Strategies for Sleep Issues for Children with Disabilities

Jack Hans

Jack Hans

Intervention Specialist

Brooklyn City School District

A good night’s rest is important for all of us, but it is even more critical during the early developmental years. While adults are recommended 8 hours, children should be getting 10 or 11 hours of sleep each night in order to be well rested and ready to learn in school the next day. However, children with developmental disabilities such as autism are reported to have issues sleeping at an alarming rate (some studies report even as high as 80%.) The sleep issues range from trouble falling asleep to frequently waking up in the middle of the night to difficulty waking up in the morning. While the cause is unknown, the response to this phenomenon has prompted researchers to find solutions that work. Here are some simple, evidence-based strategies to help your child get a good night’s rest.

1. Create a dependable, consistent bedtime routine and pair it with a symbol-supported schedule.

Children with developmental disabilities strive on consistent routines in the school and community settings. The same strategy used in those environments can be transferred to their nightly routine. A visual schedule using symbols will increase your child’s independence before bedtime and it will also calm their mind and body and prepare themselves for a deep, full sleep.

2. Move energizing activities to earlier in the day.

Jumping, roughhousing, tickling and screen time are some favorite activities among children with developmental disabilities. While these are great activities that provide sensory input and exercise, they also make it difficult to get to sleep. Try more calming activities such as completing puzzles, listening to classical music, deep pressure and massaging, breathing or yoga exercises, reading or listening to familiar favorite stories and snuggle time books to prepare them for the next day.

3. Check the environment.

Is it too dark? Too light? Too loud? Too quiet? Add a soft night light, play some white noise or quiet classical music. Try changing what your child is sleeping in. Is it too restrictive? Not restrictive enough? Would a sleeping bag help? Compression shirt or pants? A child often wakes up in the middle of the night, so making the environment comfortable for them will help them get back to sleep without your help.

4. Think positively!

Regardless of age, circumstance or disability, everyone benefits from positivity. Boost your child’s confidence before bedtime by reviewing all the good things about their day. Save a difficult conversation about behavior for the next day and focus on the positives from that day or week. Reward the positive sleep habits with extra praise. Let your child know exactly why they are getting praise so that they can repeat it in the future. Use specific praise statements such as “You slept all night!” or “You stayed in your bed!”

Try these at home with your child and allow several weeks of consistent use of routine paired with specific language to see if there is a difference in sleep habits. It often takes time for their body and mind to adjust to the changes before you see any results.

About the Author

Jack Hans has over 10 years of experience working with students of all ages and abilities as an ABA therapist, teacher and supervisor. He currently works as an intervention specialist, focusing on working with students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, with an emphasis on including students with disabilities throughout the school environment. He earned a Master of Education degree from Cleveland State University.