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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Put Sleep Difficulties to Bed: Advice for Parents of Children with Autism

What to Do

One of the most important steps parents can take is to keep a sleep diary, keeping track of time of sleep and number of nighttime awakenings. A sleep diary allows families to become aware of patterns and environmental situations that may be inadvertently contributing to sleep problems and to monitor progress. It also is invaluable when working with experts such as sleep specialists.

Routines that encourage sleep are important. For children with autism, it can be helpful to create a visual schedule to inform and reassure them of the expected steps in a bedtime routine.

Families should consider the activities that precede bedtime and their effect on calming or stimulating children. Children with autism learn best in small bites with plentiful opportunities to feel successful. When establishing a routine to improve sleep, remember that new learning takes time and reinforce small steps in a positive way.

There are no medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of pediatric sleep disorders, but there are some medications that have been used in controlled studies and have been found effective. Families should consult their physician for advice and guidance related to these treatments.

When to Seek a Specialist’s Care

Families should consider a behavior specialist when there are challenges in establishing a bedtime routine or when changes to promote a routine provoke challenging behaviors.

Consider a sleep specialist when improving sleep hygiene (creating a bedtime routine and providing a calming environment) does not lead to better sleeping or when there are suggestions of medical or neurologic problems associated with sleep.

Whatever strategy is used to help a child with autism sleep better at night, it’s important to remain consistent in the approach. Finally, remember there are thousands of other parents going through similar experiences every day. Seek help and support organizations and talk to other parents whenever possible.

WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

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