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Sleep problems focus of new study on Kiwi kids with autism

Media Release

22 May 2017

Sleep problems focus of new study on Kiwi kids with autism

New research will look at developing effective treatments for sleep problems that affect the growing number of New Zealand children and young people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

University of Canterbury up-and-coming researcher Dr Laurie McLay has received an emerging researcher first grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to investigate the use of functional behavioural assessment1 to develop individualised, comprehensive sleep treatments for children with ASD. She will be working with a team of psychologists including Associate Professor Karyn France and Professor Neville Blampied, both from the University of Canterbury.

Sleep distruptions 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 (e.g., 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.

Although these sleep problems are complex in origin, 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. There is a large, treatable behavioural component to the sleep problem that becomes entwined with the parental behaviours that can unintentionally exacerbate it,” says Dr McLay.

For this HRC-funded study, Dr McLay and her team will recruit children throughout New Zealand aged between three and 18 who have been formally diagnosed with ASD and whose parents have reported sleep disturbances.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the results from this study could significantly improve the effectiveness of clinical treatments for sleep disturbances in children with ASD, but also have further general benefits “given that sleep problems in children with ASD have a major impact on their daytime behaviour, the severity of their ASD symptoms, and the wellbeing of their parents and families”.

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.

“By targeting support to New Zealand’s most promising emerging researchers in priority health areas such as our young people, we’re helping to ensure that the research workforce can meet the needs of the healthcare system and our unique population, both now and into the future,” says Professor McPherson.

See below for the full list of 2017 HRC emerging researcher first grant recipients or to read lay summaries of the research projects, go to and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals,’ ‘Emerging Researcher First Grants’ and ‘2017’.

1 Functional behavioural assessment is a broad term used to describe a number of different methods that allow researchers and practitioners to identify the reason behind a specific behaviour.

2017 Emerging Researcher First Grants

Dr Benjamin Albert, the University of Auckland

Omega-3 fats during obese pregnancy, for metabolic protection of the offspring

36 months, $249,926

Telephone: 027 2430 625

Dr Timothy Angeli, the University of Auckland

Development of targeted gastric ablation as a novel gastrointestinal therapy

36 months, $250,000

Telephone: (09) 923 1497, ext 81497

Dr Kathryn Beck, Massey University, Auckland

Optimising cognitive function: the role of dietary and lifestyle patterns

36 months, $246,508

Telephone: (09) 414 0800, ext 43662

Dr Joanna Black, the University of Auckland

Aniseikonia as a potential barrier to neural plasticity: Does image size matter?

36 months, $247,915

Telephone: (09) 923 2405

Dr Michael Collins, Auckland District Health Board

The BEST-fluids study: Better evidence for selecting transplant fluids

48 months, $249,965

Telephone: (09) 307 4949, ext 22957

Dr Moritz Lassé, University of Otago, Christchurch

Improving risk assessment for worsening kidney function in heart failure

36 months, $170,877

Telephone: (03) 964 0451

Dr Kate Lee, the University of Auckland

Deciphering the metabolic function of igf2 derived peptide hormones

36 months, $ 232,843

Telephone: (09) 923 5702, ext 85702

Dr Laurie McLay, University of Canterbury

Functional behavioural sandman: Treating sleep disturbance in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

36 months, $160,825

Telephone: (03) 364 2987 ext 7176

Dr Niranchan Paskaranandavadivel, the University of Auckland

Activation to recovery mapping to predict gastric dysrhythmias

36 months, $250,000

Telephone: (09) 373 7599, ext 89742

Dr Simone Rodda, the University of Auckland

Improving the effectiveness of lifestyle change strategies

36 months, $250,000

Telephone: (09) 923 6573

Dr Damian Scarf, University of Otago, Dunedin

Extending brief alcohol interventions using mobile technology

36 months, $232,371

Telephone: (03) 479 7636

Dr Petr Tomek, the University of Auckland

IMPACT-ful resistance mechanism of cancer cells

36 months, $249,994

Telephone: (09) 923 6804

Dr Jaimie Veale, University of Waikato

The New Zealand transgender health survey: Stigma and protective factors

30 months, $238,842

Telephone: (07) 837 9216


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