girl with adhd kid and sleeping problem

Evidence-Based Interventions for Sleep Disorders in Children with ADHD and Autism

adhd sleep disorder Sep 18, 2023

If you're a psychologist working with children who have ADHD or autism, you understand the challenges they face when it comes to sleep. Sleep disorders are commonly observed in these populations and can significantly impact their overall well-being. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore evidence-based interventions that can help address sleep disorders in children with ADHD and autism. By implementing these strategies, you can support your young patients in achieving restful and restorative sleep.

Understanding Sleep Disorders in Children with ADHD and Autism

Sleep disorders are more prevalent in children with ADHD and autism compared to the general population. These disorders can manifest in various ways, such as difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restless and disruptive sleep patterns. It's important to recognize that sleep problems can worsen the symptoms of ADHD and autism, including inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and social and communication difficulties.

Children with ADHD may struggle with self-regulation, making it challenging for them to wind down and quiet their minds. On the other hand, children with autism often have heightened sensory sensitivities, which can disrupt their ability to relax and fall asleep. Additionally, anxiety and stress, common in both ADHD and autism, can interfere with their ability to initiate and maintain restful sleep. Establishing the root causes of sleep disorders is crucial for developing effective interventions.

Identifying the Root Causes

Before implementing interventions, it is crucial to assess and understand the underlying causes of sleep disorders in each child. By identifying the specific factors contributing to sleep disturbances, psychologists can tailor their interventions to suit the individual needs of the child. Some common factors contributing to sleep disturbances in children with ADHD and autism include:

1.  Sensory Sensitivities:

Children with autism often have heightened sensory sensitivities that can disrupt their ability to relax and fall asleep. They may struggle with sensory overload, experiencing discomfort from certain textures, sounds, or lights. Creating a sleep environment that accommodates these sensitivities can help promote better sleep.

2.  Hyperactivity and Impulsivity:

Children with ADHD may find it challenging to wind down and quiet their minds, making it difficult for them to initiate sleep. Their hyperactive and impulsive behaviors can interfere with the relaxation needed for sleep. Implementing strategies to manage hyperactivity and impulsivity throughout the day can contribute to better sleep at night.

3.  Anxiety and Stress:

Both ADHD and autism are often accompanied by heightened levels of anxiety and stress. These emotional states can interfere with the ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Teaching children coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and stress can be beneficial for promoting better sleep.

4.  Irregular Sleep Routines:

Lack of consistent sleep schedules can negatively impact the circadian rhythm, leading to sleep disturbances. Establishing a regular sleep routine helps signal to the body when it's time to sleep and can improve the overall quality of sleep.


Evidence-Based Interventions for Sleep Disorders

Addressing sleep disorders in children with ADHD and autism requires a multi-faceted approach. Here are evidence-based interventions that have shown positive outcomes:

1.  Sleep Hygiene Practices:

Sleep hygiene refers to a set of practices and habits that promote healthy sleep. By incorporating these practices into a child's bedtime routine, psychologists can help children with ADHD and autism establish optimal conditions for quality sleep.

Here are some key sleep hygiene practices:

Ø  Encourage consistent bedtime routines and wake-up times:

  •         Establishing a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate the body's internal clock, making it easier for children to fall asleep and wake up at the desired times.
  •         Encourage winding down activities before bed, such as reading a book, taking a warm bath, or engaging in quiet and calming activities.

Ø  Create a sleep-conducive environment:

  •         Minimize noise disturbances by using white noise machines, earplugs, or soft background music.
  •         Ensure the bedroom is dark by using blackout curtains or eye masks to block out excess light.
  •         Maintain a comfortable room temperature that is neither too hot nor too cold.
  •         Make sure the mattress, pillows, and bedding are comfortable and supportive.

Ø  Limit electronic device usage before bed:

  •         The blue light emitted by screens (such as smartphones, tablets, and computers) can suppress melatonin production, making it harder for children to fall asleep.
  •         Establish a "screen-free" period before bed, at least one hour prior to sleep. Encourage alternative activities like reading, drawing, or engaging in relaxing hobbies.

Ø  Promote physical activity and exercise:

  •         Engaging in regular physical activity during the day can help children expend energy and promote better sleep at night.
  •         Encourage activities such as outdoor play, sports, or structured exercise routines, keeping in mind each child's abilities and preferences.

Ø  Establish a relaxing bedtime routine:

  •         Help children wind down by incorporating relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.
  •         Encourage activities that promote relaxation and calmness, such as listening to soft music, reading a book together, or engaging in a quiet conversation.

By implementing these sleep hygiene practices, psychologists can assist children with ADHD and autism in creating an optimal sleep environment and establishing healthy sleep habits.


2.  Sensory Integration Techniques:

Sensory integration techniques can be valuable in promoting relaxation and preparing children with ADHD and autism for sleep. These strategies focus on creating a sensory-friendly environment and incorporating activities that engage the senses in a calming and soothing manner.

Ø  Provide sensory-friendly sleeping arrangements:

  •         Consider using weighted blankets that provide gentle pressure and promote a sense of security and comfort.
  •         Opt for soft textures and materials in the child's bedding and sleepwear to enhance their sensory experience and create a soothing environment.

Ø  Offer calming activities before bedtime:

  •         Deep-pressure massages can help children with autism unwind and relax their bodies. Applying gentle, firm pressure to different areas of their body, such as their arms, legs, or back, can promote a sense of calmness and reduce anxiety.
  •         Playing soothing music or nature sounds in the background can help create a tranquil atmosphere, reducing sensory overload and facilitating relaxation.
  •         Engage in activities that promote sensory input, such as providing a cozy space with dim lighting, allowing the child to engage with calming sensory toys or objects, or engaging in gentle stretching exercises.

By incorporating sensory integration techniques into the bedtime routine, psychologists can help children with ADHD and autism regulate their sensory experiences, promoting relaxation and preparing them for a restful night's sleep. The use of weighted blankets, soothing textures, deep pressure massages, and calming sensory activities can provide a sense of security and comfort, easing any sensory-related challenges that may disrupt sleep.


3.  Relaxation Strategies:

Relaxation strategies play a crucial role in helping children with ADHD and autism unwind before sleep. By incorporating these techniques into their bedtime routine, psychologists can promote a sense of calmness and facilitate a smoother transition into a restful night's sleep.

Here are some relaxation techniques:

1.      Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

  • Systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body.
  • Start from the toes and gradually work up to the face and head.
  • Release tension and promote deep physical and mental relaxation.

2.      Deep Breathing Exercises:

  • Instruct children to take slow, deep breaths in through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth.
  • Encourage them to focus on the sensation of their breath.
  • Calms the mind and induces relaxation.

3.      Visualizations or Guided Imagery:

  • Guide children through a calming visualization by imagining a peaceful scene (e.g., a beach or serene garden).
  • Engage their senses and vividly imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment.
  • Redirect attention from stress and anxiety, promoting relaxation.

4.      Soothing Sounds or Music:

  • Incorporate soft, gentle sounds like nature sounds, calming instrumental music, or white noise.
  • Create a soothing ambiance and mask external distractions.
  • Children can listen to these sounds or music during relaxation practice or while falling asleep.

Remember to adapt these techniques to meet the individual needs and preferences of each child. Experiment with different strategies to find what works best for them. By incorporating these relaxation techniques into the bedtime routine, psychologists can help children with ADHD and autism calm their minds and bodies, leading to improved sleep quality and overall well-being.


4.  Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I):

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is a therapeutic approach specifically designed to address the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to sleep disturbances. Psychologists can effectively utilize CBT-I techniques to help children with ADHD and autism reframe negative thoughts about sleep and establish healthier sleep patterns.

During CBT-I sessions, psychologists work collaboratively with children to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts or beliefs about sleep. This process involves exploring any misconceptions or anxieties they may have regarding sleep and providing evidence-based information to correct those beliefs. By addressing and modifying these negative thoughts, children can develop a more positive and realistic mindset about sleep.

Additionally, psychologists assist children in implementing strategies that improve sleep efficiency. This may include promoting good sleep hygiene practices, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and avoiding stimulating activities close to bedtime. Psychologists also teach relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or guided imagery, to help children relax their minds and bodies before sleep.

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule is a key component of CBT-I. Psychologists work with children and their families to develop a structured sleep routine that prioritizes regular bedtimes and wake-up times. This consistency helps regulate the body's internal clock and reinforces the association between the bed and sleep, making it easier for children to fall asleep and maintain quality sleep throughout the night.

Techniques and strategies commonly used in CBT-I include:

  •         Identifying and challenging negative thoughts or beliefs about sleep.
  •         Providing evidence-based information to correct misconceptions about sleep.
  •         Promoting good sleep hygiene practices, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and creating a conducive sleep environment.
  •         Teaching relaxation techniques, including deep breathing exercises or guided imagery.
  •         Developing a structured sleep routine that includes regular bedtimes and wake-up times.

By incorporating these techniques into the treatment plan, psychologists can support children in overcoming sleep difficulties and establish a foundation for healthy sleep habits.


5.  Medication Evaluation and Management:

Medication can be an option to consider as part of the treatment plan for sleep disorders in children with ADHD and autism. However, it is crucial to approach medication with caution and carefully evaluate its use in collaboration with medical professionals. Psychologists can play a vital role in working alongside medical professionals to assess the need for medication and monitor its effects closely, ensuring that it is used as part of a comprehensive treatment approach.

Here are some key points to consider regarding medication evaluation and management:

Collaboration with Medical Professionals:

Psychologists should collaborate closely with medical professionals, such as pediatricians or psychiatrists, who have expertise in prescribing medication for children with ADHD and autism. This collaborative approach ensures that the child's overall treatment plan is comprehensive and well-coordinated.

Assessing the Need for Medication:

Psychologists can contribute to the evaluation process by providing insights into the child's sleep patterns and any associated behavioral or emotional difficulties. They can share observations and assessments related to sleep disturbances and help determine whether medication may be a suitable option.

Monitoring Medication Effects:

Once the medication is prescribed, psychologists can play a crucial role in monitoring its effects on the child's sleep patterns, behavior, and overall well-being. Regular check-ins and assessments can help determine the medication's efficacy and identify any potential side effects or adjustments needed.

Integrated Treatment Approach:

 Medication should be seen as one component of a comprehensive treatment approach for sleep disorders in children with ADHD and autism. Psychologists can work in collaboration with other professionals involved in the child's care, such as occupational therapists or behavioral therapists, to ensure that interventions are coordinated and mutually supportive.

Informed Decision-Making:

Psychologists can help educate parents and caregivers about the potential benefits and risks of medication, providing them with the information needed to make informed decisions. This includes discussing the potential short-term and long-term effects of medication and addressing any concerns or questions that may arise.

It's important to approach medication as part of a holistic treatment plan that includes other evidence-based interventions, such as sleep hygiene practices, relaxation techniques, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. By working collaboratively with medical professionals, psychologists can ensure that medication is used judiciously and as part of a comprehensive approach to managing sleep disorders in children with ADHD and autism.



Sleep disorders can significantly impact the well-being and functioning of children with ADHD and autism. As psychologists, we have a vital role in addressing these challenges and promoting healthy sleep habits. By implementing evidence-based interventions, such as sleep hygiene practices, sensory integration techniques, relaxation strategies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and medication evaluation when appropriate, we can improve the sleep quality of children with ADHD and autism.

Remember that every child is unique, and their sleep disorders may have specific underlying causes. Therefore, it's important to assess each child individually and tailor interventions accordingly. By addressing sleep disorders, we can contribute to improved overall functioning and quality of life for children with ADHD and autism. Let's work together to help our young patients get the restful and restorative sleep they deserve.

Enhance your expertise and stay up to date in addressing sleep problems in children by enrolling in the CEU Outlet course: "Children with Sleep Problems - Serving and Understanding Their Needs." Gain valuable insights, earn 2 CE hours, and take your practice to the next level. Enroll now to expand your knowledge and better support your young patients.



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