Sleep problems are very common in children with autism. With my own son, Lucas, I struggled with getting him to sleep in his own bed through the night for ten years. Using ABA techniques though, I was finally able to establish step by step procedures that resulted in him sleeping through the night consistently in his own bed.
When I was writing my book in 2006, Lucas was nine years old and I remember my husband saying “whatever you do don’t put anything about sleep in your book because you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to sleep.”
By this point I have been a BCBA for three years and had already worked with hundreds of children through a state wide Grant in Pennsylvania. But my husband was right I was a very bad at shaping up good sleep habits with my son Lucas.
Every night, despite giving Lucas melatonin and him starting out in his own bed, he would wake up. He sometimes would be up for hours, but often times he would run in our room and climb into our king size bed and fall back to sleep. Sometimes I would end up in his bed and sometimes he would end up in our bed. But for the first 10 years of Lucas’s life, our sleep was disrupted every single night.
I took my husband’s advice and didn’t put any sleep information in my book. It wasn’t until a few years later when I went to give a full day presentation in Ohio that I met a BCBA who specialized in sleep. She helped me with a few key pieces of information regarding sleep.
I can’t get into too much information in the short video blog, but I can tell you a few things that she recommended that helped a lot.
One of the first pieces of advice what’s for me to lock our bedroom door at night. This prevented Lucas from just barging in and jumping in our bed. I explained to Lucas that the door would be locked and he would need to knock. I also explained that he would get a special reinforcement for sleeping in his own bed and for waking up alone in his bed in the morning.
For Lucas this reinforcement was a special kind of cookie that he wasn’t going to get for anything else. You might be thinking “my child won’t understand all that,” but I didn’t think Lucas would either at that point.
So I picked a date, locked my bedroom door and when Lucas would knock I would return him to his bed and tell him that he needed to sleep there for the special cookie in the morning. This offer of a reinforcement was key to preventing problem behavior which may have occurred.
The first night he woke up three times and each time I return him to his bed and reminded him that he needed to stay in his own bed alone for the special cookie in the morning. The second night Lucas woke up twice and the third night just one time.
The fourth night after 10 years of struggling with sleep Lucas slept in his own bed through the night.
I went on help many children with autism sleep through the night in their own beds and a lot of times it takes a little bit more time than just three nights and several more interventions and data base decisions. But sleep is just like any other behavior it can be shaped and it can be changed and it can be improved through the science of applied behavior analysis.