Treating Sleep Complications in Children with ASD

By: Shawn Bohanan

Children with Autism are likely to experience complicated behavioral issues ranging from delayed speech, toileting difficulties, and severe problem behaviors. Sleep problems are also a common difficulty facing both the children with ASD and their families. These problems include falling asleep or staying asleep, problem behaviors that occur when child is told to go to bed, and early waking. If you are a parent of a child with ASD, these issues may be all too familiar. Sleep problems not only negatively affect the child with ASD, but the entire family. The child may become tired throughout the day, fussy and irritable, anxious in later life, and become higher risk for obesity.

Many families in this situation may think that sleep problems are typical and that it is a phase that the child will “grow out of”. However, research has demonstrated that most children between 3-6 months old are able to sleep through the night without routine parental care.  Sleep problems are estimated to affect 67%-73% of children with ASD, so children with ASD are more likely to have sleep problems than their typically developing peers. Parents are likely to seek medical assistance in treating sleep problems, and pediatricians often advise parents that the sleep problems are a phase that the child will outgrow. Or, in more extreme cases, prescribe a pharmacological treatment.

A community of behavior analysts have conducted research to validate effective sleep interventions for children with ASD. A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (our field’s flagship publication) may serve as a guideline for treating clients who present issues with sleeping. Unlike many medical professionals, behavior analysts are equipped with the necessary tools to develop appropriate sleep interventions for children with ASD. Since sleep is such an important component of a healthy life, trained behavior analysts are obligated to ensure that families affected by sleep problems are afforded appropriate sleep interventions.  If your child experiences sleep problem, it is important that you speak with your Behavior Analyst to discuss treatment options.

References: Jin, C.S., Hanley, G.P., & Beaulieu, L. (2013).  An individualized and comprehensive approach to treating sleep problems in young children.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 46, 161-180.