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.