When Asleep, When Awake: Where Has Psyche Gone?
The following traits have been observed in many people with autism, Asperger’s, and other cross-wired brain types; some are superpowers, some schizophrenic musings:
*Non-Circadian sleep patterns
Let’s explore these, and my theory (based on empirical evidence only) that people with neurodiversity may be half-asleep/mostly-awake at all times. Searching the internet for any of the terms above with “autism” will yield an endless diversity of connection.
I always seemed distracted, still do. I could laser focus when laser-focusing was the thing to do. A quiet, familiar room in school was the perfect place to ace a test every time, but a large, unfamiliar room with even one sound out of place could make me fail. I often seem to be walking ahead or behind others, my head pointed up or down, into the leaves or the sky, into the tiny cracks in the sidewalk. If you’re talking to me about something fascinating, the laser focus returns.
I often get to choose in an instant to be awake or asleep. I often don’t get to choose.
I am not just sharing my own story here. As a member of Asperger’s support groups, mostly on-line, occasionally in-person, I have read thousands of articles, posts, and stories related to how daydreams, lucid deep-sleep, waking-REM sleep, and realistic fantasies converge.
Do people on the spectrum sleep differently?
Night Terrors and Caviar Dreams
About once a month, in cycles, I wake up in terror. Believe it or not, the dreams aren’t always bad, but they happen on nights when I’m sleeping very deeply; I have been known to fly out of bed just thinking about my debt, or a vivid dream of being chased. In phases of my life, I have been caught talking often in my dreams.
I am always in tune with my dreams; they seem to be happening very vividly in most cases. I remember hundreds per night, and the memories don’t go away immediately upon waking like I hear they do with “neurotypical” people. Many of my dreams stay with me forever, just like my waking memories. I have thought of thousands of them today, alongside the facts, the music, and musings. I’m not always sure the difference between what’s happened in the past, what’s happened in my dreams, or what’s just a prediction for tomorrow.
What I am dreaming about is a combination of many realistic, logical subjects. I am thinking about how the economy of one country can lead to the extinction of a species in 8.75 years. It sounds boring and research-y, but to me, these are my nightmares, as if I’m watching news stories, running statistics, and witnessing all the hopeful futures and inevitable failures of our planet.
Sometimes I am just dreaming about my day, nightmaring about bills, fights, life challenges. Any of these can make me fly out of the bed, screaming and pushing those around me out of the way. Some nights I just walk and talk, sometimes not in my own voice. To have been witnessed speaking in other voices while asleep has always scared me; but, sometimes, I’m just playing Marilyn Monroe and don’t know I’m awake.
Waking REM and Daydreams
The good news is, every bad thought or memory is countered by some beautiful fantasy about a friend or a real encounter with nature or music. Now that science is researching links between REM patterns and spectrum disorders, the way my eyes sometimes dart back and forth rapidly while I’m awake totally makes sense. As most people who have gotten to know me know, I’m usually having about 1 waking dream, 1 active research topic, 1 internal attitude check, and 1 actual experience or conversation.
My good dreams are just as awesome as the bad ones. When I’m awake, it’s like a transparent set of kaleidoscopic glasses are over my vision, a fractal haze that I have to look through, but it’s fascinating to watch. It’s made up of actual pictures from my life, swirling around me, inviting me to look at them like so many Polaroids.
In the day, I run through thousands of songs in my head, cataloging them, though I can never remember the lyrics, just the chord structure. I catalog the hundreds of colors on a painter’s palate, visit every planet in Star Trek (some of which I have made up), and redesign urban infrastructure as I walk through it, imaging its better, more efficitent future. I also do actually know what’s going on (!), but some days are 100% clear, and others are like walking around in a swirling fog.
I go through each friend I’ve known since I was born and through hundreds of theoretical (maybe?) people I’ll never meet in each country on Earth. I’m trying to contact everyone telepathically, even while I can’t speak to them directly or keep up with Facebook. I am never sure if it’s real, or if I’m trippin’ out, as they say.
Circadian Rhythm and Blues
The short-term memories of a lot of people on the spectrum can be surprisingly aloof, it’s as if the near-past somehow slips by us at first, then loops around for active review on subsequent days. For most people, this is what sleep is, but it
In the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, I can remember how the brain uses sleep to go through the day’s memories and relegate them by significance, deleting those memories that are simply taking up space (the mundane, perhaps). In my mind, it’s like those deletions don’t occur readily, I have to force my brain into a waking re-org at times (the closest metaphor would be de-fragging your computer. This requires “alone time” or one of my forms of repetitive behaviors may set in (rocking back and forth or seizing up and shaking my hands).
Instead of being asleep and experiencing mind clean-up, I simply get to review data all day and all night long, so much that Monday’s events aren’t getting cycled through fully until Thursday. For this reason, I don’t sleep well at all times, and can seem distracted while awake.
REM while awake (being able to watch the world while I dream) or being able to describe my first two dreams while half-asleep can be fascinating (ask people who have shared a bed with me).
Conclusion and Confusion
So, maybe it’s that people on the spectrum are simply walking to a different beat, literally. Perhaps, instead of being guided by the sun, we are guided by the moon. No day or night is the same for me–some days are all dream, some nights all light.
Unfortunately, sleep isn’t just about recharging, it’s about data collection and reclamation. I think this is why people with autism get overwhelmed and sometimes find the familiar or repetitive comforting. The sheer amount of data is not only distracting, but in varying ways, totally overwhelming when trying to fit into a big social group or complete a complex project when one is supposed to be functionally awake.
Most spectrum-ers are actually fantastic at running group dynamics and envisioning amazing, lofty ideals, but can be overwhelmed when small social changes or challenging people are involved. This is all because of the data and not knowing what to do with it, most autistics actually LOVE people, they just don’t always know how to wade through all the information to tell you about it.
If I had to explain how I feel on the inside, it’s this: the last 36 years have all seemed like a dream. It’s all seemed so real. I’ve done so much research, I can’t always differentiate between those places I’ve already been and those places I’ve simply obsessed over for thousands of days. Sometimes I can’t tell if I hear what you’re thinking, or if I’ve just already imagined you thinking everything you possibly could, or if the voice is my own playing back in on itself for you.
Thanks and good night. Follow my blog if you’d like to hear more about what’s going on inside. -OyO-