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Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) need as much sleep as other children. But they can sometimes have trouble with healthy sleep habits. Here are some ideas to help your child with ASD settle and sleep better.

Preschooler girl sleeping

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Good sleep habits are sometimes called good ‘sleep hygiene’.

 

About sleep habits and routines

Habits and routines that promote sleep help all children – with or without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – feel sleepy and ready for bed at the right time. That is, a time that’s appropriate for their age and sleep needs.

Before focusing on ASD-related sleep issues, it’s important to:

  • understand your child’s sleep patterns and how much sleep your child needs
  • focus on some basic tips for promoting healthy sleep habits.

And then you can improve the sleep of your child with ASD by working on:

  • regular sleep cycles
  • positive bedtime routines
  • appropriate bedtimes.

Regular sleep cycles for children with autism spectrum disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it more difficult than other children to get into and keep a regular pattern of sleeping and waking (a ‘sleep cycle’). This is partly because regular sleep cycles are influenced by daily routines.

Children with ASD sometimes have trouble understanding and following routines. They might be attached to their own unusual routines and rituals, even becoming inflexible about usual family routines. They might also be unable to pick up cues that it’s nearly bedtime because of their communication difficulties.

You might be able to improve the sleep cycle of your child with ASD by working on your child’s understanding of routines overall.

Positive bedtime routines for children with autism spectrum disorder

Here are some ideas that might help you establish a positive bedtime routine for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD):

  • It might help to use a chart with pictures showing the bedtime routine, so your child understands the steps.
  • Praise your child for successfully completing steps in the routine. Put stickers on the chart to show when your child completes a step correctly.
  • As your child gets better at following the bedtime routine, you can phase out praise for specific behaviour in the routine.
  • Sometimes children with ASD can get fixed on a routine or an object they associate with bedtime. If this is your situation, try to vary routines from night to night – for example, use different coloured toothbrushes on different nights. Or you could gradually introduce other objects, such as soft toys or different pairs of pyjamas.

Appropriate bedtimes for children with autism spectrum disorder

An appropriate and regular bedtime is an important part of children’s sleep cycle and bedtime routine. Although sticking to an appropriate bedtime can sometimes be hard for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are things you can do to help:

  • The first step is to work out the best time for your child to go to bed. You can do this by observing when your child is usually alert or sleepy, and how much sleep your child needs to be well and alert during the day. For example, you might notice your child generally needs 11 hours sleep. You also know you won’t make it to school on time unless your child is up at 7 am. So you can work out that 8 pm is the ideal bedtime. This also means that evening activities – dinner time, pre-bedtime and bedtime routines – need to take this into account.
  • Give your child clear cues when it’s nearly bedtime. For example, half an hour before bedtime, start some quiet activities in the family room. Fifteen minutes before, clean your child’s teeth and go to the toilet. And then into bed.
  • Sometimes children aren’t sleepy at bedtime. After you’ve set an appropriate bedtime for your child, start moving your child’s sleepy time towards the set bedtime. To do this, start giving your child bedtime cues 5-10 minutes earlier every couple of days. It might take a few weeks, but your child should start to feel sleepy earlier and you should be able gradually to match your ideal bedtime with your child’s sleepy time.
If there’s little or no improvement in your child’s sleeping habits after a few weeks of trying these suggestions, you might need to try something else. There are more strategies in our article on dealing with sleep difficulties in children with ASD.
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  • Last Updated 20-11-2013
  • Last Reviewed 20-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was developed in collaboration with Amanda Richdale, Associate Professor and Research Fellow, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

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    Mindell, J.A., & Owens, J.A. (2003). A clinical guide to pediatric sleep: Diagnosis and management of sleep problems. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

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