Many times, we have heard parents of children with autism talk about how their child will not sleep through the night, or has trouble falling asleep. While the lack of sleep often does not impact the child with autism, the other members of the family are often sleep deprived and stressed out. We all can understand the value of a good night’s sleep. The first step in handling sleep related issues is to realize that, as a parent, you cannot make your child sleep. Your focus must shift from having your child sleep to having your child safely remain in their bedroom and not disrupting the rest of the household. In order to do this you must:
1. Establish a consistent bedtime routine- This will teach your child the sequence of events that lead up to bedtime as well as what will happen once they go to bed.
2. Set up their room for safety- This may include window alarms or door alarms. If your child has the potential for climbing (on dressers, shelves, etc.), the availability of climbing must be removed.
3. Provide safe and acceptable activities- Since the goal is to have your child remain in their room and not come out repeatedly, they need to have activities to do that are reinforcing, novel, and will keep them busy, thereby reducing the need to come out and explore the rest of the house.
4. Remain Neutral- If your child comes out of their room, you must remain neutral in tone and action while immediately bringing them back to their room. Do not make this “bringing back” action reinforcing with prolonged kisses and ‘I love you,’ which can send a mixed message and increased attention. You should simply redirect back into their room, say ‘Goodnight’, and close the door.
5. REINFORCE! – If your child stays in their room for the night, you need to provide a lot of positive reinforcement, as this will motivate the child to repeat the action in the future.
If the issue is focused more on your child sleeping in your bed with you and you have decided it is time for them to sleep in their own bed, you can gradually change this behavior as well. Start off with a sleeping bag, air mattress or cot right next to your bed. Your child can sleep in that bed for a period of a few nights. After those few nights, gradually move their mini bed away from yours towards the doorway, then outside your room, then in the hallway, into their room, and then into their big bed. Again, for each successful night, they need to be REINFORCED.
A few final thoughts…as a parent, you have to be emotionally and physically ready to take on a problem behavior such as sleep. You also have to be ready to make the commitment to be consistent with your response each time the behavior occurs. It may seem like an overwhelming challenge at first, but it can be done.