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Bedtime can be a nightmare for families with children on the autistic spectrum.  Gina Davies shares some practical ways to get better sleep for all of the family.

We all know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, but for families with autistic children, sleep deprivation can be a real problem, and not just for the child. The problem is compounded if night after night the child and family lose sleep and become ever more tired.

The bedroom

Switching off is a challenge for children on the autistic spectrum, which is why getting the bedroom environment better organized and prepared can help. The bedroom needs to be a safe, restful and peaceful place, ideally darkened by using blackout curtains or something similar. Sound can be an unwanted distraction, so opt for thick carpets which can absorb it instead of thin ones or wood flooring. Choose calm colours for bedding instead of busy patterns.

Unplug devices

A wide-awake child may like to watch the TV, use their computer, or play with a toy instead of nodding off. But winding down to bed and sleep should not involve TV, computer or screen-based activities as these activities keep the brain awake and stimulated.

This is challenging as children on the spectrum may prefer screens to any other activity and resist things being switched off or withdrawn. 

It’s important to ensure that children are naturally physically tired. This can be achieved with an energetic walk, run around, or swim, which can work wonders in the afternoon or early evening.

Make a plan

Planning bedtime can also assist with better sleeping patterns.  This involves having a clear routine for parents, their children, and where necessary other family members or carers.

This is how a plan might look:

  1. Have a wind down hour just before it’s time to go to bed: no television or screen based activity, low light levels, and deep pressure massage for children who find this calming.
  2. Select the bedtime routine – what’s involved and how it will work - and stick to it. Present the routine to the child as a series of pictures so he or she can see what is expected.
  3. Choose your desired intervention strategy, for example, repeated placing in bed, or gradual withdrawal.
  4. Have a strategy for when things go wrong, for example, how to ignore, how to stay on script, and how to stay calm and focused.
  5. Remember to offer praise and approval

Parents need energy and persistence in presenting calming influences such as a bath or reading stories – activities that children enjoy but are in keeping with the selected plan and routine. A child will also come to learn that the bedtime routine represents their last drink and snack of the day.

Designing a plan is relatively straightforward, but sticking to it can be challenging, especially when parents are tired themselves. The whole family must buy into the plan and routine to avoid misinterpretation between parents or other carers, such as grandparents.

Typically this approach can take around three weeks for the pattern to be successfully introduced. It’s then a case of sticking with it until it becomes the habit. It can take longer, however, and can depend on the age of the child, especially if an older child has been used to things being different for a long period.

Gina Davies is a speech and language therapist and specialist in intervention strategies for parents dealing with autism.

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