Sleep problems and mental ill health in autistic young people

Investigating the mechanisms underpinning sleep problems and links to mental ill health in autistic children and adolescents


In a nutshell

Autistic people often experience problems sleeping, starting in childhood. They are also more likely to have mental health problems. Mental health and sleep are known to influence each other – in both directions – in the general population, but the link between sleep and mental health problems for autistic people is poorly understood. Furthermore, we don’t really know much about what causes sleep problems in autism. The overall aims of this project are to learn more about the relationship between sleep problems and mental ill health in autistic people, and to identify what causes sleep problems for autistic people. The project will focus on childhood and the teenage years as this is when problems in both sleep and mental health are most likely to start.

About the project

Research questions

Our research questions are as follows:

1. Do sleep problems and mental ill health commonly co-occur in autistic young people?

2. Does having sleep problems in childhood lead to developing mental ill health as autistic children grow older?

3. What might be causing sleep problems for autistic people?


The project is made up of two parts. In the first part, we will be using data from a previous, large-scale study which had collected various information about participants’ biology and lifestyle across their lifetimes. This includes information about their mental health, sleep and autism diagnoses. Using computer programming and statistics, we will analyse this data to answer our research questions.

In the second part of the study, we will look at some of the interesting findings from the first part in more detail. To do this, we will collect our own data on sleep and mental health in a small group of young autistic people. We will follow these young people over a short period of time (roughly 6 months), and we will collect detailed data on their sleep (using smart wristband technology) and mental health (using online questionnaires) every week.

We will also be recruiting a team of autistic adults to work with throughout the course of the project. We will regularly meet with this team and gain their input on the project in order to ensure that the way we are doing our research aligns with the priorities of autistic people, and takes their experiences into account.


Medicines that are available to treat sleep problems (such as melatonin) do not work very effectively for autistic people due to reasons we currently do not understand. Therefore, finding out what causes sleep problems for autistic people and how it relates to their mental health could help improve how we treat both sleep problems and mental health issues in this population. In line with this, this project can help to:

1. Learn more about how much sleep problems contribute to mental ill health for autistic people

2. Find out what causes sleep problems for autistic people

3. Inform current treatment, and the development of new treatments for these issues.

Ultimately, this research could help improve sleep, mental health and quality of life for autistic people.


Wellcome Trust

Primary project contact

Reesha Zahir (PhD Researcher)