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Stress in autism (STREAM): A study protocol on the role of circadian activity, sleep quality and sensory reactivity.

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Falter-Wagner, Christine M  ORCID logo
Noreika, Valdas 
Jachs, Barbara 
Jassim, Nazia 


Mental health issues are markedly increased in individuals with autism, making it the number one research priority by stakeholders. There is a crucial need to use personalized approaches to understand the underpinnings of mental illness in autism and consequently, to address individual needs. Based on the risk factors identified in typical mental research, we propose the following themes central to mental health issues in autism: sleep difficulties and stress. Indeed, the prevalence of manifold circadian disruptions and sleep difficulties in autism, alongside stress related to sensory overload, forms an integral part of autistic symptomatology. This proof-of-concept study protocol outlines an innovative, individualised approach towards investigating the interrelationships between stress indices, sleep and circadian activation patterns, and sensory sensitivity in autism. Embracing an individualized methodology, we aim to collect 14 days of data per participant from 20 individuals with autism diagnoses and 20 without. Participants' sleep will be monitored using wearable EEG headbands and a sleep diary. Diurnal tracking of heart rate and electrodermal activity through wearables will serve as proxies of stress. Those objective data will be synchronized with subjective experience traces collected throughout the day using the Temporal Experience Tracing (TET) method. TET facilitates the quantification of relevant aspects of individual experience states, such as stress or sensory sensitivities, by providing a continuous multidimensional description of subjective experiences. Capturing the dynamics of subjective experiences phase-locked to neural and physiological proxies both between and within individuals, this approach has the potential to contribute to our understanding of critical issues in autism, including sleep problems, sensory reactivity and stress. The planned strives to provide a pathway towards developing a more nuanced and individualized approach to addressing mental health in autism.


Acknowledgements: We express our gratitude to the autistic and non-autistic pilot-participants whose feedback, insights and collaboration played a crucial role in refining and advancing the study protocol.

Funder: Cambridge-LMU Strategic Partnership Grant


Humans, Autistic Disorder, Circadian Rhythm, Stress, Psychological, Sleep Quality, Male, Female, Adult, Adolescent, Sleep, Heart Rate, Young Adult, Electroencephalography

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PLoS One

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Public Library of Science (PLoS)