Melatonin and Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Marlena N. Smith

In a recent study, Wright et al. found melatonin to significantly improve sleep in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Children with ASD often experience sleep problems. Several causes for sleep problems in children with ASD have been speculated, including insufficient levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of melatonin in improving sleep in children with ASD as compared to placebo.

Seventeen participants with ASD, ages 4-16 years, completed the study. All participants experienced severe sleep problems and showed no response to behavioral intervention. The participants were randomly selected to receive melatonin or placebo for the duration of three months. Later, those who previously received melatonin were subsequently given placebo, and vice versa, for an additional three months. The treatment’s effectiveness was evaluated via sleep diaries, where in parents recorded the participants’ sleep patterns on a daily basis.

The study found that, compared to placebo, melatonin:

• Decreased sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep after bedtime)
• Increased total sleep time
• Showed no effect on the number of awakenings during the night

The results suggest that melatonin is effective in improving sleep in children with ASD. These findings are relevant to both the wellbeing of children with ASD and their parents; oftentimes when a child loses sleep, the parents do as well. Further research evaluating the use of melatonin in treating sleep problems in children with ASD is warranted.


Wright, B., Sims, D., Smart, S., Alwazeer, A., Alderson-Day, B., Allgar, V.,… Miles, J. (2010). Melatonin versus placebo in children with autism spectrum conditions and severe sleep problems not amenable to behaviour management strategies: A randomised controlled crossover trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:1007/s10803-010-1036-5

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