Late to bed, late to rise

Liz Becker


I have insomnia on occasion and after tossing and turning for hours I will finally give up and just get out of bed. I usually get up at 4:30 am, but on nights when I can’t sleep my resignation usually sets in around 2-3am. Regardless of the day of the week, whenever I have insomnia I can walk out of my room and give my son Matt a hug - he's still up and he’s always happy to see me. For Matt, being up all night is part of who he is. Matt is a true night owl.

Most parents get up in the morning, wake the kids for school and everyone starts their day together. For the entire duration of Matt’s school years getting him up and going was a real chore. Tears and anger greeted me each morning and again most nights when I put him to bed. Most of this was due to Matt’s fear of the dark. He has required a light on in order to sleep since autism set in at age two. When Matt graduated from high school I allowed him to choose his own schedule. It really came as no surprise that he chose to be up all night and only head to bed as the first rays of sunlight began to appear each morning.

His new schedule was not a problem for us as my husband and I have worked opposite shifts for most of our marriage. My husband worked nights and I worked days. Someone was always home with Matt. Matt’s night-owl schedule didn’t even faze us as Matt slept when Tom slept and got up when Tom got up. When he awoke he spent the afternoon and evenings alternating between interacting with us and doing things on his own. When late evening came I would go to bed, my husband to work and Matt would revel in his time alone in a quiet house. This wasn’t surprising either because I knew how much constant sounds and commotion annoyed him.

When he was still in school it was difficult for him to be subjected to noise and constant activity all day. Is it any wonder then that his first decision as a new graduate was to choose a schedule that would lessen the assault of noise on his senses? I thought his new schedule would last a month and he would finally get into a more “normal” schedule – but it became clear after that first month that Matt was enjoying his freedom, and his night time “king of the house” status too much to ever willingly give it up. I tried bribing him, cajoling him, and even forced the issue a few times before I realized that it was I who was wrong in trying to change him.

Over time I began to see that his new schedule brought with it some very cool perks – like happiness and mental focus. Matt is always in a good mood now. It is obvious that his stress level is very low which allows him to focus on learning and creativity. He watches science DVDs, and various ones on history. He draws, listens to his music, reads, and can think freely without interruption. His level of communication has been enhanced and he’s more willing to interact during his afternoons and evenings with us. His fears are abating. He is always willing to go somewhere, do something, even if he has never done that particular activity before. Matt is obviously loving life.

Everyone has a biological rhythm set just for them, but unfortunately most people must adhere to the cultural norms in order to work to pay the bills and put food on the table. But....... if you could pick your schedule, wouldn't it be different from what you do now? Matt is 26 years old and has been my night owl now for 7 years. I asked him to give me a few reasons as to why he liked his schedule so much. He listed them for me. As I listened I understood completely. Basically, it boils down to 3 simple reasons:

1. The house is quiet. The dogs are sleeping, the phone doesn’t ring, there’s no traffic zooming past the house, no airplanes skimming the tree tops, and no one comes to the door. The only noises in the house are noises of his own making; his music, his TV, his video games.

2. He is in charge. No one is telling him what to do. He feels more like an adult, more “normal” as everything he does is his choice. He can read books on his Kindle or one of his many paperbacks without interruption, and Matt reads a lot.

3. The lights are on. Darkness is terribly frightening and the lights keep the darkness at bay while his activities allow him to not think about the darkness outside. He sleeps only after the sunrise – when the darkness has again been beaten back to simple shadows and the light of dawn signals the safety of a new day.

My husband and I and Matt each have our own schedule to this day and amazingly, they don't conflict. Each of us has our quiet time, our busy time and our family time. I use the mornings when I am off work to clean house, do finances, grade papers or even write. I am now as spoiled in my routine as Matt is in his. As you are probably aware, time to one’s self while your kids are young is almost impossible. What I have now is a very different life, and I will admit it – I like it. I am happier too.

I can’t even come up with a good reason anymore as to why Matt should be forced to abide by my schedule. It's not like he's in need of supervision. He's 26 years old and can handle responsibility pretty well. If he needs me, he knows where I am and can come get me - but he rarely needs me. We still eat meals together and have time to share stories or watch TV, or go somewhere together everyday, so it's not like he doesn't interact. On days when I have to take him to the dentist in the morning (or to some other appointment), I warn him in advance that he will need to get up early and he does so without argument or complaint. Of course, he doesn’t go to bed much earlier the night before (it's a darkness thing) so he just survives on less sleep for a day.

Normally, Matt gets up every afternoon and immediately does his chores (without me asking). He fixes his own meals as I fix ours. He takes great pride in his independence and his schedule reinforces that pride each and every day. Most importantly, he has learned to accept who he is. All children eventually grow up and find their niche in life and I am confident that Matt will be successful in his own quest. I know he doesn't fret about the fact that he is different anymore. He likes himself. He is confident. His choice to be a night-owl was the right one for him. It was me who had to learn to bend and be more flexible.

As parents, we feel great pride when our children come to the point where they are happy in their own skin. I am very proud of my son. It is apparent to me now that over the last 7 years he has learned much about himself through introspection during those quiet, wee hours of the morning. Matt is fully aware that his autism makes him different and yet he is happy with who he is and doesn't think about it much. I am reminded of an interview with Temple Grandin when she was asked if she wanted to be cured. Her reply was no, she was happy with whom she was and didn't see the need to have to be like everyone else. Matt is on that road of self acceptance and independence. He knows he has several goals to reach - and each of those goals require him to find a way to lessen the effect his autism has on his ability to communicate effectively with others. Yet, even his awareness of his communication deficits does not change the fact that he is not interested in being anyone but who he is. Out of curiosity I asked him, “Matt, if there were a cure for autism, would you want to be cured?” He scrunched his face as if I had just insulted him and replied with a resounding, “NO!”

My heart leapt unexpectedly. I am not only thrilled Matt has found self-acceptance, I am also convinced it was a direct result of his decision to be a night owl - a decision which led directly to lower stress and a clearer mind and introspection. What is really mind blowing is that none of it could've happened if I had not been willing to bend. If I had pushed him to conform to a "normal" early to bed, early to rise type of schedule, would he be so confident and happy now? I never would have guessed that "late to bed, late to rise" would prove to be such a cornerstone of personal development.


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