Childhood Dreams and Autism

It’s three am. My son hollers from across the house, “Rest with meeeeee!”

He’s had another nightmare.

Liev’s sleeping mind conjures strange and spectacular horrors. In his dreams, bathtub drains have teeth and eat little boy fingers.  Lurid moons peep through his curtains with “frowns and smiles so tight it hurts to look at them.” Limbs detach themselves and ambulate to our basement for exercise.

Tonight, the kitchen trash became sentient.  Liev’s dream-self heard its irritable rustling a half a house away.  I rest with him and doze off until Papa wakes me at 7:00.

Most nights are like this.

Prior to last spring, Liev slept well, waking only when routines went awry. That May, his brain began cranking out bizarre dreams regularly.

Part of me wanted to high-five him–weird dreams are a rite of passage in our family. The other part offered its tenderest sympathies.

Nightmare Factory

My childhood nightmare factory produced horrors similar to Liev’s.  In fact, my dreams resemble his so closely I suspect a genetic component.

My most frightening dream involved murderous dishtowels with superhuman strength. A pack of them stalked me in our living room, intent on smothering me.  When a ratty plaid terry towel flipped over the couch and found me cowering, I woke up screaming.

No alien or zombie-filled movie will ever equal the terror of the evil dishtowels. Perhaps Liev and I fear the mundane turned sinister because we crave predictability. The unexpected petrifies.

As we weather Liev’s nightmare surge, I’d like to share how our family manages to sleep well despite frequent wakings.

Accept sleep disruption.  Nightmares peak for all children five to eight years old. Children like Liev who have autism and/or Tourette’s syndrome are more anxious and creative, causing intense dreams.   Dreams are to my six-year-old what diapers are to a baby, a natural part of his development.

Adjust the sleep environment. Most autistic children do not have the skills to unwind alone after a frightening dream, requiring someone to stay with them until they fall asleep.  Any way you can secure sleep is excellent, even if it seems peculiar.

A happy accident worked wonderfully for us: Liev kept rolling off his twin bed so we gave him the queen guest bed.  He now boasts two beds for nightmare recovery. A parent keeps him company as needed, either on the spare twin or next to him, according to need.  I don’t worry about where I sleep, so long as I do sleep and so does everyone else.  Each parent has a thousand waking, calm moments to teach a child independence. Let sleep be their respite.

Redirect fear. We do not discuss nightmares in the bedroom.  I give Liev a courtesy sentence to relate his nightmare, but I don’t let him elaborate. I distract with a snack, brisk walk, or story if he can’t stop talking. Children with OCD or autism easily get worrisome thoughts stuck, so I act quickly to prevent Liev from reliving his fear and losing an entire night’s sleep.

Use tools.  Some parents make “nightmare spray” or “monster traps” for their children. Others train their child to change the ending of their dreams. While Liev invents multiple nightmare fighting tools, he eventually asks, “What if it doesn’t work?” This frightening realization can swallow a child whole.  I advocate honesty and composure. We tell Liev, “You will wake up and someone will be with you.”  Sometimes we need to say this a few times, but it ends the conversation. Knowing he is safe and loved is the most powerful tool of all.

My Mother's Day Card
My Mother’s Day Card

Liev’s sleeping mind is as extraordinary as his waking one. One day, I will look back at the night he dreamed his eyes got stuck in one socket. I will recall our trips to the mirror, deep breathing, and reading fairytales until he fell asleep. I will cherish the moments we shared together when I was an all-powerful mother and conqueror of nightmares.

Roach Nightmare Protecting my son from sinister forces.
Autism and Empathy: The Yogurt Incident Kickstarter for my son’s nightmares.
The Monkey Shower Dream Processing confusion before our Tourette’s syndrome diagnosis.
The Circle of Life A strange dream for a preschooler.
The Red Frog An early nightmare.
Finger Dream Vanity vs. responsibility.

A Ridiculous Reason to Lose Sleep

Be Quiet

The other night,  I encountered an article about Pick Up Artists on Buzzfeed. The oddly dressed Romeos haunt the internet, touting seduction secrets for a fee.

The piece made me sad–sad for the seduced women, sad for the fee-paying men and sad that insults could ever be part of establishing a relationship.

I skipped to a cheerier article and then pre-bedtime hands of Spider Solitaire.  At 10:00, I clicked off the lights.

As I snuggled under my pillow castle, my brain began a conversation with itself over Pick Up Artists.

Like a rude person having an interesting discussion on a cell phone, my brain invaded my peace. I tried to ignore the intrusive cascade of thoughts, but they were too loud and fascinating to ignore.

Brain chattered about relationships and the human condition. It devised elaborate match-making services and philosophized about neurodiversity, dating and mating.  Sophisticated scenarios evolved and replayed themselves.

I tossed and turned. The rational part of me  knocked on the window, as the rest of held a Pick Up Artist Party. After the 25th pillow adjustment, I glimpsed the clock–1:30 a.m.

Irritated, I hoisted myself out of bed, clumped downstairs and fixed some Malt O’ Meal. I watched an episode of South Park, returned upstairs and conked out.

The next morning I woke with this thought: my brain is a pet of sorts. It hungers and has strange cravings, especially when anxious. I’ve been feeding Brain too much Curious George and Spider Solitaire. Like a naughty dog, Brain responded by chewing on the mental shreds of a Buzzfeed editorial.

I plan to nourish my mind with finer fare, and to change the midnight scenery when I endlessly toss. Or perhaps I’ll take my late night dialogues to the computer screen so I have something to show for those lost hours.

Digital elements: Sherrie Drummond, Beth Rimmer.

The Monkey Shower Dream

Monkey Dream

Wednesday, I lost myself in a maniacal vacuuming session. It started with my art room, which is also kitty headquarters. Despite my fastidious habits, I still found crevices hosting kitty hair and litter granules. After a 45 minute suction extravaganza, I doubt a single cat hair remained.

That night, my dreams revolved around cleaning and kitty litter.

My husband and I had adopted a chimpanzee, who we called “The Monkey.” Our Monkey was adorable and brilliant, but he had one very bad habit. He liked to get into the kitty litter and rub it all over his body.  We worked hard to teach Monkey to stay out of the  litter box.

In my dream, I stepped into the kitchen and noticed gritty litter bits on the linoleum. My heart sank as I walked to the art room. The place was in shambles. Unspeakable quantities of kitty solids obscured the floor. Clods of grainy clay clung to the walls. Sitting on a waist-high mountain of litter, Monkey hoisted a handful of waste above his head. Streaked and dusty from kitty litter, he crumbled lump of litter on to his shoulders.

Disappointment swept through me. We had made such progress teaching Monkey to stay out of the litter. Monkey had been painting and even talking on the phone earlier that day. I turned my back for an instant, and kitty litter chaos erupted. Why did Monkey do this?

I knew the answer. He’s a monkey, and monkeys love kitty pee.

I delicately picked him and carried him upstairs for a shower. Calm and gentle treatment might prevent him from tearing the shower curtains down or breaking the toilet. I deftly washed his monkey body. Sweetly, he cooed and tugged at my hair. Fear tinged my affection. Chimpanzees are dangerous animals.

I recalled an ape attack survivor as I prepared to shampoo Monkey’s head. The viciousness of her ordeal obliterated her face. Oprah luridly showcased the woman, whose featureswere reduced to knob of pink, impersonal flesh. I approached the tricky task of washing his head with resignation and unease.

Before I began, I called Egor and asked him to clean up the kitty mess. E takes requests for unpleasant chores as mere suggestions, so I added an emphatic “NOW.” He resented my urgency, but I did not want to repeat another dangerous shampooing in an hour.

 We accepted our respective responsibilities. Afterall, we decided to adopt Monkey, and with that came Monkey baths and kitty litter clean- ups. I turned to contemplate Monkey, wondering “Will he tear off my face someday?” I shrugged the thought away and pulled back the shower curtain. Then, I woke up.

My dream interpretation is straightforward. Liev’s meltdowns and mischief distress me. Recently, scratching has escalated. Red, angry scrapes on my arms demoralize me. I feel as if I am doing something profoundly wrong–as if I exacerbate his meltdowns instead of avert them. He is a five year old boy. He equalizes his stress and anxiety in the simplest way possible. It is my duty to find a good path through this current frustration.



Sometimes at night, unwelcome thoughts flood my brain just as I lay my head on my pillow. Last night, Liev’s afternoon crying jag disturbed me greatly.

His fit was caused by a slow tempo Japanese alphabet song– no disturbing images or text.

Convinced that the video was the last video by his favorite singer, Liev asked me if she had died. His rambling puzzled me. I watched the video with him, then broke down in tears and cried inconsolably for almost thirty minutes.

As I write, I realize what upset him. The video was the last song on someone’s song playlist. Some combination of stress or overheard news broadcast caused his odd confabulation.

Good Grief.

Roach Nightmare

Roach nightmare

I dreamed of roaches last night.

Displaced by hurricane Irene, our family lodged with my parent’s friends, the Denneys. As a child, the Denneys were our “wealthy” friends, who lived in a split-level mansion. In my dream, they retired to an abandoned textile factory in Maine.

Beyond the factory, a post-apocalyptic landscape swarmed with homeless flood victims. An aura of chaos and menace pervaded. We were fortunate to have shelter.

Our factory-home dripped and crumbled around us. The top floor, however, housed two sunny, dry rooms. My son Liev slept in one of these rooms. I resided in the lower level. My husband was oddly absent.

Every morning, I hustled to do chores. I feared jeopardizing our security by displeasing our hosts. I scraped moldering wallpaper into buckets and collected pails of foul water for a huge cistern. I washed sheets in inky vats that blacked my nails. I pasted piles of broken glass to the walls of empty bathroom stalls. After my strange tasks, I went downstairs to make my bed.

I slept on a deteriorating mattress the floor above a flooded basement. Water streamed down an algae streaked wall. Along the far side of my room, rusting metal pipes tangled with dripping broken sinks. Sodden, decaying and neglected, the damage predated the hurricane’s advent by decades. I wondered if our friends were being opportunistic, working me so hard.

I stuffed more layers of newspapers under my bed to keep it dry. As I began to gather my sheets, I noticed roach tracks. Despite working in filth all day, I had not seen a sign of insects. Now, their droppings encrusted the perimeter of where my sleeping body had lain.

Then the smell hit me. I have dealt with a roach infestation in real life, and the stench is unmistakable. Sweetish, musky, fecal and oily, the scent was pervasive. Pushing the sheets away from me, I inspected the room.

Roaches, thousands of them. Wedged in cracks along the wall and jammed between floorboards, roaches jostled to get a look at me. I could feel them, sentient and waiting for me to return to bed. They would spend the night trundling around me. A moment of terror gripped me and passed.

I calculated the risk of complaining—could it result in Liev’s expulsion from the sunny room? I peered at the roaches, glistening and restless. I decided to quietly wash my sheets and pass the night with the roaches.