OGDEN, Utah – When Trevor Hicks-Collins’ 7-year-old son had a good night’s rest, the symptoms of his autism lessened. That observation spurred the Weber State University student to study the sleep cycles of children with autism and to confirm a correlation between restful sleep and behavior.
He will share his research with lawmakers as he presents at the annual national Posters on the Hill event held on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., April 23-24. The Council on Undergraduate Research received 815 submissions nationwide, and selected 60 to present. This is the eighth time in nine years a WSU student has presented at the prestigious gathering.
Hicks-Collins underwent a rigorous process to obtain permission to study 13 Northern Utah children. For one week, the children wore actigraph monitors on their wrists that measured sleep quality, quantity and rapid eye movement (REM) cycles. Parents and teachers then completed daily behavior logs. The research found that children slept nearly one hour less per night than parents thought, and the less time children spent in REM sleep, the more pronounced their autistic symptoms became.
“With the diagnosis of autism on the rise, we need to put more effort into understanding this disease,” Hicks-Collins said. “Undergraduate research is the gateway to find a starting point for areas of study worth pursuing. Funding undergraduate research not only helps the student and university, but also individuals whose lives are affected and the community as a whole.”
Hicks-Collins graduated in 2012 and plans to attend graduate school to work as a behavioral therapist. He is interested in what influences behavior and how to help individuals make adjustments to enhance well-being.
WSU psychology and neuroscience professor Lauren Fowler mentored him during the process.
“Trevor conceptualized this research and then worked with me for two years to develop it,” Fowler said. “He read extensively to build his knowledge of circadian rhythms, sleep and their relationship to autism, and then together we planned this study.”
The Office of Undergraduate Research helped Hicks-Collins obtain funding through the Kem and Caroline Gardiner Foundation. The monitors he used were on loan from the U.S. Air Force.
He knows with more time, money and a larger sample of children, there is much more to learn on the topic.
“By knowing that our children are spending little to no time in REM sleep, we can look into ways to improve their time in REM,” he said. “When we understand what is helping or hindering the disease of autism, we can arm ourselves with information to give children with autism the best chance at living a healthier and less symptomatic life.”
Hicks-Collins is the latest WSU student to represent the state of Utah at Posters on the Hill. He joins Paula Fiet (2012), Amy Friend (2011), Christian Petersen (2010), Lindsay Cole (2008), Kristena Kons (2007), Kalista Francom (2006) and Eric Gabrielsen (2005).
The annual undergraduate research Posters on the Hill event is sponsored by the national Council on Undergraduate Research. The event provides a way to thank lawmakers for their support of federally funded scientific research and to demonstrate the results of that research at colleges and universities across the country. For more about the national Council on Undergraduate Research, visit cur.org.