Sleep Disorders in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Diagnosis, Epidemiology, and Management

S. Cortese, F. Wang, M. Angriman, G. Masi, O. Bruni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sleep problems are a common complaint in children/adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Correctly diagnosing and treating sleep problems in individuals with ASD is key, as they can add to the psychosocial burden of the disorder and exacerbate associated symptoms, such as inattention or irritability. Here, we provide an overview of the epidemiology, diagnosis, and management of sleep problems/disorders in children and adolescents with ASD. This narrative review is mainly informed by a systematic search in PubMed and PsycInfo (last search: 10 October 2019) of available pertinent meta-analyses. We also searched for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) published after the search date of available meta-analyses. As for the epidemiology of sleep disorders in ASD, recent meta-analytic evidence shows a pooled prevalence of 13% (95% confidence interval [CI] 9–17) in the ASD population, compared with 3.7% in the general population. In terms of diagnosis of sleep disorders, it should be based on standardized criteria [e.g., the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or third edition of the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD)]; clinicians should bear in mind that the communication difficulties presented by individuals with ASD may make the diagnostic process more challenging. Regarding the treatment, a meta-analysis of behavioral interventions, including only three RCTs, found significant effects in terms of increase in total sleep time (24.41 min, 95% CI 5.71–43.11, P = 0.01), decrease in sleep-onset latency (− 18.31 min, 95% CI − 30.84 to − 5.77, P = 0.004), and a significant effect on sleep efficiency (5.59, 95% CI 0.87–10.31, P = 0.02), albeit the risk of bias of the included studies was rated “high” in relation to issues with the blinding. The bulk of the evidence for the pharmacological treatment is for melatonin, with a meta-analysis of five double-blind RCTs showing a large effect size, favoring melatonin, in sleep duration (44 min compared with placebo, Hedge’s g 1.07 [95% CI 0.49–1.65]) and sleep-onset latency (39 min compared with placebo, Hedge’s g − 2.46 [95% CI − 1.96 to − 2.98]). We conclude that additional RCTs are desperately needed to support the management of sleep disorders in ASD with an evidence-based, precision medicine approach. © 2020, Springer Nature Switzerland AG.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)415-423
Number of pages9
JournalCNS Drugs
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • melatonin
  • placebo
  • adolescent
  • autism
  • child
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • DSM-5
  • effect size
  • human
  • meta analysis
  • meta analysis (topic)
  • priority journal
  • randomized controlled trial (topic)
  • Review
  • sleep disorder
  • sleep latency
  • sleep time
  • systematic review
  • systematic review (topic)


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