Bedtime routines can be one of the most stressful times of day, especially for an autistic child. It can be filled with tears, screams, sleepless nights, and restless mornings. However, with a few extra steps and setting some consistent habits, you and your child with autism could have a more peaceful bedtime routine, which will allow for more positive moments together.
Preparing for bedtime
The most important time to address bedtime issues or problems is oddly before bedtime. By preparing for the bedtime routine ahead of time, you are setting your child with autism up for success and avoiding any potential problems before they arise. Autistic children also thrive and respond well to schedules, consistency, and knowing what’s to come. You can provide your child with these comforts by creating a bedtime routine that is the same every evening and begins well before bedtime.
About an hour before your child’s bedtime, it’s a good idea to remove any electronics or TV. This is helpful for two reasons: First research has shown that electronics, such as iPads or video games, can disturb regular sleep patterns and make it difficult to fall asleep. Second, children often have a difficult time transitioning from electronics to something less preferred, like getting ready for bed. By removing these as options about an hour before bedtime, you’re already setting your child up for a successful bedtime. Make sure you have other activities or tasks for them to do during this time, especially if they’re used to watching TV or playing with their iPad right up until bedtime. This is also a great time to start giving verbal and visual reminders that bedtime is coming.
Preparing for bedtime is another great time to use your Goally. You can create a bedtime schedule that includes brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, going to the bathroom, getting a glass of water for the side of the bed, and reading a bedtime story. Goally will create a visual schedule to allow your child to track their behavior, reward them with points, and set a time limit for each task, all so you don’t have to! Not only will this will keep your child motivated to complete a difficult routine while giving them more independence, it will also reduce the stress of bedtime for you and your family. If you don’t have a Goally yet, a visual schedule of their bedtime routine will work great. Have pictures of each task your child needs to complete and set a timer for that task. If your child completes the task within the time limit, they can earn points towards a reinforcer once they’re in bed! Be mindful that your child may need help completing some tasks, such as brushing their teeth, and that’s ok! As time goes on, you can fade out prompts using the Prompt Hierarchy to help them become more independent.
Once your child is in bed, now is a great time to reward them with any reinforcements they may have earned from completing their bedtime routine in the set amount of time without any inappropriate behaviors. These may include extra books to read at bedtime, a special cozy drink in bed (perhaps a small amount of hot cocoa), singing their favorite song, or extra snuggles in bed. You and your child can come up with some ideas of what special items or activities they’d like to earn if they complete their bedtime routine without any issues!
Now is a great time to prepare your child’s bedroom with any environmental changes they need to help them fall asleep. Set up the night light that your child prefers, grab that water bottle to keep by their bed, or put the sound machine outside the door that helps block out any distracting noises. By preparing their room for a peaceful sleep ahead of time, you’re lowering the chances that your child will leave their bed to ask for these items.
Difficulties that May Arise During Bedtime
As stated before, bedtime can be one of the most challenging times of day for a child with learning differences or attention issues. The most common challenge is that your child with autism won’t stay in their bed for the entirety of the night. Your child may leave their bed as soon as you put them down or they may wake up in the middle of the night to find you in your room. Either way, it is important to calmly walk them back to bed each time. Make sure to use a neutral tone of voice and remind them that it’s time to sleep. Avoid extra cuddles or more bedtime stories as this could give them extra attention, thus reinforcing inappropriate behavior. You may have to do this over and over for a few nights, especially when you’re first starting this new routine. But it is important to be consistent and calm and walk them back to bed each and every time. By doing this, you’re showing your child that you’re in control and that you are the parent. Over time, your consistency will allow your child to know exactly what to expect from you and provide a safe and comforting environment for them to fall asleep. It’s easy to try this new routine two or three nights and give up because it doesn’t work right away. But don’t fret, it takes time! Any new habit takes time, practice, and patience. You are implementing something new for you and your child, so there will most likely be a bit of an adjustment period.
Of course, if your child continues to struggle during bedtime, it is important to contact your doctor and rule out any medical issues. Additionally, your doctor, BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) or other professional can you help you tweak and alter your child’s bedtime routine to better fit their specific needs.
Bedtime routines should be quiet and relaxing and a time to get quality moments with your child with autism, whether it be reading books together or snuggling in their bed. By implementing a consistent routine each evening and following through with expectations, you can get closer to creating this type of environment for your and your child. A better night’s sleep for your child means a better night’s sleep for you and a more enjoyable morning for everyone!
Mallory Giacopuzzi is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who has over 10 years of experience serving children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities and their families in a classroom, clinic, and home setting. She is the Program Administrator for an Adult Day Program for adults with autism and other disabilities and a Case Manager for in-home ABA services.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.