Dreams in Children with Autism Vs ADHD: Content Recall and Frequency of Emotions
The Autism Spectrum disorder (ASD) and the Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity (ADHD) disorder are two highly comorbid neurodevelopmental disorders. Individuals with any of these diagnoses show atypical cognitive functioning, including emotional processing when compared with typically developing (TD) counterparts. Despite a lack of systematic studies, dreams in ASD and ADHD children are thought to differ from those of TD children in various ways. Indeed, children with ASD often struggle to distinguish between mental states of dreaming and thoughts. Moreover, their dreams are more likely to be based on real-life events and thus may be perceived as concrete or realistic. On the other hand, dreams of children with ADHD contain more negative content such as physical aggression. However, their dreams frequency recall is similar to non-ADHD children. The study of dreams in these two groups of children could constitute an opportunity to better understand the physiopathology of neurodevelopmental disorders.
Objectives: The aims of the present study were to characterize the aspects of the manifest dream content in ASD and ADHD children. We also wanted to explore whether or not ASD and ADHD children differed on (1) the easiness to recall their dreams, (2) the cloudiness of dream recall, and (3) the frequency of four basic dream emotions which are sadness, joy, fear, and anger.
Methods: A total of 18 children diagnosed with ASD (11.7 ± 3.7 years, 14 boys) and 18 children diagnosed with ADHD (11.8 ± 3.3 years, 11 boys) filled a dream content self-report. Groups were compared on easiness to recall content (1 = never or impossible to recall, 5 = easy), cloudiness of recall (1 = really vivid, 5 = very cloudy) and the frequency of each of the four abovementioned emotions in their dreams (1 = never, 5 = always present). Results were compared with t-tests. We expected that recall, clarity and emotions would be decreased in the ASD group, while the negative emotions (sadness, fear and anger) would be more present in ADHD group.
Results: The children of the ASD group recalled less their dreams than the ones in the ADHD group (means ± s.d.: 2.0±1.0 vs 2.7±0.9; t(29)=2.04, p<.05). The content was more cloudy (3.9±1.1 vs 3.0±1.4; t(29)=2.02, p<.05) in the ASD group. There were no differences on the frequency of emotional items, both groups reporting rarely or seldom sadness, joy, fear, and anger.
Conclusions: Dream recall was less easy and less clear in children with an ASD when compared to ADHD. Comparable results on recall were published in ASD adults compared to a group of neurotypical individuals. The two groups of children did not differ on the frequency of emotional items, both displaying low scores. The samples were biased with more boys than girls, reflecting the clinical environment. The results possibly reflect an altered processing of emotional load in dreams of children with various neurodevelopmental disorders.