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Empowering Parents to Help Children Sleep

Posted by neurologist and autism sleep specialist Beth Malow, of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and psychologist Terry Katz, of the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. Both work within Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.


We all know how tired, 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.

With support from the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network,* we and our colleagues (at Vanderbilt, the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Toronto) conducted a study on the effectiveness of teaching parents "the basics" of sleep education. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders published the encouraging results earlier this summer.

The study involved 80 children, ages 3 to 10, with autism and difficulty falling asleep. Their parents received either one hour of one-on-one sleep education or four hours of sleep education in a group. We also followed up with all the parents with two subsequent phone calls to answer any questions and concerns.

The one-on-one and group sessions showed similar levels of success. Both improved children’s sleep, reduced their daytime anxiety and repetitive behaviors and increased attention and overall quality of life.

The parents benefited, too. They felt better about their parenting competence after completing the sleep education program.

We compared these results to those of an earlier study that involved giving parents a pamphlet with sleep tips. Without personal guidance, the pamphlets failed to significantly improve parents’ ability to help their children sleep.

The elements of success
Before enrolling children in our study, we screened them for medical conditions that might be causing their sleep problems. In children with autism, common issues include gastrointestinal disorders or seizures. It’s so important to identify and address these health issues.

As for the parents, prior to their training, we had them complete a questionnaire that helped us target their problem areas. During the instructional sessions, all parents learned about daytime and evening habits that promote sleep. Examples include increasing exercise and limiting caffeine. With guidance, parents also created a visual schedule for their children’s bedtime routine. Their educator discussed ways to help children fall asleep on their own – and get back to sleep after a nighttime wakening.

Materials available for free download
We’re glad to report that much of the content we used in these training sessions is contained in the ATN/AIR-P Sleep Tool Kit with Parent Booklet and Quick Tips. (Click the link for more information and free download.)

This publication includes the Strategies to Improve Sleep in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders tool kit and 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

Expanding our outreach
We want all our autism families to benefit from sleep education. So we are actively working to offer these educational sessions in community settings beyond the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network. We hope to offer parent training in local medical clinics as well as through on-line portals. 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 conducting a pilot study of sleep education sessions for teenagers and young adults with autism. She is doing so with funding from the Organization for Autism Research. To further support these efforts, we are writing sleep tool kits specifically for this age group. Look for them in the near future on the Autism Speaks tool kits page.

We are grateful to 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







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The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.