Three months ago, a doctor asked me how Alex sleeps. “Great!” I replied, with the enthusiasm common to those about to stride into spinning propeller blades. “Eleven hours a night!”
Overnight, Alex has gone from 11 hours to about seven.
The decline and fall of my evenings started late last year, when Alex figured out how to open the door of his bedroom from the inside. For a long, sweet time, this knob alone had been worth the purchase price of our Manhattan apartment: It worked stiff, and had a small, smooth surface that Alex’s tiny hands couldn’t turn enough to open the door. We’d put him and Ned, who’s still crib-bound, in the bedroom about 7:30, read to them for half an hour, dim the lights, start the lullaby cassettes, and head out to the living room to do what all loving marrieds do when they’re alone and the kids are in bed at last: watch “Seinfield” and eat our goddamned dinner in peace.
For as long as half an hour, though, Alex would come to the door every few minutes and rattle the knob and screech until one of us had to get up and order him to bed. After half a dozen of these rattle-screech-order drills, Alex would go to bed and all we’d hear through the door was the peace of sleeping kids.
In a way that would make me proud if it didn’t make me exhausted, Alex has adapted. Even that is not as bad as it sounds. On weekends, for instance, when I’ve run him through two or even three playgrounds and kept him steadily outside from about 10 a.m. until late afternoon, he still curls up with binkie and stuffed Elmo around 7:30. Maybe 8.
But most nights, once, twice, even more time a night, we’re yanked awake as he squirms between us, clacking Elmo’s huge plastic eyeballs on our headboard. “Alex, be still!” This would be fine with me if he just came up and passed out, but he wiggles around, kicks, even screeches until one of us has to cast back the blankets, grab him by the wrist, and say, “Go back to bed, Alex!” We take him back more roughly, I’m ashamed to admit, as the night goes on and the obese green numbers of our clock radio keep going in the blackness: 1:35; 3:52; 4:46.
Sometimes Alex sleeps through until six. Sometimes.
We’ve been keeping him up later in the evenings, letting him fall asleep on the couch, watching the kind of TV I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to share with my son: “Star Trek,” Tora Tora Tora, Horatio Hornblower. Sometimes he sits quietly on the couch, hugging the cushion before darting into our bedroom to return with T shirts to cuddle with. Sometimes. Other times, he’s up every two seconds, just as I settle into the recliner, and I can’t keep him on the couch no matter how often I present the plain choices: Couch or bed. Couch or bed, Alex, couch or bed, until I sound like a worn-out parrot.
Last night, when he wouldn’t stay on the couch around 9 p.m., and afterwards he still wouldn’t go to bed, I slapped a bin of plastic zoo animals across the room. Jill covered her face with her hands. “It’s like we’re in one of those commercials with the bad family situation,” she said. “The out-of-control child, the angry dad, the depressed mom.”
What saps us here is the potential endlessness, how even after he’s back in his room these nights, we’re left staring at the clock (… 1:35; 3:52; 4:46 …) and wondering just why this should end, why he shouldn’t be doing the same thing at age 6 and 16 and 26. Maybe, though, it will get better in the winter: It’s bright this time of year in the morning, and we have only venetian blinds in the boys’ room. Also, next year, he’ll be going to a school that has a playground.
Maybe by then I’ll no longer wake up at six like I did this morning, unable to get back to sleep because I kept hearing something go thump. It woke Jill up, too, and she said, “I’m not sure what that is, but I don’t think it’s Alex.” But it was.
Jeff Stimpson, 49, is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at http://jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, and The Autism Society news blog.Tweet