Sia’s movie, Music, features a character who escapes into an inner world of music and dance and whimsy. Are inner worlds common for Autistic people?
Recently, NeuroClastic surveyed over 200 Autistic people to ask Autistics if they have an inner world, and if so, how do they describe their inner-worlds and imaginations. The responses were as vivid, diverse, and creative as the individuals who contributed.
Editor’s note: The featured image is from an Autistic artist and Illustrator at Naessly’s Art Space. Follow them on Facebook, here.
We asked respondents to answer a series of questions:
- What are your pronouns?
- Do you ever escape to an inner world- or an alternative internal reality- Where things are different from real life?
- Do you ever imagine talking to someone and have conversations with them in your head?
- Are you autistic?
- Can you describe your inner world?
- What does having an inner world or internal conversations do for you.
For those who are diagnosed or self-identified as Autistic, here’s how they answered question 2:
Fewer than 10% of Autistic people have never had an internal world.
And even fewer, still, never have internal conversations with others. Check it out.
And here’s what purpose inner worlds and conversations served for Autistics:
Some of “other” reasons from the question above were really interesting.
There was providing a counterpoint to keep things fair:
I talk to my inner self about everything. He helps me. We don’t see things the same way, but through ongoing dialogue about everything that matters, we draw conclusions that I act on.
To reduce the stress of being emotionally or circumstantially unprepared:
I mostly use inner conversations as a means to re-visit or to plan ahead for conversations. Currently doing a lot of pretend confrontations with my family as such is on the horizon and it’s stressing me. It acts as practice and clarification of my own thoughts. Similar thing for roleplaying. Going into character and having made up conversations with other people in universe such that I may practice the role and expand the thoughts, values, vocabulary and mannerisms of the character. To summarize I suppose that I host internal conversations to alleviate the stress that comes with being unprepared.
Several people noted that it was the only place where they were seen, heard, appreciated, understood, and included.
It’s a place where I know I will not be judged or perceived as “weird” by others.
For others, it is a more systematized way of understanding and processing feelings:
To me, it has also being a very important way of learning about my feelings, since sometimes I can’t recognize or understand them in me in the outside, but sometimes I can if I experiment them in a different world, from a different perspective.
Many people mentioning that it was the only place where they were free to express themselves and to be their authentic selves.
Walking Through Autistic Worlds
Approximately 90% of Autistic people had inner worlds or internal conversations as something in common with each other, but the way this manifested was vastly different. The following image is a word cloud made from words frequently used in the descriptions of Autistic inner worlds:
We asked Autistic people if they wanted to use a pen name, their real name, or remain anonymous. We’ve honored those preferences below:
from Emma Wood
Various fictional worlds (from tv shows, anime, books, movies, etc.) that I have loved, where I can interact with my favorite characters in any way I want. I also have worlds either inspired by works of fiction or made up whole cloth from my imagination, where I can go on adventures and interact with people I have created.
Fun! Full of funny conversations and happy events! Feels like I’m living in my own film. Rules change if/when I want them to. I pace at the same time and regard both my imagined worlds and the pacing as stims.
I look internally for thoughts and feelings while shutting out the external world completely. My external interactions run on autopilot. I can’t remember them after. I focus on whatever paths my internal thoughts and feelings take me. I leave myself open to go anywhere, but it is usually to one of the things I am particularly interested in. In this state I get insights and make linkages from one topic to
another. I find having more than one completely different topic running at once creates serendipity and insight due to cross linkages and viewing one issue from the standpoint of the other. You can learn a huge amount this way.
As a child, it was an elaborate unicorn homeland full of frolicking unicorns and waterfalls. I could sit and stare at the wall for hours and never get bored. As I teen, I learned how to lucid dream. There, I learned how to fly. Eventually I learned to create whole worlds.
As an adult there are many times and reasons I go to my inner world, and many worlds to choose from, though I don’t spend hours on end there. I just slip in and out as needed. I’ll describe a few.
For safety, as a city person and woman who keeps odd hours and likes to travel alone, when I’m walking down the street I imagine scenarios in which I must act quickly to defend myself. I try to think of every variable. I rehearse until it’s deeply ingrained. It’s a purely mental exercise yet my muscles develop memory. I don’t know how that works, but it has been tested. So I’m always ready,
even when I’m lost in more silly daydreams.
If I’m stuck in an insufferable conversation I cannot escape from, particularly topics of ignorance and politics, I’ve trained my face to smile and nod, while my mind escapes to a hidden zen garden. Each time I go there I add new features—rocks, water, foliage, maybe a cute amphibian.
I often imagine conversations that I know will occur or are likely to occur, so I can be prepared.
I often talk to myself as well, to reason through a problem or explore an idea from different angles.
My inner world is as vast as the universe itself. I’m never bored visiting it, and always wish I could stay longer than “real time” allows. My inner world is colorful and diverse, full of images, language and music that bring me joy or take me deeper into the understanding of my self and others.
I dream all of the dreams, think all of the thoughts, and experience all of life’s events from every angle possible; like a bird flitting from perch to perch. Lock me up and I will still sing, think, create and remain free. For some people being left alone with their own mind is torturous and terrifying. But for me, it’s an invitation to leisurely float through my artfully-crafted galaxy of wonder and knowledge.
My inner world is basically a futuristic, cyberpunk-esque metropolis in which my imaginary friends and I all live. I experience it kind of like one would an AR game ; it’s like an enhanced, augmented version of my current life, with more neon lights, more activities and stimuli, and people who actually want to be my friends and do things with me and with whom it’s easy to communicate.
Its a shifting world, various concepts, people, locations etc. get added in some get thrown out, as I grow and learn. The world is vaguely similar to earth, but with high fantasy, and scifi mixed in. My inner world started as a way to relieve boredom, stress and loneliness, but has now shifted to help me practice interactions and learn from my social interactions through the day.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always took refuge on my inner worlds, and it had a lot to do with my special interests from the moment, sometimes. Like, I remember being three/four and having power rangers as my first autistic special interest, and since I couldn’t watch it all the time and kids my age (or any age) weren’t obsessed with it like me, I created my own power rangers dimension in my head and would stay there all the time to hide and calm myself or just play. And then it became an habit, and I would make
many inner worlds, some from books, series or movies, others from my own mind. I have two invented inner worlds, one with fairies, witches, wargs, kings and pirates in their different and mostly beautiful places, and the other one has “yanos”, some magical creatures connected to nature who live in a world divided in different types of forests and castles built within giant trees and at the top of a climb,
stuff like that.
Often it’s kind of like a really long simulation of real life where I play out imaginary scenarios or redo scenarios I actually experienced and play out different variations of how I would react and/or how other people might react to me. Sometimes I have whole conversations, either with people I actually know or imaginary people.
It’s where a lot of my life happens, where I process things, have discussions, work things out. People around me are experiencing approx 5% of what’s actually going on inside my mind. Maybe up to a maximum of 10%. That percentage is smaller depending on how safe and comfortable I am.
I can do things that no one else can do, but I can’t even describe them because they are not catalogued as human behavior or things that humans do. I have a lot to offer the world, but the world can’t see my value because they don’t even know that it’s possible to do what I can do. As a child, I imagined that my real parents were coming to get me, and they could see what I could do. But they never came.
Now, I use my inner world to work out what kind of scenarios would have to happen for me to be able to demonstrate my skills and be of service to the world. I have to internally rearrange the whole fabric of society to visualize a world that has space for me. My inner world is a survival skill that keeps me alive.
The only way I could be included in this world and allowed to even donate my free labor safely would mean that everything is restructured. It has given me actionable ways to fix the structural racism, ableism, and other forms of supremacy that make living difficult for anyone who is an Other, like me– and my isolation has given me the answers to questions no one will ever ask me because they do not believe in my potential.
Probably not a Changeling
I used to run through scenarios in my head where I had super powers or magic. Starting from whatever context I was in, with people from real life, I’d consider the moral and practical implications of everything from energy projection to inter-dimensional travel.
I have a special interest in science fiction, occult, and fantasy, so maybe I was just imagining a world where that expertise was more useful. I also carry a few useful “people” in my head– usually my dad, my therapist, and my weightlifting coach. I know just about what they would say in any circumstance, and I sometimes consult them about choices or interactions. I know that they’re not the real person but it’s like those scenes in Star Trek where characters will consult virtual historical figures on the holodeck – it gives me a sounding board in my own head.
It varies. Sometimes it’s reality and I’m just imagining something happening in this world, other times it’s small like imagining I’m in a therapists office getting advice. Other times it’s places out of a book or on TV. And sometimes it’s an imaginary world I’ve created myself, like a whole other planet or space ship.
I’m not sure if my inner world is the same as the stories I have in my mind, but they live parallel to me. There’s a story I’ve been creating since I was a teenager which is another reality of magic and mystery. My inner world is where all my creative and imagery thoughts are. If inner world is me dreaming of another type of world fantasy/sci-fi.
Or if my inner world is how I wish the world could be. It would be that of no poverty, no war, no injustice (no harming each other in any manner) and everyone (I really do mean absolutely everyone) has acceptance, equality and equity being who they are, living and prospering where we all work together and contribute with our best skills. Our common goal is to improve our quality of life. In my perfect world I wouldn’t have to think of economy and instead focus my energies on my interests as everyone else. There’s so much to learn from everyone and not enough time to cultivate it.
It makes me upset that we spend so much of our lives ‘surviving’ when we could’ve put minds together and create something wonderful! I’m having a hard time explaining it, but the world today shouldn’t be like it is. It hinders creativity, cooperation and acceptance, and pushes for segregation and discriminate of certain groups of people. The world needs to change for the better.
So, I write stories so I’m not sure if this is what you’re after but when I’m imagining my stories, I can see and hear everything n the ‘scene’ in my head, almost feel it. The real physical world around me goes away and all I can see all around me is the imaginary scene in my head. This was stronger when I was younger but it can still be pretty intense. When I’m having fictional conversations, it’s the same deal except the background scene is my ‘safe place’: a log cabin in a snowy wood and I can see and hear the character like they were in the room with me. For fictional characters I make up, it’s more like I read something, and in my head I’ll hear the characters’ response. I sometimes imagine having chats with people I know IRL and it’s the same setup, I see them quite clearly in my minds’ eye and there’s a room around us usually with furniture and all that’s like a little mini movie in my head.
It shifts depending on what I’m using it for, and has changed much over time. As a child, it was like going back in time, filled with dinosaurs and extinct creatures. Now it has modernized, like a world empty of people accept when it isn’t. There are shadows there, and scary nooks I often try to avoid. There is a void, and there are things left over from my childhood. I have a favorite place, an open grassy field that has only one tree, in this place I have wings. This was more real to me as a child, less real to me now, but I can still get absorbed by it.
A World for Us
As you can see from these responses, Autistic inner-worlds are richly-detailed and of vital importance to the people who use their minds so creatively. There is a devastating stereotype that Autistic people lack imagination or creativity, which clearly is baseless.
Perhaps fewer people would spend so much time internally if the external world were not so unaccommodating, but even still– being able to live inside one’s thoughts and explore them is a healthy, vibrant, creative way to evaluate and take stock of our thoughts.
The layered and detailed nature of this internal world-building allows for Autistic people to exist in parallel with the world that should be and the one that is, and perhaps to find a way to bridge the two.
- Neuroqueering the future: an Interview with Dr. Nick Walker- author of Neuroqueer Heresies - January 26, 2022
- Autistic people and the fear of death - November 25, 2021
- Integrating autistic culture into the world: The cultural model of autism - June 1, 2021
Retreating to a richer world is a logical answer to what often lacks outside (understanding, good faith, etc).
I have an inner world as well, where everything I’m terrified of (especially intimacy) is something I address on my own way and rhythm. I can’t explain how much it helps having it, nor I want to – it feels out of place when I externalize this.
Kudos to everyone sharing their experiences, it was reassuring.