Do you find yourself yawning as you read this? We all know that a successful, productive day is near impossible if we do not get a good night’s sleep.
In the 10 years I have spent as a Behavior Analyst at Academy360, sleep difficulties have been one of the most common concerns brought up by parents. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that preschool age children get 11-13 hours of sleep each night, school age children get 10-11 hours and adolescents and young adults get about 8 to 9 hours each night.
For individuals on the autism spectrum AND their families, getting the recommended amount of sleep each night can seem like an impossible task. Difficulties include: inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, daytime sleepiness and a hard time remaining in the bedroom during nighttime wakefulness. According to the Autism Research Institute, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families experience more sleep problems than most, with estimates of significant sleep disturbance reported in 40%—80% of the population. There can be many reasons contributing to a poor night’s sleep, ranging from neurological and medical reasons to behavioral deficits.
The good news? There are strategies that can help! Let’s start with three simple modifications, better known as sleep hygiene.
- Engineer Your Environment: A simple, first step to promoting a good night’s sleep is to work on the sleep environment. Research suggests that individuals are more likely to sleep soundly if their sleep environment is very dark and quiet. I recommend removing all screens, electronics and light sources at bedtime. Also consider the use of a white noise or sleep sound machine.
- Stick to a Schedule: A consistent bedtime routine is very important. Individuals who go to sleep and wake around the same time each day tend to sleep more soundly. I know that this can be particularly difficult on the weekend, but sticking to a similar bedtime and wakeup time can really help. Also, create a routine for your child in which they engage in a calming, preferred activity for 20-30 minutes shortly before they go to bed. Some good options are: reading, listening to an audio book or quiet music or watching a short video. Avoid any over-stimulating electronics or games in the hours before bedtime.
- Reinforce Good Nighttime Behavior: For those who still struggle to stay asleep throughout the whole night, develop a reinforcement system for staying in their beds or bedrooms for the entire night.
- Provide your child with a plan for their sleepless nights. That is, what can they do in their bedroom while they are awake during the night. Perhaps a book or iPod with calming music can be available.
- For children who frequently “visit” their parents during sleep hours, use a behavioral procedure in which the child is given 1-2 passes to visit the parents overnight. Over time, the passes can be decreased.
- Consider a highly motivating item that can be provided to your child for every night that he or she stays in their bedroom. A special trip or outing on the weekend can be a very powerful motivator for displaying good nighttime behavior for the whole week!
Even with the best sleep hygiene, some individuals will still experience sleep difficulties. In this situation, you may consider natural remedies such as melatonin to support sleep. Melatonin is a hormone made by the pineal gland, a small gland in the brain. It helps control your sleep and wake cycles. Very small amounts of it are found in foods such as meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables. You can also buy it as a supplement.
Our consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Faber, has recommended that individuals experiencing difficulty sleeping due to Delayed Sleep Phase take 1 mg of melatonin at dinnertime. Melatonin is a hormone that is secreted by the pineal gland. The pineal gland is a small gland that lies within the brain helps in maintaining the normal sleep-wake cycles. It naturally occurs in some foods, but can also be taken in pill form. Taking melatonin in this manner can shift an individual’s sleep wake cycle to fall asleep earlier and wake earlier.
Take a look at Dr. Faber’s video below for a further explanation of this issue. This video, as well as others, are available on the YouTube Channel: Dr. Faber’s Straight Talk: Psychiatric Therapy and Meds.
I hope these suggestions help. Leave a comment if you have had success using them, or if you have found other successful strategies for ensuring a good night’s sleep for your family.
Megan Maguire, M.Ed., BCBA is a behavior analyst at Academy360 Upper School. She works primarily with adolescent and adult students with ASD. Megan graduated from Marist College with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology from Rutgers University. Megan is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and a certified school counselor. She has over twelve years of experience working with individuals with ASD and related disabilities. She has presented at Autism NJ, ASAH, and NJECC, as well as to the parents and staff at Academy360 on topics such as: Video Modeling, Best Practices in Applied Behavior Analysis and Hygiene Skills for Adolescents & Adults. In her free time, Megan enjoys relaxing at the beach and running with her dog.