Recently, in a Facebook group for people with ASD, someone asked the question: does anyone else forget how to sleep?
When you’re autistic, sleeping can be like the Golden Fleece – desirable, but just out of reach. My sleep patterns can be highly unpredictable, to say the least (probably because my mind is racing 24/7). Usually, after getting home from work, I have to sleep immediately; sometimes for 12 hours. I’ve often said that being autistic is another full time job. As a teacher, I work 50-60 hours a week. On top of that, I have to manage being autistic 24/7. I really don’t think NTs realize the amount of effort that goes into this, but I digress. Other times, I keep questioning myself if I’m tired or not: should I start another movie or do I need to sleep now? I don’t know why, but I sometimes feel guilty if I am not going to bed, as if I’m breaking some social convention (am I being watched?), when I should be just listening to my body. Lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep is pure tedium. Should I get up again? Don’t I have anything better to do? Over the years, I’ve developed strategies to help me get to sleep.
Before I go to bed, I like to have a straight gin – just half a shot. I find it helps me unwind and, if you do your research, you’ll discover the health benefits of gin. Alcohol is an excellent solvent, so any useful botanicals in juniper berries will occur in gin as well. About, 15 minutes before I try falling to sleep, I like to read. Watching TV is a horrible idea; it has been proven to excite the brain, thus keeping you awake, and its ill effects are probably even more pronounced on me, because I am so visual.
Another thing I do every night is pray. This may surprise people who know me well. Not that I’m some sort of Pagan who grows a beard and dances naked around the moonlit moor, the “Wicker Man” soundtrack blazing from my Samsung Galaxy. No, no – I don’t own a smartphone. They’d be surprised because I do engage in the simple pleasure of praying to God, even though I’ve been agnostic in the past. The brief prayer, learnt in my childhood, is an important first step in my falling asleep. I find that praying boots my confidence and focus, while preparing for sleep without interruptions, nightmares, hypnic jerks or brain zaps. After prayer, I arrange my pillows just so. Often my cat joins me and, like me, he has his routine that he repeats every time: head butt my left arm, get a fuss, then walk all the way around my feet and come up my right side for a head butt and a fuss. He often lies next to me, purring, which is really relaxing.
Lastly, I prepare myself mentally for sleep by going through the same role play in my mind. This will probably seem very odd to most people; I’ve never heard of anyone else doing it. A former girlfriend of mine, with a background in psychology, told me it was a sign of anxiety and an effort to manage that anxiety. I fully agreed with her. It’s like a movie I run through in my mind, and it plays out the same every time.
I’m in control of a castle, fort, house or base and I must prepare everyone for an imminent threat. The threat is never made clear and, while there’s provocation, the all out attack never comes. However, I take pleasure in directing everyone to their posts and establishing surveillance and lines of communication. There is a lingering sensation that some kind of attack is about to happen. Everyone is on edge. Sometimes, missiles are hurled from the darkness surrounding us; yet the enemy remains hidden. At the centre of all this, there is always a woman that we must protect against the encroaching enemy. She is terrified that we will not be able to succeed. There are various iterations to this scenario: sometimes it is set in the 1800s and we use muskets (for some reason, I am fascinated with films featuring muskets, like “The Last of the Mohicans”), sometimes it is a military base with more of a zombie apocalypse theme, sometimes a castle preparing to defend against vampires and sometimes a house under siege by some completely unknown assailant. However, the enemy we are expecting (the woman has warned us about what is coming) is never seen and, while provocative, never actually attacks.
In addition to these psychological preparations, I take natural valerian root tablets and CBD oil – both help me sleep. I also use natural, organic lavender oil; a few drops on my pillow help me to relax and settle.
When I do fall asleep, I’m a light sleeper at best. I am very sensitive to any change in the environment. One evening, I awoke to an irritating humming sound. I listened carefully and determined that is was my refrigerator. I unplugged the refrigerator and went back to bed; the humming stopped. I was about to drift off when … it started AGAIN! I plugged the refrigerator back in (wrongfully accused!) and wandered around in a stupor, trying to locate the origin of the annoyance. I looked out the window, far across the River Medway, and saw a ship docked with its lights on, about to pull away. I realised I was hearing the hum of the ship’s engine. Likewise, if the lighting changes in the parking lot behind my flat, due to cars or streetlights, I wake up.
One thing I am blessed with is highly detailed lucid dreams; some play out like complete movies. I have dreamt that I can fly, breathe under water and climb up walls. Even dreamt that I fell off a tall building AND hit the ground (when I was young, I read somewhere that people have actually died from dreams like that)! In my flying dreams, I often struggle to get off the ground. Often, I slowly float down the street; sometimes I’m dragging along the pavement, trying to get airborne – very embarrassing. However, I do recall one dream where I flew across Canada, rather like a jet, hurtling into Vancouver at night, and that was exhilarating. On the other hand, I’m cursed with extremely vivid and truly terrifying nightmares.
I used to have horrible nightmares where I’d start tingling, like a spider sense, and I knew it was coming for me. Some sort of succubus type entity would enter my room and engulf me. I’d pretend I was dead, hoping it would go away. Sometimes it did go away, other times it would surround me, waiting for me to make a false move.
Oh, and I snore … LOUDLY. The bane of many a relationship, my snoring is like a guillotine coming down between us – CATCHEEEIIINNNNG! – tearing us apart and banishing me to the spare room.
Sleeplessness, hypersensitivity, nightmares, hypnic jerks, brain zaps – I’ve had it all. When you’re autistic, sleeping is no beauty! All you can do is manage the situation to the best of your ability. Maybe, if you’re autistic, you could relate to this blog; maybe you’ve picked up some tips and ideas. Ideally, I think what you need to do is develop your own toolkit to help you sleep; a combination of physical and mental preparation, possibly supplemented by herbal remedies. Sweet dreams!