Overcoming Sleep Problems
By Mimi Spruill, BCBA, M.Ed.
Early Autism Project
Many children (and adults) struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Greg Hanley, BCBA-D, considers poor sleep a skill deficit. Looking at the problem this way helps us see it as more of a behavioral issue. Dr. Hanley suggests that the path to better sleep for children and parents can be achieved through small, but effective changes made during the day, before bedtime and during sleep.
Here are some of the suggestions Dr. Hanley gives for improving quality of sleep.
Finish exercising at least four hours before going to bed. We all know exercise is important, but you may not know it helps people achieve better sleep. Adding enough physical activity to you or your child’s routine can make the path to good sleep easier, but try to avoid working out too close to bedtime as that may make it harder to fall asleep.
Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before bed. This seems like a no-brainer, but many people enjoy caffeinated drinks such as soda, cocoa, coffee and tea later than they should. Caffeine consumed after 4 p.m. can disrupt your body’s ability to fall and stay asleep.
Follow a regular nighttime routine. Having a series of predictable behaviors before bed strengthens the association between those behaviors and sleep. Putting your pajamas on will make you feel sleepier because you will associate pajamas with drifting off.
Don’t allow children to fall asleep in a place that is not their bed. This is good advice for adults to follow too. Making bed the sole place for sleep limits the likelihood of sleep disruptions. The association between bed and sleep is also key to a restful night.
When in bed:
Drown out the silence. A white noise machine can be a great device to have in the bedroom for children or adults who awaken easily. Constant ambient noise makes unexpected noises less disturbing.
Create a comfortable sleeping environment. The room should be dark and the temperature should be cool, but not too cold. Children may need a slightly warmer air temperature than adults to be comfortable in their sleeping environment.
Remove temptations. Objects that encourage behaviors that are incompatible with sleep may need to be removed from the bedroom. Children and adults may need to leave screen devices out of reach. Answering emails is just as disruptive as beating the next level of angry birds.
Interestingly, Dr. Hanley does not recommend that children or adults use medication for sleep. It is his belief that sedating medications interfere with an individual’s ability to learn how to fall asleep. Hopefully these suggestions will serve as a helpful starting place for families struggling with sleep issues, but decisions about whether or not to use medication are always best made between families and their healthcare professionals.
To read Dr. Hanley’s sleep suggestions in full, please visit