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The official student newspaper of the University of Houston-Clear Lake

Autism expert to discusses sleep disorders at UHCL event


Children on the autism spectrum face innumerable academic and social challenges each day. In fact, says Jack Dempsey, Ph.D., a child psychologist who specializes in treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, up to 80 percent of these children also suffer from a sleep disorder, so that the difficulties encountered during the day often extend well into the night. Dempsey is the first in a lineup of autism experts to speak each month at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities’ 2017-18 Autism Speaker Series at University of Houston-Clear Lake. His presentation, entitled “Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sleep,” will take place Sept. 9 at 10:30 a.m. in the Garden Room of the Bayou Building.

“Insufficient sleep exacerbates many of the most common problems affecting children with autism: inattention, inappropriate social interactions, and hyperactivity, making the school day even more stressful and in turn, increasing the tension at home,” Dempsey said. “Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder seem to be more susceptible to sleep disorders than their peers, and that seems to be the case for a wide variety of reasons. There are a lot of theories as to why these children have more trouble sleeping. Certainly, there are multiple pathways to a sleep disorder. The causes and the interventions are as diverse as the children themselves.”

Still, exhausted parents shouldn’t give up hope for restful nights and better days. More than anything, Dempsey said, the message he hopes to convey is that there are very successful interventions that have a very high rate of success for these children and their often-sleep deprived families.

“The first thing we tell parents is to figure out whether their child has a problem with sleep onset — meaning, delayed sleep, or sleep maintenance — meaning, they go to sleep but don’t stay asleep,” Dempsey said. “We look at the kinds of daytime behavior problems we’re seeing in the child, and we consider the age of the child. A tired child does not have the same tools for self-control as adults.”

Then, said Dempsey, it’s crucial to begin charting the bedtime routine. Because each child on the spectrum presents sleep problems differently, the path toward a solution must be individualized. “When we start charting, we find issues with sleep hygiene,” he said. “If a child is watching TV before bedtime, or eating sugary foods, or struggling against having to take a bath he doesn’t want to take, we can start to evaluate what’s going on and take the time to think about why the problems are occurring. Then we think about what variables we can manipulate to achieve a better outcome.”

Charting, he continued, is much like a food diary for people trying to lose weight. “You look at the data and try to find patterns. Fine-tuning this is a child-by-child issue.”

Everything is better with a good night’s sleep. “Better sleep decreases the incidence of behavior problems children with Autism Spectrum Disorder often exhibit, and sleeping also a core behavior for life, just like eating,” Dempsey said.

“Dysfunction in those areas, especially with a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, creates major life difficulties. That’s why charting is so helpful — it gives you the tools to understand where the problems lie. It takes time, but in the long run, it’s going to save you.”

Dempsey said that he hopes he’s able to help parents feel optimistic about the potential to turn things around for the better every night around their child’s bedtime. “We’ve got a very deep bag of tricks to help this situation, so it’s important not to give up,” he said. “We have a great success rate with these methods, so there’s every reason to believe things will get better.”

The Autism Speaker Series is a free, monthly lecture provided by third-year graduate students in UH-Clear Lake’s behavior analysis program and invited speakers from the community. Lectures are open to the public. Please register in advance. For more information about CADD or the Autism Speaker Series, visit www.uhcl.edu/autism-center/speaker-series.

Also published on Medium.