Problem behavior in autism spectrum disorder: Considering core symptom severity and accompanying sleep disturbance

Ebony Lindor, Carmel Sivaratnam, Tamara May, Nicole Stefanac, Katherine Howells, Nicole Rinehart

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2 Citations (Scopus)


In addition to the core symptoms that define autism spectrum disorder (ASD), many individuals experience broader problem behavior at a level significant enough for families to seek further clinical assessment and intervention. We define “problem behavior” as any significant emotional or behavioral issue captured by the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) including anxiety, depression, withdrawal, somatic complaints, problems with socialization, thought or attention, rule-breaking, and aggression. While greater ASD symptom severity and accompanying sleep disturbance have each been linked with more severe problem behavior, there is little understanding about how these two key factors interact; that is, it is unclear whether the severity and type of sleep disturbance an individual experiences differentially influences the relationship between ASD symptom severity and problem behavior. The aim of the current study was, thus, to explore whether the link between greater ASD symptom severity and clinically elevated problem behavior is moderated by the presence/degree of accompanying sleep disturbance. Forty males with ASD, aged 5-12, participated in the study. The Social Responsiveness Scale, CBCL, and Children's Sleep Habits Questionnaire were administered to obtain information about ASD symptom severity, problem behavior, and sleep habits, respectively. Results indicated that the relationship between ASD symptom severity and problem behavior differed among individuals with ASD depending on the degree of sleep disturbance they experienced. Specifically, there was a significant positive relationship between ASD symptom severity and problem behavior for individuals with no sleep disturbance or milder sleep disturbance (i.e., in these cases, individuals with severe ASD symptoms experienced clinically elevated problem behavior, while those with milder ASD symptoms experienced milder problem behavior). In contrast, there was no significant relationship between ASD symptom severity and problem behavior for individuals with moderate-to-severe sleep disturbance; rather, clinically significant problem behavior was apparent across all individuals irrespective of ASD symptom severity. Follow-up analyses indicated that disturbances in sleep duration, disordered breathing, and daytime sleepiness were related to clinically elevated problem behavior even among those with milder ASD symptoms. These findings emphasize the importance of routinely assessing for accompanying sleep disturbance in this population regardless of whether individuals present with mild, moderate, or severe ASD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number487
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Issue numberJULY
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jul 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Accompanying disturbance
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Problem behavior
  • Sleep
  • Symptom severity

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