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The impact of COVID-19 on sleep for autistic children: A systematic review
journal contributionposted on 2023-02-15, 01:52 authored by S Lewis, N Papadopoulos, A Mantilla, H Hiscock, M Whelan, Jane McGillivrayJane McGillivray, N Rinehart
Background: Up to 80% of children with autism experience behavioural sleep problems, predominantly relating to bedtime resistance, sleep anxiety, sleep dysregulation, and shorter duration, which are associated with increased autistic symptom expression and emotional and behavioural difficulties. Researchers predicted the COVID-19 pandemic would worsen sleep and behavioural difficulties for autistic children, due to their need for routine and certainty. This systematic review is the first to focus on delineating the role of sleep disturbance in exacerbating autistic symptoms and internalising and externalising behaviours during the pandemic. Method: In this PROSPERO registered systematic review, we aggregated and synthesised findings from empirical studies from 2020 onwards that included children with autism and examined sleep outcomes, using narrative and framework synthesis due to the variety of methods and designs employed. We identified additional relevant themes through inductive thematic analysis. Results: Seventy-one studies met the search criteria, and we selected seventeen for review following screening and quality assessment. These studies reported mixed findings; with strongest support for worsening of sleep problems typically experienced by autistic children, including difficulties with sleep regulation and shorter sleep duration. Further, sleep problems were associated with increased expression of autistic characteristics. Conclusions: Preliminary findings of worsening sleep and increased autistic characteristics for autistic children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the need for ongoing, accessible and flexible service provision during exposure to environmental stressors. We propose that behavioural sleep interventions are well suited to telehealth adaptation and play an important role in supporting families when in-person treatment for sleep problems is not possible.