Few things in life feel as terrific as a really great night’s sleep. And while sleep can have an enormous impact in a child’s ability to learn, frequently, parents don’t think to bring sleeping issues to our attention. From getting to sleep to staying in bed, sleeping problems for children with autism can come in many forms. Fortunately, we can help.
First, though, it’s always recommended that parents start by consulting with a pediatrician to ensure that the root of the problem isn’t medical in nature. Once we have your physician’s okay, we can try a number of tactics to help with some of the more common sleep issues.
Getting out of bed/frequent waking
Safety should always be your first priority if your child frequently leaves his or her bed during the night. Take whatever steps are necessary to keep your child safe. This might mean placing your child’s mattress on the floor rather than in a bed frame to avoid potential falls. Installing motion activated cameras is another option, as is locking or blocking doors to prevent your child from leaving the house. Remember, the safety of your child is what’s most important.
Also, look around the child’s bedroom to see if there’s anything obvious that could be distracting to sleep. Is the child is waking up to do something specific, such as play with a toy? If that’s the case, remove or limit the potential distractions and entertainment options. Instead, focus on keeping the bedroom as plain as possible so that the child learns the bedroom is for sleeping only. You might also consider limiting the time your child spends playing in the bedroom during the day, so the child learns to associate the bedroom with calm and sleeping behaviors.
Problems with the transition to bed
Often, the child resists going to bed because the he or she wants to keep having fun with Mommy or Daddy. Consider letting your child know that “Fun Mommy” or “Fun Daddy” turns off when the clock says 8:00 (or whatever bedtime is desired). You can assure your child that “Fun Mommy” and “Fun Daddy” will turn back on again in the morning when the clock says 8:00 again (or whichever time you want the day to start).
Even though “Fun Mommy or “Fun Daddy” is “turned off,” the parents are still there to respond to emergencies, scary dreams, illness or other physiological needs. However, responses are kept neutral, with only the bare minimum attention given. This allows the child to know that he or she is still safe and that basic needs will be cared for as always, but that he or she will receive no additional cuddle time or attention that will distract them from sleep. Although taking away “Fun Mommy” or “Fun Daddy” may feel like you’re being mean or unloving, in actuality, setting clear boundaries helps your child understand exactly what to expect at any given time.
Be prepared that your child may not embrace this change and may even act out. During these times, it is very important to keep your reaction calm and neutral. If you respond angrily, the child may actually find that interesting; for the child, any reaction – even a bad one – may be better than having to go to bed. The child may even learn to push that button again to get the same reaction from you the next time, turning bedtime into a game that you definitely don’t want to play.
Dealing with disruptions
Dealing with sleeping issues requires 100% commitment, so it’s important to choose your timing wisely. Progress is always vulnerable, and disruptions can derail the entire plan. If your child is allowed to lapse back into old habits, the whole training process will need to start over again. If there’s a new baby on the way, or if grandma and grandpa are coming for a visit, wait for a better time to start the sleep training, especially if the baby is teething. Likewise, holidays can often throw the entire family’s sleep schedule out of whack, so keep an eye on the calendar. You may also want to choose a time when you can afford to lose some sleep, since it’s very likely that will happen at least during the short term.
However, despite the discipline required to solve sleep problems in children with autism, it’s also important to keep a flexible attitude. Life happens, and it’s almost guaranteed that at some point during your child’s training, your child will wake up with a nightmare, or get sick, or experience some other legitimate reason for the sleep training to go topsy-turvy. If and when this happens, without question, it’s okay to turn off the protocol and help the child. Just be prepared that, once the emergency is over, you will probably need to retrain your child. Therefore, be open to emergency situations but assess them with a critical eye; it’s a fine line between your child’s legitimate distress and your child simply trying to fool you into letting him or her get around the rules. Ultimately, you need to make the decision that feels right for you and your child.
When the disruption is over, be prepared to go back to the same training you started with. Talk to your child, recognize that a break took place, and explain to your child the expectations around bedtime – starting tonight. The good news is that, depending on how long the break was and how well your child was doing before the break, retraining may only take half the time of the original training!