How to Resolve Autism Sleep Issues in Children

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 a step-by-step procedure that resulted in him sleeping through the night consistently in his own bed. This week, I’m talking all about autism sleep issues, and what you can do to stop playing musical beds and get more sleep!

Assessment on Tablet with Everett Pointing

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Autism Sleep Issues

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 autism and sleep.”

By this point, I had been a BCBA for three years and had already worked with hundreds of children through a statewide grant in Pennsylvania. But my husband was right; I was very bad at shaping up good sleep habits with my son Lucas.

Every night, despite giving Lucas melatonin and letting him fall asleep in his own bed, he would wake up. He sometimes would be up for hours. And oftentimes he would run into our room and climb into our 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 information about sleep 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 and bedtime routines.

Advice for Autism Sleep Issues

One of the first pieces of advice was 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 staying asleep 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 reinforcement was key to preventing problem behavior that may have occurred.

The first night he woke up three times. And each time I returned 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.

Getting a Child with Autism to Sleep

I went on to 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. It may take several more interventions and database decisions. But sleep is just like any other behavior. It can be shaped and changed and it can be improved through the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. If you enjoyed this video blog on autism sleep issues, make sure to share it with those who would benefit. And to learn more about resolving sleep issues in children with autism, make sure to claim a copy of my free eBook “Stop Playing Musical Beds”.

I’ll see you right here next week!

Assessment on Tablet with Everett Pointing