Autistic people supposedly dream differently (e.g. fewer social interactions) – but do they dream as autistic people?
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 ‘Spectra.blog’ 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.)
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 study “Characteristics 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 Spectra.blog 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.
Also published on Medium.