American Academy of Paediatrics
called for limiting screen time for all kids to one or two hours per day. ”This
is a good recommendation for all children," Dr Beth Marlow, Burry Chair in
Cognitive Childhood Development and director of the Sleep Disorders Division at
Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Following this recommendation for
kids with (autism spectrum) and ADHD is good, although children with (autism
spectrum) or ADHD who are still having difficulty with sleep despite limiting
electronics really deserve a sleep evaluation by their paediatrician or sleep
"Sleep troubles can also stem from
anxiety, sleep apnoea, pain that the child might not be able to express,
gastrointestinal problems or seizures, she said.
For typically developing kids, bedroom TV
access doesn't usually seem to cut into sleep. "However, (Engelhardt's)
finding for teens with ASD concurs with our clinical impressions – that these
teens have difficulty 'switching off'' videogames," Michael Gradisar said.
Gradisar is a clinical psychologist who
studies technology use and sleep, especially among teens, at Flinders
University in Adelaide, South Australia. "Many teens have a distorted sense
of time passing when playing videogames, however, it may be that this time
distortion is stronger for teens with ASD," he said.
Parents can have a tough time managing how
much their children play games or watch TV, he said. "It may take quite
some time to do, but one option is for parents to introduce other hobbies and
activities into their teens lives, so that video gaming eventually occupies
"People with autism tend to spend more
time with media outlets, researchers think, because the electronic worlds have
engaging audio and visual features and their social interactions are easy
relative to real life interactions."
This doesn't necessarily mean that parents
should take TVs or video games out of their autistic children's rooms, but
might consider limiting or monitoring media consumption, he said. "Screen
media can certainly be good for kids with autism," he said.
"Scientists have long known that video
games are great at teaching and reinforcing certain behaviours, so it's possible
that these games can be used to adjust and shape the types of behaviours
generally valued by society, such as behaviours intended to help others."