Tips for healthy sleep for older autistic children

Sleep tips for older children with autism

How much do we all love a good night’s sleep? Not only do we enjoy it, but it is also crucial to function effectively each day. Research shows that around two-thirds of children diagnosed with ASD experience sleep difficulties at one point or another (Bealieu, Hanley, & Gin, 2013).

Sleep difficulties can present themselves in many ways. For example, the child:

  • has difficulty falling asleep
  • struggles to stay asleep
  • can only fall asleep if co-sleeping
  • is excessively sleepy during the day
  • doesn’t want to pack away devices to go to bed
  • wakes up too early and can’t resettle.

While sleep challenges pop up for all of us from time to time, prolonged lack of sleep can impact both the child’s and family’s functioning and mental health.

Some tips

One of the most helpful strategies for helping kids sleep well is routine. Here are five tips on how routine can be incorporated into healthy sleep patterns for you and your family.

  1. Ensure your child goes to bed at the same time every night and wakes up at the same time every morning.
  2. Have a consistent bedtime routine such as pj’s on, cuddles, and then lights out before getting into bed.
  3. Ensure you and your child have a plan around how and when devices will be used in the evenings (as part of the routine).
  4. Have a consistent response in how you will respond if your child gets out of bed after you have said good night. Often, this can be redirecting your child back to bed after a quick hug or sip of water.
  5. Redirect your child back to their bed if they wake up in the middle of the night. This can be a hard one, especially in the middle of winter!

Involve your child

While establishing a routine, it can be incredibly helpful for older children and teenagers to be part of the decision-making process. Giving them some choice and input into the routine often increases the likelihood of long-term participation and cooperation. So instead of just establishing part of the routine as “When you get out of bed, you can have a quick hug.”,  you could say something like, “It’s ok to get out of bed once. Would you like a hug or quick back rub when you come out?”.

Another way to engage your child in the process could be by giving them a choice of what sort of bed linen they have. You could go to the shops together to choose something. This could be a useful strategy if you are in the process of helping your child to sleep in their own room.

Organisation is key

With these considerations in mind, set aside three to four consecutive days and nights to establish the new habits you would like your child to learn. Try keeping your calendar relatively empty for these few days, have meals ready to go, and have a spare set of hands around to help with siblings, etc. This will make it easier to stick with the plan as you are likely to become a bit short on sleep through the process. It is important that you have time to catch up on your own sleep during the day so you are re-energised and ready to keep going with the plan later in the evening.

Remember, change takes time

It may take a week or two for new sleep habits to form, but in the end, it is almost always worth it for both you and your child.


If you are looking for sleep tips for a younger child (up to 6 years in age), read our article Tips for healthy sleep for younger autistic children.

Bealieu, L., Hanley, G., & Jin, C. (2013) An Individualised and Comprehensive Approach to Treating Sleep Problems in Young Children. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 46, 161-180

About the Author

Andrea Radcliffe is a Senior Behaviour Consultant and Family Services Mentor at Autism Partnership. She has worked in the field of contemporary behavioural analysis for over 20 years, spanning  Australia, Canada and the USA. Andrea has completed a Diploma in Community Rehabilitation, holds a Bachelor of Applied Social Science (Counselling), and is a Tuning Into Kids Practitioner.