It's a Thursday. The fan unit on the PC is about the only sound I can hear besides the tapping of the keyboard and the whirr of the tumble dryer in the next room. Until the head round the door.
"I can't get to sleep."
A shuffling, and Samuel once again comes into the room, rubbing one eye sleepily, not quite looking at me.
"It's quarter to eleven," I tell him.
"I can't get to sleep."
"You won't sleep standing in the corridor."
"Yeah, but I can't get to sleep."
"Do you want something different on the iPod?"
"Do you want your relaxing music?"
"I want a drink."
"Get your own, then. And then back to your room."
"Oh, but -"
"Go. To. Bed."
I used to be nice. Years of worn-down evenings will do that to you. My wife likes to tell a story about the times it's my turn to settle the kids, sitting in a darkened room, listening to the same music over and over again, smartphone out of battery, before the inevitable happens: I fall asleep before they do. Whereupon they all come up the corridor into the lounge to play, before I stumble after them some minutes later, half awake, rubbing my eyes, wondering what on earth is going on.
Everyone has sleep issues at some point. Is it worse when your children have autism? It is. And it isn't. What have we learned from these fractured nights? If we were to break down our nocturnal experiences, how would it look? And what advice would we give, to ourselves and anyone who happened to be listening?
1. Vary your techniques
This does not mean doing different things every night. If you have something that's working, stick to it for as long as it does. But children are like the Borg. They have an uncanny tendency to develop resistance to anything you can throw at them. An idea that has had them asleep and dreaming by nine o'clock for months on end can become totally ineffective overnight. This is nothing to worry about because you yourself will have plenty of other ideas in reserve.
We are currently in a 'no screens after seven o'clock' routine. It works. But there was a time when giving them tablets (we're talking computer tablets here, not benzodiazepine) was the only thing to calm them down in the evenings. And then the calming down seemed a little less effective, the silliness and arguing more frequent. That's when you switch to something else. Above all, don't be afraid to abandon an idea. Sometimes there's a reason things aren't working.
2. Don't insist on sleep
Seriously, don't. You can't force someone to be unconscious (legally) any more than you can force them to stop crying. This is where the literature is going to be your undoing: a certain amount of sleep, the websites/Daily Mail articles will insist, is essential for the growth and development of your child. This hangs together if you take it on aggregate, but that's not how children work. That's not how people work. It's changing as I get older, but by and large I can function on less sleep than my wife.
But it is OK to insist that the child stays in their room. That's a not unreasonable request and is as much for your benefit as it is theirs. You remember how those parenting courses told you that time out wasn't for them, it was for you? This is like that. You need space, particularly in the evenings when you aren't functioning so well, and you are not being selfish if you expect it.
The notion of actually staying in their room, however, is not necessarily a comfortable one for a child to grasp. There are things you can do to move this along, but they only work so far. I could tell you about making the bedroom a comforting and warm place - somewhere they're happy to be, and not a place they have to go when they're punished - but you've done all that, and you may leave your freshly-sucked eggs in the basket by the door on your way out.
Don't think you're going to get away with asking them to look at a book. Even the most avid reader is going to get bored. At some point you will answer a summons (because even if they aren't allowed to leave the room, they'll sure as heck make sure you go and find them) and they'll tell you there's nothing to do, and you'll look at the piles of novels and picture books on the shelves and you'll want to throttle them. Such a reaction is normal and all part of being a perpetually harassed, chronically sleep-deprived parent, and it is acceptable to feel this way, provided you don't actually do it.
But there's a point at which physically getting them to stay in the room starts to pose its own challenge: it's when giggling faces appear at the door of the lounge, scampering away quickly when you turn your head. Every health professional we saw told us to use rapid return. We tried it for several months before throwing in the towel. Oh, and you know how all the parenting manuals tell you that ignoring bad behaviour is the quickest and most effective way of eradicating it? Can we just admit that's a load of hogwash, or at best is something that only works for some children, rather than the all-encompassing Golden Rule of Childcare that it's set out to be?
There were times we roped the door shut. It's perfectly safe, and Christopher Green (Toddler Taming) recommends it. It was the only way to humanely confine them without actually locking them in: a rope secured to the handle, tied to the nearby towel rail, with enough slack so they can open the door to howl in protest without giving them the room to escape. Eventually the rope frayed to snapping point, much like my temper. We didn't replace it. It was one of those things that no longer seemed necessary. Besides, they'd learned to untie the thing.
3. The food of love
We have an iPod that the kids have more or less claimed as their own, at least between the hours of eight in the evening and midnight, which is when I usually want to listen to it. It sits loosely connected in a dock on the shelf where the toddler can't reach it, and is full to the brim with playlists for all occasions. If they're not fussy about genre, this is a great opportunity for a little musical education. By and large my wife is not a fan of jazz, but at least two of my children seem to have inherited a love for it from me - although the first time my eldest went to bed asking for Miles Davis, I had to get him to say it again, slightly louder, so his mother would hear.
Story CDs have helped us enormously. Roald Dahl once wrote that he read the entire works of Dickens during fifteen-minute sessions warming a frozen toilet seat for a prefect at boarding school; our children must have listened to most of the works of Dahl himself while dropping off. Be prepared for them to request the same story a hundred nights in a row and then go off it completely, overnight. It is worse if you actually have to sit in with them to help them settle: I memorised every sound effect, every nuance and every cadence in Michael Angelis' readings of the early adventures of Thomas & Friends. (I'd say this comes in useful at parties, but we don't usually go to parties, for reasons that by now ought to be obvious.)
It's different strokes for different folks, and the results are often surprising. I have a ten-year-old who loves Minecraft by day and listens to In the Night Garden in the evenings. You'll find out what works for you, but one recording I heartily endorse is Christiane Kerr's Bedtime Meditations for Kids (also available via Google Play if your kids have a tablet), a series of guided meditations taking children on journeys through space, under the sea and through a pristine wintry landscape. It is so relaxing I have to leave the room when it begins for fear of dropping off myself.
4. Embrace the changes
When Samuel was a baby he slept in a parent's arms, or in the stout red sling that we bought, for twenty minute periods and not a minute longer. The summer of 2007 was long and difficult for both of us. A September holiday to Germany was memorable not least because it was one of the first occasions we managed to capture a photograph of him laughing, arms spread, held up on the top deck of a boat along the river Main, like a sort of low-budget Titanic. Samuel's sleep patterns adjusted, like his temperament: other fallout came later, but that's another story.
Does it get better? Usually. Eventually. But it's not a bell curve. It's a jagged line of peaks and troughs, fraught with tantrums and shouting and nerves that are shredded to ribbons. And then, all of a sudden, there's a moment when your child will sleep, and sleep early, and sleep well. Embrace how you feel that moment and hold onto it, because the next night might be a disaster. And it works the other way too. But as parenting moments go, that sudden respite is golden. You'll cheer. You'll feel like celebrating. Or you would, if you hadn't already crashed out on the sofa.
- Biography -
James is a freelance writer who has written about autism for years. His parenting blog is currently invite-only, but he produces occasional articles for Metro and blogs about Doctor Who at Brian of Morbius. He and his wife have four sons, two on the autistic spectrum.
The content of these blogs/webpages reflects the thoughts, opinions and experiences of the individual writer and does not reflect the views of Family Fund. Always consult your doctor or other medical professional before taking medical action or changing your or your child’s health routine.