Your Dollars@Work: Empowering Parents to Help Children Sleep

Thursday, February 13, 2014 View Comments

By neurologist Beth Malow, of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and psychologist Terry Katz, of the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. Both centers are part of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.

We all know how cranky and unfocused we feel when we haven't had a good night's sleep. For many children with autism and their families, sleep problems can be downright crippling.

That’s why the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network* supported our study gauging the effectiveness of our "Sleep Basics" educational program for parents of children with autism. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published the successful results last year.

Importantly, we incorporated these successful parent-training methods in the ATN/AIR-P tool kit: Strategies to Improve Sleep in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. You can download this tool kit, free of charge, from the Autism Speaks website here.

It comes with three “Quick Tips” sheets:
* Using a Visual Schedule to Teach Bedtime Routines
*Using a Bedtime Pass and
* Sleep Tips for Children with Autism and Limited Verbal Skills

Since we launched the sleep tool kit a year ago, it’s been downloaded nearly 12,000 times. We also know – from your feedback – that many of these downloaded copies get shared many times over among parents.

The elements of success
Importantly – before we enrolled children into our study – we screened them for medical conditions that might be causing their sleep problems. Such issues are common among children with autism, and they include gastrointestinal disorders and seizures. So it’s vitally important that you enlist your doctor’s help to assess for and address these medical concerns if your child has sleep problems.

It’s also important to personalize your approach to your child’s sleep difficulties. In our study, we did this by asking parents to complete a questionnaire that helped us target their problem areas. Our sleep tool kit will likewise guide you through identifying your family’s issues.

In the tool kit – as in our study – we coach parents on how to instill the daytime and evening habits that promote sleep. Examples include increasing exercise and limiting caffeine.

We also guide you through creating a visual schedule for your children’s bedtime routine.

We also discuss ways to help children fall asleep on their own – and get back to sleep after a nighttime wakening. Parents in our study found this advice to be among the most helpful.

We’re happy to report that children aren’t the only ones who benefit from these techniques. The parents in our study reported feeling more confident in their parenting after completing the sleep education program.

Expanding our outreach
We want to see more families benefit from these autism-tailored sleep strategies. Part of our outreach has been through classes sponsored by our AS-ATN centers. With the support of Autism Speaks, we are also finalizing a manual for educators and videos for both parents and educators.

Tips for Teens and Young Adults
Meanwhile, our colleague Whitney Loring, a behavioral psychologist at Vanderbilt, is developing a sleep education program for teenagers and young adults with autism. She is doing so with funding from the Organization for Autism Research. In the near future, look for sleep tool kits specifically for this age group on the Autism Speaks tool kits page.

We are grateful to you – the Autism Speaks community – for making this research and these tool kits possible. With your support, we have been able to help many children and families get the rest they need to be at their best the next day. We also want to extend a heartfelt thanks to all the families who participated in this research.
 

* This work was made possible through the AS-ATN’s role as the federally funded Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). For more information about the AIR-P, click here