Children With Autism Experience More Severe Sleep Apnea

Heidi Splete, MDedge News

June 22, 2022

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) were significantly more common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), compared with controls, based on data from 166 individuals up to age 18 years.

Autism spectrum disorder affects approximately 1 in 54 children in the United States, and recent studies have shown an increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea in this population, compared with the general pediatric population, wrote Pooja Santapuram, MD, of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., and colleagues.

In a study published in the International Journal of Pediatric Ototrhinolaryngology , the researchers reviewed data from 166 children and adolescents up to 18 years of age with OSA who underwent adenotonsillectomy at a single center between 2019 and 2021. The primary objective was to assess OSA symptoms in children with and without ASD. The study population included 75 children with ASD and 91 controls. The average age of both the ASD group and control group was approximately 73 months.


Obstructive sleep apnea is common in autism spectrum disorder. Children with OSA can present with a range of symptoms, including loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, and changes in cognitive function. Some of these symptoms can overlap with and exacerbate symptoms of ASD, potentially delaying OSA diagnosis in children with both conditions. The primary objective of this study was to assess between-group difference in OSA symptomatology and age at OSA diagnosis in children with and without ASD. To do so, a retrospective chart review was conducted on the 166 pediatric patients.

Overall, significantly more OSA symptoms were reported in children with ASD, compared with controls (P < .001).

Lower autism severity was associated with an increased number of reported OSA symptoms (P = .006). There was not a significant between-group difference in age at OSA diagnosis (P = .999); however, lower autism severity was also associated with an increased age at diagnosis (P = .002). These findings suggest that OSA may present with a higher symptom burden in children with ASD, and children with lower ASD severity often experience delays in OSA diagnosis.

Interestingly, despite the known associations between obesity and OSA, children with an increased body mass index were not diagnosed with OSA at an earlier age in this sample population, the researchers indicated.

Because the current study revealed that children with less severe ASD are more likely to report an increased number of OSA symptoms and be diagnosed at a later age than children without ASD, clinicians should have a heightened sense for OSA evaluation in children with ASD, particularly in children with a lower severity of ASD and an increased BMI, the researchers concluded.

The research study was not externally funded, and the researchers reported that they had no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on Chest Physician.


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