I know that it’s a dream: autism, the subconscious, and sexual fantasy

Sometimes I get ‘stuck’ in dream imagery in a waking state, and more often than not this happens during sex. 

Sometimes with my ex partner, years ago, the route to orgasm represented a sequence of rooms with opening flowers of different colours in each one, and my mind would move from one to the next until I came. Or, it might be room after room of scientists all trying to solve a theory or make a discovery, and my mind would try room after room until the scientific discovery was made. Suffice it to say this wasn’t a terribly efficient or exciting strategy of reaching orgasm, although it could be basically functional.

The imagery is quite clearly experienced by my mind in the same way as the subconscious imagery of the kind experienced in dreams. Indeed, it’s probably relevant to add that most of my dreams about sex are about rooms. A recurring sex dream, that I have had very occasionally all my life in many different formats, is of at the moment of desire wandering through endless streets, corridors, roads with the prospective partner trying to find a room to have sex in. (Which, of course, I never found). It was somehow the search for privacy, for a space of my own, that was being symbolised. A wider symbol that applied to the whole of life as well as, of course, a nascent or trying-to-be sexuality, a nascent being, that wants to find a place, a private space for the self.

With my partner now, things are very different from with my ex. Sex is more elemental, more truthful, and desire and emotion are much more connected with our sexuality as a couple. As a result, with my sexual ‘instinct’ being very much present but unstructured and untried, I’m having to construct a sexual way to be from scratch, which, while in some ways a daunting prospect, is also of course an immensely pleasurable and promising project to work on. Mostly, it’s going well. But I found myself a few weeks ago ‘stuck’ in an office block during sex.

I was, of course, in reality, in our bedroom, but in my mind, I was stuck in an office block. It was clear to me that the ‘rooms’ thing was occurring but no progress was being made and the dream images were hindering, not helping, a more emotional interaction that was in reality taking place. My brain’s attempt to systematise pleasure as per its old habits was literally obstructing any possibility of a natural experience.

Then again, this is partly how fantasies sometimes work, for me. Sometimes I spend most of a sexual experience with my partner in a rainforest. Sometimes things begin or end in the Regency period. Mostly, these things are not problems, and on the contrary, they can be helpful. The rainforest setting can be the backdrop to an interaction that is particularly physical, raw, hot, natural. The Regency stuff could simply be accessorising me taking a particular role.

But occasionally this extrusion of subconscious imagery into the real world forms a barrier for me, which provoked this blog post. So there was the office block thing. And then last night, I got stuck in Star Wars during kissing.

I didn’t actually get stuck in a Star Wars setting as such, or on the Death Star, or in a spaceship, but my mind, that was trying to be present and sensual and responsive and emotional in the beautiful experience of kissing, found itself actually blocked off by images of Rey and Kylo Ren flashing up behind my closed eyelids, entirely free of all sexual context, basically just intrusive visual hallucinations preventing me from engaging with what was happening in the real world.

I’ve been reading a bit about the work of David Lewis-Williams about consciousness. He defines a spectrum of consciousness between wakefulness and sleeping. The first stage is wakeful active problem solving; the second stage is realistic fantasy; and the third stage  fascinatingly chooses the word ‘autistic’ fantasy to refer to fantasy images which are internally sourced. (The etymology of autism is from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning the self, and autistic was originally used in this sense, where schizophrenics for instance are unable to differentiate between reality and internally generated fantasy.)

After these states follow reverie, then hypnagogic fantasy which takes the form of dreamlike hallucinations which start to gradually take over as we fall asleep. However, Lewis-Williams also posits another spectrum called the intensified trajectory of consciousness along which we can travel for various reasons other than falling asleep, such as fatigue, pain or fasting, and that “inwardly generated imagery” can be produced. Lewis-Williams is trying to move away from a model of consciousness which prioritises a ‘normal’ and then ‘altered’ state, to a spectrum model where we travel forward and back throughout the day, without needing necessarily to pathologise all waking dreamlike experiences.

Temple Grandin has suggested that autism is defined by a difference in consciousness, and for her she aligns it with the consciousness of animals. This is a very difficult argument to engage with (the way it reads, she is explicitly saying that autism is a consciousness impairment that makes us in some sense more animalistic, and less than human, with a less sophisticated conscious awareness than most humans of ourselves, others, and the world of relations and affectivity).

There’s something interesting here though. It is often said that one characteristic of autism is a lack of, and rejection of, social artifice, in that autistic people are very honest and find much of human behaviour confusing and inexplicable because humans behave according to a level of artifice that we can’t understand or access. In a ludicrous paradox, we can’t ‘naturally’ perform the human social artifice; so if we do manage to produce a mock-up of it, in order to exist in everyday society, it’s a parody which in its artificiality and in the effort it takes us to perform it, is not only exhausting but also subtly destructive and damaging.

But that surely means that we’re operating in a completely different way in relation to the subconscious. The policing social ego, the ‘self’ that enables most people to go about in the world with a shell of social behaviours that protects them from others and enables them to find a place within social networks of other humans, must be absent or impaired with autism. If I do social behaviours it is entirely conscious and deliberate, hence the exhaustion. I have to try all the time to be a person in the world. Covering myself with a layer of social artifice is a serious performative effort. And it makes it very hard for me to interact in general, when I am free to drop all artifice, as there’s no structure for it. When I’m not in ‘public’ mode, sometimes I can’t find language at all. Or I withdraw completely. I certainly am aware of ‘switching off’ into some other type of consciousness when I’m alone or at peace, at home.

If there is no protective layer pre-built at the ‘top’ that’s why autistic people suffer in society. But while we are always talking about autism’s effects outwardly, to the world, what about autism’s effects inwardly? What about how we respond to our subconscious selves when the self that is on the surface is not protected, but is one layer down, an exposed, true self? What if autistic people are consciously performing what we are calling consciousness itself.

When I’m intimate with my partner I am at the crux of two states of being. In one, I am being a person in the world, interacting and speaking and being and communicating – with him, where I am understood and safe, but still by necessity using social tools. And in another, I am an elemental, physical being, trying to show him and touch him with my bodily and emotional ‘soul’, nature, sexual, ‘underneath’ self.

I don’t think it’s surprising then that sometimes I topple into waking dreams during sex. In those vulnerable, natural moments I am perhaps genuinely falling into a more exposed subconscious. Being stuck in an office block is no longer a technique for me, though, as I don’t want to fall into dream and leave him behind in the world. In the world is where he is, and I want to be present with him, so that means I have to wrest my awareness out of distant dreams (and out of flowers, and scientists) to be with him and smell his skin and feel his body and somehow balance my consciousness on that fine line where I can lay aside the artificiality of the social self but access in a conscious way the natural, loving, sensual being I am trying to free. And access the sexual and erotic images and mental states of sexuality for my own pleasure.

Afterwards I lay with him and looked at him, somehow stuck, but not in any odd imagery, just unable to say anything or communicate. Though I wanted to. Though I wasn’t sure what I wanted to communicate. I just wanted to be with him. And he said, “Are you ok in there?”

I said yes (I will always say yes if asked if I’m ok, it’s just inevitable!) and he went off to brush his teeth. But later in the dark I swam laboriously up to the surface of language, opened my mouth, and said thank you to him for choosing those words. He laughed; said that he had been pleased with them at the time, and said “I could see you were in there.”

I’m not sure anybody has ever said more meaningful words to me. I clung to him and wept, and asked him never to give up on me. And I told him I was always going to be ‘in here’ struggling to reach the surface. He knows that, and loves the person looking out through my eyes, and that is one of the things about us that is most deeply precious.

My post title is from Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles. Whatever the accusations of its relationship to drugs, it’s also an autism song par excellence. Lines like “No one I think is in my tree” make that obvious but it’s also for the general sense of confusion and identity and the search for validation.


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