If there’s one thing guaranteed to make my heart sink it’s the fateful realisation that it’s almost bedtime. Somehow it always manages to take me by surprise. We do homework, then eat, I wash the dishes, sit down to waste time on the internet (yeah, yeah, I know I could be doing something more productive but the internet is a Shiny Thing and oh look…. a cat with a funny hat on…..) and then suddenly it’s bedtime. I have been known to check my person for unexplained marks, just in case the aliens really did abduct me. Surely I can’t have lost two hours without noticing? But no, the aliens apparently aren’t interested in me and that lost time was actually plain old normal time that I allowed to slither by unnoticed. Suck it up and get cracking. Bedtime awaits!
My son, Thomas, was pretty easy to put to bed when he was a toddler. He slept through the night early on as a baby and had so much energy throughout the day as a toddler that by the time bedtime came around he would be tired enough to fall asleep and sleep through with no problems. I found the simplest solution was to put him to bed, wait for him to get out of bed again, let him play in his room until he fell asleep on the floor, toys in hand, and then scoop him up asleep and put him back to bed. There he would stay until the morning. Okay, it might be 5 o’clock in the morning but he would at least sleep through the night. Believe me, after a day of running around after a whirlwind in Small Human form, we were grateful for the uninterrupted sleep ourselves. If we went through the hassle of insisting he get back into bed it would only turn into a battle of wills that would leave all parties angry and unhappy; Thomas would hardly be likely to sleep after that anyway. It made sense to let him play quietly with his dinosaurs on the bedroom floor for twenty minutes or so until sleep overcame him. After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal – to get your child to go to bed willingly and fall asleep happily? Eventually he discovered it was warmer and more comfortable to take your toys to bed and play with them there so we would find him asleep with his toys positioned in full play mode.
As he grew older, he continued to go to bed with ease and we were lulled into a false sense of security. However, he was a sneaky child and he learned to prolong the time spent with parents by employing the ever popular tricks of requesting a story, a drink, a cuddle, a song, needing to wee again and so on. Gradually “bedtime” became longer and longer. Instead of having a bedtime story, he decided he wanted to tell us stories and, bearing in mind that one aspect of autism can be a rather limited or rigid imagination and/or poor communication skills, we were happy to let him express himself.
Listening to my son tell a story was like watching the end of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
We soon learned, however, that a child telling a story has the amazing ability to reduce time to a crawl. A five minute story can take forty five minutes to tell and every one of those forty five minutes will feel like an eternity. The initial interest wanes about five minutes in but you push on, smiling, encouraging, making a comment or two to show interest. Five minutes later and you’re beginning to wonder where the story is going. Five minutes after that, you’re looking vainly for the end but there is no end in sight. Listening to my son tell a story was like watching the end of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Just as I thought we were approaching the denouement, he would veer off on another tangent and we’d be away again for another five minutes of monotonal, stumbling, pause filled rambling. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful to see him use his imagination, it was wonderful to share time together, it was wonderful to cuddle and have Quality Time, but it was BEDTIME! And watching the minute hand march across the face of the clock when he should be settling down to sleep was frustrating. Extremely frustrating: knuckle-gnawingly, teeth grittingly, foot tappingly frustrating. My hopeful, fake-cheery “okay, well let’s stop there, you can finish tomorrow,” would be met with panicked protests, then there’d be a frantic rush to wrap up and I’d force a cheer at the merciful end and praise him for his marvellous story, all the while thinking “at last!”. By which point not only was it much later than he should have been going to sleep but also my evening had disappeared and my own bedtime was approaching.
Nevertheless, we persevered and eventually the random evening story morphed into a set of statements about his favourite bear, Pinky and a nightly re-telling of how we acquired a large Doctor Who poster from the cinema, a moment of immense joy and pride for Thomas. This became known as “Doctor Who Stories and Pinky Tales” and we commenced with that story routine, Every. Single. Night. The Pinky Tales, as they were known for short, were a set of statements that Thomas would make, with props and acting. “Pinky is a very brave bear, the bravest bear of all, and he protects me. If a burglar were to come he would wait until he crept close and then let out a huge roar….”. “We went to the cinema to watch Doctor Who and the manager saw us and said ‘that’s a nice boy, I wonder if he’d like a poster'”. And so on. Every statement would have to be worded exactly the same way every night and if a mistake was made we would have to start again. Sometimes Thomas would be the storyteller, sometimes I would be. And gradually more and more statements were incorporated into the routine. Bedtime began to be a chore; if I got a word or phrase wrong I would be corrected, I wasn’t allowed to deviate from the script, I wasn’t allowed to hurry things up or leave things out. I began to dread bedtime. I was tired and keenly aware that Tom needed to sleep but instead he was obsessing over his stories. I resorted to putting a time limit on proceedings: ten minutes for Pinky Tales and five minutes for Doctor Who Stories. Tom hated that, he could never get the whole set done in time because he rambled on too much and eventually he abandoned the tales. Yet again we switched, this time to our current “routine”.
The routines are never planned, they grow organically. You do a thing once and if Thomas likes it, it becomes a thing that you have to do every day.
The routines are never planned, they grow organically. You do a thing once and if Thomas likes it, it becomes a thing that you have to do every day. At first I play along with the fun game but one thing turns into two things, into three things and you realise you are trapped in another “routine” that you have to get through in its entirety otherwise there will be protests and upset. With the latest routine I began to refuse to add bits, as I realised we were suffering from “routine creep” yet again. Our current routine consists of a drink, a game where my hand aka Robber Hand attempts to steal toys from Tom’s bed (please don’t ask, I have no idea how it started but it became A Thing That We Do As Many Nights A Week As Thomas Can Manage To Get Me To Do), a song that his toys sing while I tickle him with them (again, don’t ask, it just happened), a cuddle and a discussion about any dreams we had the previous night (if we don’t remember our dreams we have to make one up), a discussion about what we did in the day and then finally another quick game with Matilda the Angry Bird who wishes him a good night. He doesn’t discuss the day with me during the day but boy is he curious all of a sudden at bedtime. Funny how that works. Finally, I turn on his night light and make it through the door to freedom and he settles down to sleep.
Here’s where the story improves. While each “routine” has been a pain in my behind, each routine has ended in its own time. As much as I grit my teeth at Tom’s insistence that we adhere strictly to the contents of his routines, he moves on when they stop working for him. And…the routine is no longer set in stone. These days, on the nights when I’m too tired to go through the rigmarole of a game, a song, a game, a discussion and another game, he is flexible enough to be satisfied with ONE short story (currently working our way through the Mr Men books) and a quick chat. He is flexible! I never thought the day would come when I could get away with a book and a quick chat but here we are. The torture of word-perfect routines has ended. I still get pulled up for the occasional error but no longer am I forced to do Pinky Tales by rote, no longer am I met with outrage if I say it’s too late for a long game. My rigidly obsessive boy is becoming reasonable, flexible, tolerant. Maybe it’s because he’s growing up and is starting to understand that insisting on your own way all the time doesn’t end well, maybe he can understand other people’s feelings better and understands when I say I’m too tired, maybe he doesn’t need the security of perfectly worded and conducted routines. Whatever the reason I’m grateful for the easier and shorter bedtime.
Bedtime no longer drives me crazy. Who’d a thunk it? I’m beginning to learn that given time, most things will resolve satisfactorily. Thomas will find his own way and he is doing just that.