Synesthesia and Bedtime Routines

This isn’t the post I meant to be my first post on this blog, but it fits the theme of this blog, so why not?  The other post is coming, it’s just very difficult from a writing standpoint.  Anyway, onward… this is long but the tl;dr at the bottom is very short.

When I was little, I had a bedtime routine so lengthy that my parents eventually drew up a contract with me, that if I got stars (for following a shorter routine) for… I think it was a week or two, they would buy me a toy.

The problem with the lengthiness was this:  It consisted of us repeating very specific phrases to each other.  Which could go on indefinitely.  And nobody knew why I chose the phrases I chose.  I figure they think I knew what they meant. I didn’t.  All I knew was that each phrase had developed a square of colors, and that listening to the phrases different orders made the colors show up in different orders. So I was content to let this go on forever, if need be.  Which, come to think of it, was probably really irritating to whoever had to put me to bed.  Just like, as I got older, my brother had to play a “bedtime game”, often invented on the spot since that particular brother was highly creative when it came to play, in a way I was not.  I tried to play the same gamessson

I don’t know when this routine started.  In the past, I would’ve just held a number out there like I always used to do.  For the time period I’m thinking of, I was probably 3 1/2 or 4.  But each time period in my life, I’ve always approximated like that. (1)

The Bedtime Ritual

It went like this (substitute any family member for “Dad”, everyone took part at one time or another):

Me: Goodnight
Dad: Goodnight
Me: I like you
Dad: I like you
Me: Have a good rest
Dad: Have a good rest
Me: I love you.
Dad:I love you.

So there were four possible things to say.  One person (it didn’t have to be me) would start off.  The other person would repeat, word for word, what the first person had said.  I don’t think I could possibly have come up with the words on my own, given how far back I remember hearing them.

I assume this started with echolalia of things my parents would tell me if they tucked me in (like “effalump side up?” referring to a bedspread in my crib with elephants on one side).  Usually they said it while standing in the doorway, so I think this was the last thing they did before leaving.  And with the synesthetic, echolalic, and ritualistic qualities, it became the perfect bedtime ritual for a small autie child.


Goodnight:  a square made of blobby, wavy lines.  Some of the blobby lines were white, some were black.  There was a very faint tinge, barely there, along the right side of the black stripes, that was yellow.

I like you: the same shape of square as Goodnight, except it was yellow and white instead of black and white.  And the faint tinge was a slightly grayish teal color, which was wider than the yellow had been on the black but not as wide as the white and yellow colors themselves.

Have a Good Rest: Square, but that’s where the similarities stop. The background of the square is sort of a muted medium-to-light purple.

I Love You: Another square.  This one has the same purple background, same shade of purple.. Inside that, it has a smallish pink circle. The pink and purple are extremely similar in all attributes except hue.  Meaning that if a person with achromatopsia (3) would just see a solid-colored grey square.

So I liked to mix and match those colored squares in different combinations every night.  I distinctly remember not knowing what any of the words meant, but enjoying repeating them nonetheless.  Echolalia was a crucial part of this ‘game’.

But my parents thought I was stalling my bedtime.  They had good reason to think this.  My mom was working two or three jobs at the time, and if I’d had a regular sleep schedule, I’d rarely be awake to see her come home.  Actually, I often lay awake half the night anyway, and could see the reflection of the light from her car moving across my ceiling and stopping, at which point I’d run to the window to watch her get out of the car.  So my parents thought I was keeping myself up on purpose.

So they built a behavioral contract, complete with star chart.  And I’m a good responder to behavior mod.   So basically the two rules were:

  • No waiting up for your mother.
  • Keep the goodnight routine down to four things to repeat.  (Or as they put it, “a short, four-part goodnight”, which meant next to nothing to me, especially the “four-part” part.)

But as usual, my brain worked hard to fill in the blanks where I didn’t understand.  I learned to pretend to be asleep.  I learned not to run to my window when I heard my mom.  I learned to stop my synesthetic echolalia routine when my parents said stop.  I got toys every week or two for good behavior, until they faded that out and I still didn’t run to the window or look awake or any of those other things

I really wasn’t intending to deceive when I did things like pretend to be asleep.  For most children, that would be a conscious lie, even if no words were used.  For me, it was far more of “I don’t know the rules around here, they don’t make any sense at all.  I never sleep the whole night through, no matter what I do.  But if what they want is for me to lie down and close my eyes, I can do that too.  It’s boring as all hell, but I’ll do it.”

I had all sorts of things I could do in my head to pass time when I wasn’t sleeping and wasn’t allowed to open my eyes.  Really they were the same things I did when I wasn’t sleeping and had my eyes open, because my room wasn’t interesting to me in the dark, and actually scared me somewhat.  It was a room that the previous parents had locked their children in on a regular basis — the doorknobs to the children’s rooms all were on backwards when we moved in — and I’m good at picking up on patterns like that, so I’m sure that’s where a lot of the raw terror came from.  I normally love the dark, but I don’t like being in the dark in rooms where bad things have happened or strong emotions have been unleashed.

When I moved out on my own for the first time, my parents had offered to let me stay with them.  I said “No thanks, I could live anywhere other than this house.”  And that was the truth.  I couldn’t explain it, I had no words for what I was experiencing (and still dislike the terms most people use on such things), but it was the truth.  There were problems in the next house too (in fact my landlord and neighbors warned me about it) but it was nothing compared to the house I grew up in.  There are just some places that highly sensing people should not be subjected to, and our first house that we owned instead of rented was one of them.  (I think that, as well as the fact that it was physically falling apart and ugly inside befoe we fixed it up, was one among many reasons it was cheap enough for us to afford to buy when until then we’d been renting much smaller houses and apartments.) 

I occasionally used to look in the real estate listings for that house, and people had a habit of buying or renting the house, and then leaving very shortly afterwards.  It has a dark, murky, violent atmosphere that even people who are fairly out of touch with sensing, can sense.

Anyway, this was just one part of my bedtime routine — the last part. But I thought it was interesting because I realized that the words weren’t the meaningful part, the colors were the meaningful part.  And, as usual, I am annoyed at the DSM for repeatedly making it sound like autistic people’s routines and rituals are nonfunctional.  You’d think they’d work out that in a group of people who have trouble with transitions and a high  frequency of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, a prolonged and elaborate bedtime ritual is anything but nonfunctional.  I remember waking up once and remembering we’d skipped a part of my bedtime ritual, and screaming, because it felt like the whole world had tilted on its side.

TL;DR:  I had an elaborate bedtime ritual as a kid, and I just realized how much synesthesia and echolalia played into it.

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