Bedtime Blues

One of the most common topics I hear parents of youngsters with autism discussing is that of problems at bedtime. Although many family members realize that a regular, predictable nighttime routine would help decrease the struggles, most do not know where to start in developing that routine.
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Bedtime is a bit chaotic and unpredictable for most families. Adults and kids are pressured by time deadlines in the evenings, so patience and calmness are usually in short supply. The situation is magnified when a youngster with autism is easily agitated or is resistant to transition from one activity to another. Many family members of individuals with autism report that meltdowns and power struggles have become the “norm” every evening.

So, what can be done to change the tone for the evening? Without a doubt, it is difficult to bring peace to a chaotic time. A successful remedy will take some extra time at first, but, eventually, the outbursts and frustration will decrease, and everyone can enjoy calm, comfortable evening.

Take a look at the three-phase plan described below. It has worked for some families of young children with autism, and may give you some ideas for developing your own strategy. The plan gradually and slowly eases the youngster toward bedtime.

Phase 1: PERSONAL CONNECTIONS. Take some time for relaxed, unhurried interaction with your child. This may seem too radical, but consider turning off the television, sitting close, and making a personal connection, even if your child doesn’t seem to respond. Take time to talk about the past day and what is coming up the next day, even if your youngster is non-verbal, Take time to read, mixing old favorites with new stories and books.
Phase 2: BEDTIME TASKS. Make a custom storybook with actual photographs of your youngster brushing his teeth, putting on his pj’s, hugging family goodnight, and tucking into bed. As you turn each page of the storybook encourage the child to do the same task – with help if needed.
Phase 3: GOOD NIGHT! Read the same short book or story every single night after your youngster is in bed. Turn out the lights at the end of the book. If it is appropriate for your family, take time to pray – both conversational prayer and routine prayers. Then hug your buddy goodnight and turn on some soothing music. If necessary, sit quietly without talking while he dozes off to sleep.

When you first begin this routine, it may seem to take up too much of your time. But, in my experience, it is an investment that reaps rich rewards over the years because calmness and contentment will reign at bedtime for the entire family instead of frustration, agitation, and emotional melt-downs.

We welcome your input. Share challenges and ideas based on your experiences or intuition. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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