Objective: To compare objective polysomnographic parameters between 3 cohorts: children with autism, typical development, and developmental delay without autism.
Design: Overnight polysomnographic recordings were scored for sleep architecture according to American Academy of Sleep Medicine criteria by a board-certified sleep medicine specialist blind to diagnosis for studies collected between July 2006 and September 2009.
Setting: Subjects were evaluated in the pediatric ward in the Clinical Research Center of the National Institutes of Health.
Participants: First 60 consecutive children with autism, 15 with typical development, and 13 with developmental delay matched for nonverbal IQ to the autism group, ranging in age from 2 to 13 years, selected without regard to the presence or absence of sleep problem behavior.
Main outcome measures: Total sleep time, latencies to non-rapid eye movement (REM) and REM sleep, and percentages of total sleep time for stages 1 and 2 sleep, slow-wave sleep, and REM sleep.
Results: There were no differences between the typical vs developmental delay groups. Comparison of children with autism vs typical children revealed shorter total sleep time (P = .004), greater slow-wave sleep percentage (P = .001), and much smaller REM sleep percentage (14.5% vs 22.6%; P < .001). Comparison of children with autism vs children with developmental delay revealed shorter total sleep time (P = .001), greater stage 1 sleep percentage (P < .001), greater slow-wave sleep percentage (P < .001), and much less REM sleep percentage (14.5% v 25%; P < .001).
Conclusion: A relative deficiency of REM sleep may indicate an abnormality in neural organization in young children with autism that is not directly associated with or related to inherent intellectual disability but may serve as a window into understanding core neurotransmitter abnormalities unique to this disorder.