Autism Series – Sleep

by beagooddad on August 20, 2007

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I really think that sleep is one area that autistic kids can really learn to excel in if you follow a couple simple rules. Pookie loves things that have definite beginnings and endings. Bed time routines definitely fit this pattern.

When they were younger, we were very careful to explain steps at the micro level. The bathroom part of the routine was broken down into getting undressed, putting clothes in the hamper, taking a bath, brushing teeth, and brushing hair. The bedroom portion had getting dressed, picking out a story, reading the story, saying good night to everybody, and going to sleep.

And each of those steps was broken into even smaller steps.

Several of these micro steps had charts that listed each step in order. We have a laminated sign in the bath tub that shows each body part so he knows what to wash next. There is another sign next to the dresser that shows each item of clothes to put on and then to go pick out a story.

He is very good at “reading” each step and performing the action and then moving to the next step. It all fits his desire for beginnings and endings.

For several of those little steps, we don’t bother prompting nearly as much any more because he has them mastered. When he gets stuck, we can say something like, “What’s next” or “check the chart” and he will find the next step and continue.

Here are a few other tips that I thing are true for any young kid that are also important for autistic kids.

  • Keep toys out of the room. Stuffed animals that they cuddle are fine. Things that beep or spin are not.
  • Go to bed before they are too tired to go to bed. Little kids need a ton of sleep. Up until recently, our kids slept 12 to 13 hours every night. I really think kids are part cat. I would get bed sores if I slept that much. When kids get tired, it is actually more difficult for them to fall asleep. Our kids still get 10-12 hours every night at 4 1/2 years old.
  • Put them to bed and get out of the room. Kids can come up with 100,000 reasons for you to stay in the room a few minutes longer. I can think of two good reasons for you not too.
    • They need to learn to put themselves to sleep. If you are still in the room when they fall asleep, you have become their sleep crutch.
    • You have a life. You may not believe that now but if you regularly get out of the room after stories and hugs, you will have time to do a few things that don’t involve your kids.
  • Occasionally throw out all the rules for a night. Don’t get stuck in such a rut that the kids cannot survive outside of it. Order pizza and stay up late watching movies. Spend the night at a relative’s house. Sign up for the once a week swim class that starts after their normal bed time. Our kids LOVE staying up late as long as that are not overly tired from what happened the rest of the day. Variety is the spice of life. Just make sure that occasionally really is occasionally.

A quick note on how to deal with the rebellious sleeper. It hasn’t happened often, but each kid has gone through their phases. Geetle went through a horrible phase when she was probably 1 1/2’ish. She would actually bang her head on her crib hoping that we wouldn’t leave the room. She would wait until she knew we were looking and then BAM. It worked for about half a night. Then we wrapped the crib rail in a blanket for about a week and let her have at it. We cried a couple times but she came out of the phase slightly bruised and a much better sleeper.

If you have spent the quality bedtime time with your kid, then don’t feel guilty getting out of the room. They may yell and scream and cry and say they need water or that they hate you but none of it is true. If the kid gets out of bed, put them back in and say something like, “it is time for sleeping,” in a very quiet, boring voice. Then get back out of the room. You shouldn’t be in the room for more than 1 minute. Be prepared to spend a couple nights where you walk into the room more times than you are willing to do. Just keep calmly placing them back into bed without actually giving them attention and leave.

It will probably only last a night or two and then you can get back to your normal life.

I swear that I have never met two kids that sleep better and more consistently than Pookie and Geetle. They started sleeping 12 hours a night at 10 weeks and have only had brief phases were that didn’t work out.

I credit most of that to our consistency. Your consistency will probably be different than ours. Your jobs and life and situations are different but if you can’t explain your sleep routine to someone because you don’t really have any guidelines that you follow, I’d be surprised if your kids sleep well on a regular basis.

Next in this series, we are going to talk about teaching life skills to an autistic child. For a full list of everything planned for this series on autism, the topics and links for the post already written can be found on the intro post.

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