Dreamcatcher: Dr Montague Ullman
‘ Autism ‘ is a complex brain disorder that involves both social and behavioural impairments. There are some who believe, however, that autism may go beyond the typical symptoms associated with this disorder. One of these individuals is Dr Montague Ullman, a child psychiatrist at New York University School of Medicine.
In the course of his extensive studies of autistic children, Ullman has come to the conclusion that some autistic individuals are more than just detached. Rather, they may be unable to attach or connect to others on an emotional level. He feels that these people may also be at a greater risk of self-harm because of their impaired ability to recognize pain in themselves and others.
Ullman, who is also the director of the Dream Laboratory at New York State Psychiatric Institute, believes that children with autism have a much different response to dreams than do non-autistic children. He has been able to document this difference by studying sleep patterns in a group of autistic and a control group of normal children.
In Ullman’s studies, he has found that neurotypical children (children who do not have autism) and autistic children often dream about the same subjects. According to Ullman, ‘ It seems like all kids dream about is monsters, and no parents should be worried if their kids have monster dreams. “
However, while autistic and non-autistic children have the same dream content, they have different sleep patterns. Ullman finds that autistic children produce very little eye movement during their dreams, which is a marker associated with dreaming in healthy neurotypical people. In fact, Ullman finds it remarkable that most autistic individuals can recall any dreams at all. This suggests to him that ‘the dreaming part of the brain is a very different place in autistic children than it is in normal children.”
Ullman believes that the lack of eye movement seen in autistic children may be a physical manifestation of their experiences. He theorizes that these individuals have less stimulus from the external world, so there is nothing for them to focus on while they sleep. He believes this is why they have difficulty recalling dreams.
On the other hand, neurotypical children have a greater stimulus from their environment, which often causes them to focus on external issues. Thus, these individuals will likely experience a lot of eye movement while they sleep, which makes it easier for them to recall their dreams upon waking up.
Ullman continues to be amazed at the lack of eye movement seen in autistic children. He has stated, ‘ It’s as if they are not dreaming unless they remember it.”