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Autistic people supposedly dream differently (e.g. fewer social interactions) – but do they dream as autistic people?

by | Jan 4, 2018 | News & Views | 15 comments

I had a strange dream last night. The actor Al Pacino was at an event I was attending, and was acting as a financial advisor for a friend. It was a fun dream. I don’t remember the ‘ins and outs’ of the dream now. BUT, I awoke with a question blazing: do autistic people ‘dream autistic’? Are we aware of our ‘autisticness’ in our dreams?

Autistic people are thought to dream DIFFERENTLY from neurotypicals (e.g. supposedly with fewer characters and social interactions in their dreams – see details further down this article). But, do they dream as autistic people? Or do they dream as neurotypicals; e.g. projecting their belief of what life would be/feel like, as a neurotypical person?

A spectrum within a spectrum

Autists are obviously on a spectrum across the autistic population, if that’s the right description – e.g. different autists falling into different places on the autism spectrum, with no two autistic people presenting with exactly the same traits, behaviours and challenges – however, the author of this piece also thinks that autists are also on a spectrum IN OUR OWN MINDS. By that I mean that we can feel more or less autistic on different days, depending on the challenges facing us, and our ability to function, in the face of these challenges. (This is what the ‘’ scales logo represents).

High functioning, my ar$e…”

Let me explain. Some days, many autists can feel pretty functional. We can hold eye contact, get through the day in our jobs, hold conversations that would be deemed ‘normal’ and feel quite good about ourselves. On other days, our senses are overloaded, we’re peopled out, and our executive functioning is questionable at best. (“High functioning, my ar$e,” as my husband grumpily observed to himself in a very un-PC manner, in response to a faux pas of mine recently.)

“It stands to reason that our sleeping brain is adaptable…”

So if we’re like this in everyday life, e.g. the autistic elements of our brain taking the forefront on some days, and the more neurotypical aspects driving our neurological train on other days, it stands to reason that our sleeping brain is adaptable.

I don’t think that I ‘dream autistic’. I believe that in my dreams, I am presenting as a neurotypical person. Is this: (a) because I am fairly newly diagnosed, and my subconscious hasn’t yet got the memo? Or is it (b) because the part of my brain that creates my dreams is ‘less autistic’ than other areas, for want of a more scientific description?!

Who knows? But science doesn’t back up my theory that I don’t ‘dream autistic’. It seems that the ‘dreaming brain’ and the ‘waking brain’ are similar, because they recruit the same areas of the brain for the same type of experiences. So, if we lack social skills in real life, we will probably lack them when dreaming, it is proposed.

‘Old’ theories were that our dreams predominantly occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, controlled by the ‘reticular activating system’, whose circuits run from the brain stem through the thalamus to the cortex. Science Focus described the various systems affecting dreams in a 2014 report as follows: “The limbic system in the mid-brain deals with emotions in both waking and dreaming, and includes the amygdala, which is mostly associated with fear, and is especially active during dreams,” the website reports. “The cortex is responsible for the content of dreams, including the monsters we flee from, the people we meet, or the experience of flying. Since we are highly visual animals the visual cortex, right at the back of the brain, is especially active, but so are many other parts of the cortex.”

Dreams ALSO occur during non-REM sleep

However, more research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the USA, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that dreams ALSO occur during non-REM sleep. Francesca Siclari, co-author of the research, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that: “The puzzle has been solved.” She noted that the team found that dreaming about faces was linked to increased high-frequency activity in the region of the brain involved in face recognition. (The article ‘The Social Brain is a Complex Super-Network’, published on Science Direct, reports that brain regions dedicated to human face processing include the amygdala.) “Maybe the dreaming brain and the waking brain are much more similar than one imagined, because they partially recruit the same areas for the same type of experiences,” Ms. Siclari stated.

Analysis of this study’s volunteers’ EEG recordings revealed that dreaming was linked to a drop in low-frequency activity in a region at the back of the brain, dubbed by the researchers the “posterior cortical hot zone” – a region that includes visual areas, as well as those involved in integrating the senses. The results held true, regardless of whether the dream occurred during REM or non-REM sleep.

Autists and dreaming

There have been studies relating to autists and dreaming – a 2008 study, “Dream content analysis in persons with an autism spectrum disorder”, published in the Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, found that participants diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had fewer recollections of dreaming, fewer bad dreams and fewer emotions. Dream content narratives were shorter in autistic participants than in controls, while autistic participants also reported fewer settings, objects, characters, social interactions, activities, and emotions.

There are many studies and articles pertaining to WHICH areas of the autistic brain are affected by the neurology – the 2015 studyCharacteristics of Brains in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Structure, Function and Connectivity across the Lifespan”, published in the journal ‘Experimental Neurobiology’, explores this subject in great depth, stating for example that the brain areas associated with social communication and interaction challenges (e.g. experienced by an autistic person) are referred to as the ‘social brain area’, and include the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and its adjoining areas, which include the amygdala.

So, we know that autistic people are thought to dream DIFFERENTLY (e.g. supposedly fewer characters and social interactions in their dreams). But do they dream as autistic people – are they AWARE of their real-life ‘autisticness’, in their dreams – e.g. self aware? or do they dream as neurotypicals? They can’t know what it feels like to be neurotypical (autism being present from birth), but maybe autists dream in a subconscious, wish-fulfilment way that projects what life would be like as a neurotypical person?

There’s no way of ascertaining answers here, but we’d love to know other people’s thoughts and opinions on the matter!

A little disclaimer – here at we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. 

Click HERE to read more of our ‘foundation posts’ on key areas of autism spectrum disorders.


  1. Cialis canada

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    • admin

      It’s professionally done Cialis…

  2. Luna

    I’m autistic. In my dreams, I am usually still myself, so that means I’m autistic too. I stim in my dreams. I go on the swings, just like I did every day as a little girl.

    I don’t really wish to be non-autistic. That would turn me into a stranger. My life may be hard, but it is mine. My wishes are about becoming more skilled and being treated better, neither of which are antithetical to autism even if the world views it that way. In my best dreams, I can fly, and I am free to be me.

    I actually have less emotional regulation skills in my dreams, so I might be perceived as “more autistic” because I melt down in ways that I don’t in real life. Of course, autism isn’t linear, so there’s no such thing as “more autistic.” Just “less immune to stress” I suppose. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that my nightmares can be intense.

    I am not like the people in the study. While my dreams are less social, they are highly intricate and lengthy, full of detailed places. I have a very rich dreaming life.

    • admin

      What a beautiful and thoughtful comment Luna! Love the ‘My life may be hard, but it is mine’ line. So many thanks x

    • Imraan Fredericks

      What a lovely insight,I have a 5 year old and hopes she has this same beautiful type of dreams …

      • admin

        Thank you Luna!

  3. hydargos

    I am autistic and I don’t dream of being neurotypical. I agree with Luna when they said, “don’t really wish to be non-autistic. That would turn me into a stranger. My life may be hard, but it is mine.”

    However I noticed that I very rarely, if ever, dream as being someone. In most of my dreams, I am a spectator, as if I was watching a movie, following a character or a group of characters. I don’t know what is the reason for that but it’s almost always like that.

    • admin

      Thanks for the feedback! Interesting… wouldn’t it be great if there were some more in depth studies on this!

  4. Steph

    My brother and I both have ASD and we dream very differently. He either doesn’t dream or never recollects his dreams, whereas mine are usually very very vivid and nearly always have a storyline, like a strange movie, with all sorts of themes, some mundane and some really whacky, and I am either myself or a fictional character about half the time each. I don’t know if I’m autistic in my dreams, but a symptom of ASD for me is pretending to be fictional characters even as an adult hah.

    But my mother has similar dreams as me, though maybe not quite as bizarre, and she is NT

  5. Lu

    Your line about you not being autistic in your dreams really jumped out at me because I’m consistently good at handling social situations in my dreams. However, after reflecting on the dreams I remember, I suspect that it’s more like everyone is on the same part of the spectrum as I am when I dream; there’s never conversations with more than three people and any dialogue is honest/blunt. So the social situations are easier to process than the ones in real life. I wonder how dreams could be influenced by types of thinking… my awake self can easily pull up visual images and I’ve always had dreams that are visually detailed. Although now I’m wondering about sensory issues… my dreams generally don’t have background noises or tactile sensations, and these are the two senses that are most easily overloaded for me. I usually like looking at complex visuals, and I wonder if this can better explain the visual details. I’d say it seems like my dreams are trying to create worlds that makes sense to me, but that might make it hard to explain all of the nightmares? These might just be me things though because I often have lucid dreams, and that might make my dream self more like my awake self.

    • admin

      Thanks Lu, it’s really kind to comment – “it seems like my dreams are trying to create worlds that makes sense to me” – love this. Maybe the nightmares are just processing? Personally, I (Kathy) had nightmares about being chased and sometimes violently attacked, but these stopped entirely as an adult when i had therapy concerning someone close to me, who was narcissistic and domineering. I think our dreams (including bad ones) are processing everything and giving us quite clear signs about what we need to address, sometimes!

  6. Paul J. Schneider

    I am ASD with BPD, MPD, and narcissistic traits. My REM dreams reflect these diagnoses. Often, I dream of a man masturbating, which I interpret as me stimming, self soothing, in public. I do also have neurotypical dreams. Quite a hoge poge (sic), which is my internal family system. Good discussion. Thanks

    • admin

      Thanks Paul – really interesting! I’d love to delve deeper into dreaming and diagnosed conditions! Kathy

  7. Clover Wall


    I’m on the spectrum and have had similar questions about dreams. I took a class recently called ‘The Art and Science of Dreams’ as an elective at my University. Apparently, most Dream Theory simply doesn’t apply the same to an atypical brain—simply because of how dreaming occurs—and it makes perfect sense. I personally don’t have dialogue in my dreams, just a sense of knowing what I’m supposed to know and when I’m supposed to know it. I also consistently lucid dream, which I believe to be a product of my co-morbid post traumatic stress and my autism. It’s been proven to be true with PTSD that the brain can alter our resting experiences. So I’d say it’s highly probable that anything atypical would have an effect, but since it’s a truly diverse spectrum, it’s hard to say for certain. Very insightful!

    • admin

      Thanks Clover and for your considered response. Your course sounds fantastic! All the best – Kathy x


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