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Maladaptive Daydreaming and Autism: What’s the Link?

March 15, 2024

We are all “guilty” of letting our minds wander and daydream. Sometimes, however, daydreaming spills over its boundaries and becomes maladaptive and disruptive in nature. For autistic individuals, this can be really challenging to deal with. Naturally, you begin to wonder: is there a link between maladaptive daydreaming and autism?

Daydreaming can serve an important purpose for pondering our future, brainstorming creative ideas, and as a temporary relief from daily bouts of boredom. However, it’s important to recognize when daydreaming turns into a serious issue for autistic individuals. If you’d like to learn more, join us as we explore the connection between maladaptive daydreaming and autism.

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What is maladaptive daydreaming?

What is maladaptive daydreaming? Maladaptive daydreaming occurs when typical daydreaming becomes troublesome and impedes one’s daily lifestyle.

This type of behavior creates difficulties in differentiating these daydreams from reality. Those experiencing it may act out upon these thoughts, fostering very real consequences in the world around them.

Maladaptive daydreaming (MD) distinguishes itself from regular daydreaming due to its potential impact on many aspects of a child’s life and its tendency for those who experience MD to act out upon these daydreams.

What’s the connection between maladaptive daydreaming and autism?

Recent research indicates a strong connection between autism and maladaptive daydreaming. For instance, 43% of adults with ASD report experiencing maladaptive daydreaming in a study of 844 participants.

Maladaptive daydreaming can become particularly disruptive to an individual with autism as they begin to retreat ever further into their vivid imagination and away from academics and prospective friendships. As a result, this may create difficulty in focusing on tasks or even getting regular nightly sleep.

What causes maladaptive daydreaming in autism?

Several prospective causes may exist for maladaptive daydreaming in children with ASD. Individuals with autism often resort to maladaptive daydreaming to escape feelings of loneliness and challenges in emotional regulation.

Young girl lying in bed and daydreaming
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/maladaptive-daydreaming-autism/

Studies are focused on a part of the brain known as the resting network, which is usually active when people are resting. In individuals with autism, it’s suggested that this part of the brain isn’t as active during rest but doesn’t shut down entirely when they’re focused on a task. This might lead to daydreaming that could seem inappropriate.

How to treat maladaptive daydreaming?

As parents, you’re probably wondering – what is the best way to treat maladaptive daydreaming in autism?  While there’s no established treatment for maladaptive dreaming, it’s thought that improving social and emotional skills could reduce loneliness and the urge to daydream in a harmful way.

As a result, daydreaming becomes less rewarding, and the autistic individual no longer turns to it for comfort. According to some research studies, psychotropic medication regimens for OCD may also reduce maladaptive daydreaming.

More than just daydreaming

While it is somewhat typical for children to daydream as a means to stoke creativity, it is important to recognize that MD has a very different tone and quality from this typical developmental behavior.

MD involves a more intense quality, with a consistent storyline and a strong need for the child to be drawn back into focusing on the plot of the maladaptive daydream.

As experts in both mental and physical health research new treatments for MD, they aim to understand and tackle this behavior in a way that helps children and their parents deal with MD appropriately.




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FAQs

Q: Who is prone to maladaptive daydreaming?

A: Individuals who have preexisting mental health conditions are more apt to develop maladaptive dreaming. Individuals that may be more susceptible to MD include those with ADHD, varying anxiety disorders, specific depressive types, OCD, as well as autism.

Q: How rare is maladaptive daydreaming?

A: As MD is a relatively new condition, there is limited research available to determine its prevalence in the general population. Early studies have suggested that approximately 4.3% of young adults may exhibit some aspects of MD.

Q: Is maladaptive daydreaming a symptom of autism?

A: It seems there may be a connection between autism and maladaptive daydreaming. However, MD cannot be classified as a specific symptom of ASD. Based on current research, individuals experiencing significant loneliness, social isolation, or difficulties in emotional regulation may also display varying degrees of maladaptive daydreaming.

Q: What are maladaptive behaviors in autism?

A: Maladaptive behaviors of autistic children can include aggression, difficulties interacting with others, self-harm, eating inedible objects, elopement, etc. It should be noted, however, that each child may exhibit some of these behaviors to varying degrees, so these issues aren’t observed exclusively in children with autism. 

References:

West, M.J., Somer, E. & Eigsti, IM. Shared Challenges and Cooccurrence of Maladaptive Daydreaming and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Adv Neurodev Disord 7, 77–87 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41252-022-00279-1 

Somer, E. Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy 32, 197–212 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020597026919

Soffer-Dudek N, Somer E. Trapped in a daydream: daily elevations in maladaptive daydreaming are associated with daily psychopathological symptoms. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:194

Schupak C, Rosenthal J. Excessive daydreaming: a case history and discussion of mind wandering and high fantasy proneness. Consciousness and Cognition. 2009;18(1):290-292. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2008.10.00

Bigelsen J, Lehrfeld JM, Jopp DS, Somer E. Maladaptive daydreaming: Evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Consciousness and Cognition. 2016;42:254-266. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.03.017

Somer, E., Abu-Rayya, H. M., Schimmenti, A., Metin, B., Brenner, R., Ferrante, E., … & Marino, A. (2020). Heightened levels of maladaptive daydreaming are associated with COVID-19 lockdown, pre-existing psychiatric diagnoses, and intensified psychological dysfunctions: A multi-country study. Frontiers in psychiatry, 1146.

West, M. J., Somer, E., & Eigsti, I.-M. (2023). Immersive and Maladaptive Daydreaming and Divergent Thinking in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 42(4), 372-398. https://doi.org/10.1177/02762366221129819 

Somer, E., Soffer-Dudek, N., & Ross, C. A. (2017). The comorbidity of daydreaming disorder (maladaptive daydreaming). The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 205(7), 525-530.

Somer, E.,Somer, L, & Daniela S. Jopp (2016) Parallel lives: A phenomenological study of the lived experience of maladaptive daydreaming, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17:5, 561-576, DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2016.1160463

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