WSU graduate presents research on autism and sleep

(graphic by: Trevor Hicks-Collins) This diagram shows the expected versus actual amounts of sleep children get each night.Lack of sleep can make even the best of people act like someone else. Weber State University graduate Trevor Hicks-Collins observed how lack of sleep negatively impacted his autistic son. His research into the subject has landed him a spot on Capitol Hill, where he will present his research to the National Council of Undergraduate Research in April.

Hicks-Collins was one of 60 chosen to present at the event. In talking about his reason for his research, Hicks-Collins said he noted a difference in his 7-year-old son’s behavior in the evenings if he had not gotten enough sleep the night before.

“I would notice a lot of hand-flapping and eye-spinning,” Hicks-Collins said. “Normally, he listens very well, and we would notice a change in listening habits. My wife and I discussed the changes and realized sleep may be affecting his behaviors. We decided to help him get more sleep and saw a positive change.”

Before his graduation in 2012, Hicks-Collins carried out research with the help of psychology and neuroscience professor Lauren Fowler.

“Trevor conceptualized this research and then worked with me for two years to develop it,” Fowler said. “He read extensively to build his knowledge of circadian rhythms, sleep and their relationship to autism, and then together we planned this study.”

Hicks-Collins underwent a rigorous process to obtain permission to study 13 northern Utah children. For one week, the children wore actigraph monitors on their wrists that measured sleep quality, quantity and rapid eye movement cycles, otherwise known as REM sleep.

Parents and teachers then completed daily behavior logs. The research found that children slept nearly one hour less per night than parents thought, and the less time children spent in REM sleep, the more pronounced their autistic symptoms became.

“As a parent, I would know that my child was not getting as much sleep as I thought,” Hicks-Collins said. “Most children were getting more than 100 sleep interruptions a night. I would try to reduce these sleep interruptions by having a sleep study done on my child to start the better sleep habits.”

The WSU Office of Undergraduate Research helped with funding to produce the research and allowed Hicks-Collins to work with different schools in the area.

Hicks-Collins said he knows the study could be performed with a larger sample size and more funding to create more concrete findings.

“By knowing that our children are spending little to no time in REM sleep, we can look into ways to improve their time in REM,” Hicks-Collins said. “When we understand what is helping or hindering the disease of autism, we can arm ourselves with information to give children with autism the best chance at living a healthier and less symptomatic life.”

Hicks-Collins plans to attend graduate school to get a degree as a behavioral therapist.

“I don’t specifically plan on building on this research in graduate school, but I want to work with autistic children to reduce symptoms in the future,” Hicks-Collins said. “I want to help autistic children live better lives through symptom management and better control of daily activities.”