Helpful hint: Be careful what you assume about autism. Science and psychology know very little, really, and surprises are likely in store in the coming months and years.
So, allow me to monoblogue:
Yes, this is a departure from our usual diablogue. Early Sunday, Ken asked me to write this blog post myself as he binge sleeps. He can do nothing else at this moment. He has been sleeping on and off, in between required hours of work, eating, and essential family business, since returning from our profoundly affecting university organized and Elder-led indigenous sacred sites excursion. We’ve also recently experienced a rapid-fire series of life events, mostly positive but a few hard ones as well. He urged me, as he tucked himself into bed at 3 pm (likely for the night and for most of Monday as well) to explain his occassional absolute need to sleep however I saw fit. He asked this of me both to help others better understand the toll that busy “ordinary” life cognition takes on Aspies and to avoid missing another post—we missed last week due to the aforementioned trek.
So, today the page is mine. I will try to do well with it. However, rest assured that such monoblogues will appear only occasionally. We work best, in this blog, as a team. I think we have something unique to offer as we genuinely ponder, question, and laugh together about living as a mixed brain couple.
So, why does Ken have an urgent and recurring (about once every 2-3 months) need to binge sleep? One big reason is that he has a far, far noisier or busier brain than most of us, and when it over-fires during intense social experiences or for extended periods during rapid change and happenstance—either or good or bad—he MUST, that is MUST shut his brain off to recuperate, cope, and survive. He has done this all his life, but after his late diagnosis a few years ago, he finally understood more about why.
Let me paraphrase some of the latest autism science to explain this—though I will undoubtedly oversimplify things. Autism has been called one of the most complex conditions studied today; most agree that there is no single factor, such as a gene or environmental event, that determines it. Also, about 60 percent of autistics have significant cognitive disabilities, leaving 40 percent with average or above abilities. Nobody knows why some brains move in one direction and some in the other. Still, across all variants, there seem to be similarities in the kinds and locations of brain differences. This is why Ken can relate to, and often explain, infant and child autism responses and reactions; it’s because he experiences many of the same things—to different degrees.
Research shows that autistic brains are structurally, electrically, and chemically different from non-autistic brains. For example, the individual hemispheres are larger, thicker, and contain more folds, yet the corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the hemispheres, is smaller (or even absent in severe autism), thus reducing cross-hemisphere communication. Temple Grandin has described “grand trunk rail lines” of thinking activity travelling longitudinally back and forth along these “grand trunk rail lines” of the individual hemispheres of her brain rather than across to each hemisphere via the corpus callous using each of the two hemispheres simutaneously. This helps account for her, Ken’s, and other autistics’ astoundingly intense focus. When on task and “in the zone” they are undistracted by social phenomena such as wondering what’s for dinner, considering the appropriate response to a colleague’s email, or attending to what’s happening nearby. Ken calls it tunnel vision, but it seems to affect all his senses. This focus and clarity of mind is one of the key gifts that the high-functioning autistic brain offers the world—hence all those people posthumously diagnosed: Einstein, Shakespeare, and innumerable art, math, and technology geniuses who drove, and still drive, the world forward.
Science also suggests that autistic brains grow faster in early childhood but that the normal pruning (removal) of unused cells in areas that control cognitive and emotional processing does not occur. This means that there are literally more physical connections, more synapses, in an autistic brain. Way more. Look at this image from Columbia University Medical Center:
The image above on the right shows a brain cell from a non-autistic brain that has undergone normal pruning during childhood and adolescence. The image on the left is from an autistic brain; it has more abundant synapses at each spine, the result of less natural pruning.
And look at this image:
The “neurotypical” brain on the left has lit up in response to a complex but ordinary social situation such as interpreting multiple, rapid-fire verbal and body language interactions at a meeting or encountering a highly emotional and seemingly irrational adult. Specialised wiring in the (left) non-autistic brain efficiently sorts things out, leaving plenty of brain capacity to deal with the situation. In contrast, the autistic brain on the right has received the same social stimulation, but it lights up like a Christmas tree—there is much more wiring and not all of it is connected like the non-autistic brain. With all circuits firing in intense or unexpected social situations, it’s no wonder that Ken describes the feelings as painful, confusing, debilitating, and exhausting.
All these and other structural, electrical, and chemical brain differences prompt researchers to dub autistic brains as “chatterbox brains” and “noisy brains,” brains that takes in all available stimuli and have trouble filtering, sorting, and responding in socially appropriate ways. This helps us understand autistic peoples’ challenges with overstimulation from social situations, lights, sounds, voices, smells, and touch. In autistic kids, overstimulation episodes are often called “meltdowns”; they can manifest as screaming sessions, physical outbursts, or even self-harm. Ken also has meltdowns, but because of his particular autistic makeup and what he calls his age, stage, and experience in coping, they look a lot different.
For example, when over-stimulated suddenly or for too long, Ken can go quiet; make a quick exit to a less stimulating place; get a migraine; become unusually intense, verbose, or incoherent in his speech and hold eye contact for too long; forget people’s names; become unable to process simple input or instructions; slow down at green lights and go through red lights; or physically stumble. And finally, if the overstimulation is serious enough, Ken will seek out a bed and fall into a deep “shut down” sleep that can last for days with only the briefest of wakeful moments to drink and use the faculties. If I attempt to rouse him from such a sleep he will act as if in a stupor, and I can understand why. His brain must cool down. He needs shut down time to process all the stimulation and for some of it to bleed off in various ways.
Often, fascinatingly, he will eventually wake from a binge sleep episode having “dreamt solutions” to complex problems. And he’ll be refreshed and invigorated, ready to go at life again. But if the demands of work or personal life interrupt a critically needed binge sleep, his compulsion to rest will be prolonged and he will simply nap or nod off at every opportunity for days, weeks, or longer, getting his binge in pieces, but getting it nonetheless. Ken needs to binge sleep about every couple of months, depending on what’s going on in our lives.
When Ken and I encountered the foregoing and other brain images and explanations, we theorized that the extra synapses and “grand trunk processing railways” also contribute to some very positive attributes of high functioning (and savant) autism. Ken makes lightening fast and often unconventional connections when solving problems. He is a master problem solver and an innovative and divergent thinker—sometimes stunningly so. He’s also amazingly witty and funny, almost always having something smart, delightful, or insightful to say in response to, well, anything! We figure that his billions of extra synapses—those little arms reaching out and connecting diverse parts of his brain in net-like ways—are at least partly behind these gifts that solve real problems and make people laugh. If you’re curious to read more about this positive take on autism, I suggest you scan this thought-provoking article on how autism indeed remains in the pool of human diversity because it serves an evolutionary purpose, aiding mankind’s advancement: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mom-am-i-disabled/201703/why-does-autism-still-exist
However, the rest of us are stuck with our ordinary, neatly pruned, but not nearly as creative or Google-like-quick thinking abilities! But we don’t melt down as often or in the same ways; we can handle all sorts of tricky social situations with little trouble—including, when necessary, ‘letting things go’; and if we binge sleep, it’s probably for other reasons.
And so tonight, Sunday, as Ken binge sleeps on, I’ll post this and he’ll read it when he awakes sometime Monday. I hope he approves of my ramblings! Maybe we’ll get him to respond to—and in some way extend or spring from—this post in his own monoblogue in the next post. Perhaps he’ll add some useful data or correct something I might have assumed about him or conjectured about autism. Then it’ll be back to diabloguing the way we usually do.
~ Christina (Sleepless but not in Seattle)
Next post #20 ~ To be determined!
Synapses image from: https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/science-news/brain-study-finds-evidence-autism-involves-too-many-synapses?utm_medium=text-link&utm_content=Brain%20Study%20Finds%20Evidence%20that%20Autism%20Involves%20Too%20Many%20Synapses%20&utm_campaign=mostpopular
Busy brain image from: https://www.mumsnet.com/campaigns/this-is-my-child-autism-and-stress-research