Sleepless On The Spectrum

My son sleeps more than anyone I know. He also sleeps less than anyone I know. He’s like a fortune cookie riddle wrapped up in a blanketsleeper.

The reason I say this is because there is nothing out of the ordinary about me waking up on the living room couch at two in the morning and stumbling up to bed only to hear him clapping and playing in his room. This could happen at any time of the night and, in his seven years on this Earth, I can count the number of times he’s woken up after me in the morning on one hand.

As a non-verbal seven year old on the Autism spectrum, Lucas can’t really tell me what time he woke up or what he was doing all night (unlike his sister, who will proudly declare “I laid in bed and didn’t fall asleep until 11:54” like it’s a badge of honor). Nope. My boy will immediately fall asleep right after he gets tucked in and then wake up in the dead of night for, what I can only assume are, midnight raves in his room that none of us are invited to.

If these wild nights seem like they’d tire him out, then I have some not-so-surprising news for you. They do. Once the sun goes up, my son goes down and within hours of breakfast, he can often become exhausted again. There have been many morning outings that begin with an incredulous glance back at the car seat and an exclamation of, “Are you kidding me?! It’s 9:30! How is he asleep?!”

sleepmontageNowhere is this all on display more than vacation. Usually with two beds to a room, someone has to split one with Lucas and it leads to a night of semi-conscious insanity. You’re ripped from your sleep at 3 AM to a tap on the shoulder that turns into tap on the head that turns into a knock on your cheek before you begrudgingly open your eyes to his mischievous grin an inch from your face. From there it’s boxes of crackers being carried over for opening, loud blaring from uncovered hidden iPads, and various falls followed by various cries in the dark of night all mixed with loud whispers of, “No, Lucas. Go to bed.”

This all goes on until he eventually nods off while on a Disney World ride four hours later. As I wearily carry him from whatever spinning contraption that rocked him to sleep, I silently curse Mickey Mouse.

Honestly though, aside from vacations and occasional days at school, his sleep has never really been a main issue. That’s why we never really dealt with it. Doctors have talked about different approaches we could take to correct his nighttime parties, if it became a huge problem. It just never has and, with so many other milestones to work towards, his sleeping has just never made it to the top of the priority list.

Part of the reason for that is that, well, I get it. I get why he wants to run around in the middle of the night. People like to be awake. That’s the fun time. My daughter is nine and fights to stay up past her bedtime. Hell, I’m 40 and I find myself pushing my eyes open so I can watch one more episode of Money Heist on Netflix while everyone is asleep. Most people want to be active, even when they’re exhausted.

A part of me also knows that he will grow out of all of this. Eventually, he’ll mature like all children and move past his desire to run around excitedly the moment he accidentally opens his eyes in bed. The mere passing of time could be the thing that corrects this. It also wouldn’t be the first time that happened with him.

For example, around the end of last year, we took the family out for pizza. Rather than wedge Lucas into a booth between me and my wife, we let him sit across the table and next to his sister. With one foot on his chair, ready to pounce at any moment, I apprehensively watched him sit nicely for the whole meal without incident. There was food to cut and mouths to wipe so we didn’t devote a huge ticker tape parade to this personal victory, but we knew it was a milestone moment.

The next time we went out, Lucas again sat on the other side of the table and this time, we noticed a little less. Again, there was food to cut and faces to clean, which took priority over pats on our own backs. Soon enough, sitting on his own without darting out the door into oncoming traffic was just something he did. It’s a huge step for a kid who had to sit with an aid tugging on him for the duration of his preschool graduation ceremony. After years of concern, an issue that we couldn’t fathom how to ever fix just sort of, well, fixed itself.

Keep in mind, Lucas has had practice at school and life about sitting calmly in his chair. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was expected of him all those times. No. At least for my son, it was the same reason that any small child wants to run around. He liked it. It wasn’t until he started to mature and realize that sometimes you have to rest your butt that he started to do it. Now he does.

sleepboothNot every issue that my child with Autism has is about Autism. At the end of the day, he’s still a seven year old boy and seven year old boys aren’t always perfectly behaved gentlemen. In some cases, he just needs to grow out of it. For Lucas, his sleep habits appear to be one of them.

I know this because on our most recent vacation, I noticed something new. While sharing a bed with Lucas, I heard him wake up in the dead of night. Squinting my eyes to appear to be sleeping, I watched him sit up and glance around the room. He sat quietly for a bit and then laid back down, covered himself up, and spent the next few minutes working himself back to sleep.

It was a proud moment and a reminder that there are plenty of things that I will need to work with him on throughout his life, there are also many that he’ll work out for himself. It looks like he’s starting to realize that too.

Sure, sleeping better and sitting nicely in restaurants are great skills, but it’s learning independence and the ability to take care of himself when he’s able to that are really the most important lessons of them all. As long as he has that, anything is possible.