Bedtime Meltdown 2

A pre-teen with autism who has been rather quiet and compliant in the past has suddenly begun having tantrums every night at bedtime. In the first installment of this two-part discussion, we looked as some of the possible catalysts of this new behavior. Now we will look at one possible solution for breaking the cycle of disruptive bedtime meltdowns and bringing some peace into the family’s evening routine.

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As was mentioned in the previous podcast, Bedtime Meltdowns 1, the first step in addressing explosive or disruptive behaviors is to figure out the catalyst, and make a change if possible. Sometimes, even when potential catalysts have been addressed, a youngster continues to have meltdowns at bedtime. In this case, a dramatic, positive plan is necessary to break the cycle of bedtime tantrums and to set a new tone for bedtime.

“Switch Gears” is a strategy that some families have used successfully to help their explosive teens with autism approach bedtime more calmly and to bring more peace to the entire household. Each family situation is different, but these four steps have worked for several families.

1. Take time to connect. Turn off the television and put your “to-do” list out of your mind. Take time to hang out with him while ignoring the clock. This might mean reading together, clipping nails, talking about his day, or listening to music. Just relax and enjoy some calm, quality time with your child.

2. Use technology. Get him his own iPod or let him select a bedtime movie – same one every night – Charlie Brown or Nature Channel– something relatively quiet and predictable. Since many individuals with autism love watching family events, you can put old family photos and videos on a DVD to watch every night.

3. Switch gears. On a Friday night, make a special announcement at dinner. The announcement could be something like this: “As you all know, Steven is now twelve years old. He is almost a teenager. Teens get to make more choices for themselves. So, starting on Sunday night, Steven’s bedtime is moved to 9:30 AND he gets to listen to his iPod (or watch his favorite video) when he goes to bed. He can even listen to it all night long if he wants. Congratulations, Son. Enjoy!” Remember, even if he initially stays awake for hours, it is better that he stay awake calmly rather than throwing a two hour tantrum and disturbing homework and bedtime for other people in the house.

4. “Good night to all.” Quiet down the rest of the house so your son doesn’t think he is missing something. One rather radical plan is for everyone in the family to head to bed at his bedtime. Turn out lights and snooze. This has brought long, irritating bedtime meltdowns to a screeching halt for several of my friends with autism.

TIP FOR THE DAY. Be patient. Keep track of frequency and length of meltdowns. It may take some time to bring about peaceful transitions at bedtime, but hang in there. Remember, you are building a lifetime skill, and you are helping establish a calm, pleasant home atmosphere for the whole family.

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 a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. 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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