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Autism and Asthma

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Having just been officially diagnosed with asthma this week (after 23 years of uming and ahing about whether to diagnose as it’s been mild thusfar), I decided to do some investigating to see if there are any links between ASD’s and asthma.

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Did you know, that autists are 35% more likely to suffer from asthma than the general population?

Seemingly random, but true!

So what exactly is happening in the lungs of asthmatics?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways in the lungs. Inflammation in the airways in response to triggers (such as allergens, cold air, tobacco smoke etc.) causes the airways to narrow and spasm, resulting in bouts of wheezing and shortness of breath- which I’m ironically experiencing as I write this *drags deeply on inhaler*.

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But how exactly are asthma and ASD’s intertwined? 

The exact cause of asthma, like autism remains unknown, however, it’s inflammatory nature may reveal it’s links to autism. A recent study suggests that there is a connection between inflammation and ASD’s. Post mortem examination of the brains of autists show that there are increased levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine (a substance secreted by the immune system) IL-18 in the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain- areas where alterations are often linked to autism. Perhaps these increased inflammatory markers may predispose autists to the development of asthma. Moreover, research has shown that there is genetic overlap between asthma genes and multiple mental health disorders such as anxiety, ADHD and major depressive disorder (MDD) that are often co-morbid with autism, which could suggest a common genetic pathway for both asthma and autism.

In addition to the link between asthma and autism, recent research suggests that having a parent with an asthma diagnosis may slightly increase the risk of autism development. However, there are conflicting studies as to whether or not the use of asthma medications during pregnancy may increase this risk (although the most recent of these studies supports their use).

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

 

Autism and Trust

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to briefly talk about the issue of trust and autism.

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Trust is something that we all struggle with from time to time. In an increasingly disingenuous world, it can be tough to tell friend from foe. This is even more problematic for the autistic community.

Studies have shown that autists struggle to read facial cues for signs of trustworthiness in others. As an autist is so often transparent in their words and actions with their black and white thinking, it’s a struggle to comprehend that others may not be. For example, if an adult tells an autistic child a lie, they will usually believe them without question- after all, why would a grown up lie to you? Isn’t lying supposed to be bad? This is particularly worrying for an autist coming up against potential bullies and predators.

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I found this to be a problem during my school days. On the surface, my peers seemed nice to me. I thought many were friends, but I was unable to tell from their tones that they were mocking me and my eccentricities. It was only after the damage was done that I saw through the facade, which made it hard to trust my peers for a long time. When you see everything in black and white, it can be hard to discern that a smiling face may be a sarcastic sneer.

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But is there a biological reason for our trust issues?

Studies have shown that changes in the structure of the autistic brain can cause issues with trust. Changes in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the area that assesses social rewards) in people that tended to be more trusting of others, and changes in the amygdala (an area associated with memory and emotional responses) in both those who were more and less trusting of others appear to be linked to trust issues.

Moreover, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to be associated with social behaviour, emotional attachment and trust. Multiple studies suggest that oxytocin levels are dysregulated in autists, which could explain our struggles when it comes to trusting others.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Greta Thunberg and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

So this week I’d like to discuss an inspirational young autist that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time- climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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For those of you who’ve been living under a rock (and I mean, seriously living under a rock, this girl has been all over the news 😛 ), Greta is a Swedish teenager who began striking from school on Fridays outside the houses of parliament in Stockholm for action against climate change in 2018 at just 15 years of age. Greta rationalized that the impending climate crisis means no future for her generation, so why should she go to school to prepare for a future that would not exist?

Since she began striking, Greta’s actions have spawned an international movement known as ‘Fridays For Future‘ where students the world over are striking from school for climate change action. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019.

What a girl!

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In recent months however, attention has focused on the fact that Greta has Asperger’s syndrome (I’m in good company!). In her viral Ted Talk, Greta speaks of how learning about the climate crisis at 8 years old led to her diagnosis. Unable to process the inaction of the world, Greta became withdrawn, depressed and stopped eating, which led her to be diagnosed with OCD, selective mutism and Asperger’s Syndrome. As Greta so eloquently explained in her talk, this means that she only speaks when necessary. Now, in the midst of the climate crisis, is one of those moments.

You can see her viral TEDx Talk here:

 

 

Like me, Greta does not see Asperger’s as a disability, but as a gift, calling it her “superpower”. She recently discussed this on the Ellen DeGeneres show where she talked about how autists are important in a crisis such as global warming as we are different, and we need to think differently to find solutions. Her tenacity, her passion and her black and white, no nonsense speeches (all autistic traits), truly are superpowers in her fight to save the planet.

 

Greta Fun Fact- her mother represented Sweden in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest 😀

However, the media have recently begun to turn on Greta because she is neurodivergent. A guest on Fox News recently described her as “mentally ill” sparking much discussion about the state of her mental health. As is often the case, once people hear the ‘a’ word, they automatically assign you a box…

Just a reminder– autism is NOT a mental illness; it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder. We may be greater disposed to having issues with our mental health due to higher stress levels, but an autism diagnosis is not synonymous with mental illness.

Whilst I would echo some journalists concerns about the strain of her current international exposure (fellow aspie Susan Boyle had to check into rehab for exhaustion after her viral appearance in Britain’s’ Got Talent), ultimately what Greta needs is action. Saving the planet is her specialist interest, and as I’ve discussed previously, we are consumed by our passions. She will stop at nothing or for no one to save the world.

Without a doubt, Greta is an extraordinary girl, and really shows that you should not allow yourself to be limited by your diagnosis. Indeed, there are people out there vehemently trying to write her off, but the rest of the world is listening.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- I Am Sam

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’d like to discuss the portrayal of autism in the 2001 drama film ‘I Am Sam‘ starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and a young Dakota Fanning.

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So what’s the film about?

The film focuses on the title character of Sam (Penn), an adult man with autism who is struggling to raise his 7 year daughter Lucy (Fanning) on his own. As Lucy’s intellectual age begins to surpass that of her father’s, social services seek to take her into care, so Sam must go to court to fight for custody.

If you haven’t seen it before, you can watch the trailer here:

 

So what did I make of the film?

Sean Penn’s acting was superb as Sam (I wouldn’t be his biggest fan, but he’s completely obscured by the character) and he even received an Oscar nod for his role. But an Oscar nomination is not always synonymous with scientifically accurate portrayals, so how did the film fare?

When it comes to researching films about autism, ‘I Am Sam‘ is rarely mentioned. His intellectual disability is not specifically labelled in the film, but much of Sam’s traits are consistent with autism- his poor coordination, repetitive behaviours, echolalia, OCD and poor eye contact.

The film itself received mixed to negative reviews, however, some critics have praised it for focusing on a “real” autist, a man who’s holding down a job, has a social life, is raising a child etc- aspects of life that are often ignored or overlooked in media portrayals of autism. As I have discussed in many previous posts, the vast majority of autists live normal lives. We’re always hearing about children with autism, but we forget that children grow up into adults with autism; adults that want jobs, relationships, children- it just might be a little bit harder for us to achieve these goals. So it’s quite refreshing that this film portrays Sam as a functioning member of society and not just another autist incapable of independent living.

All in all the film is worth a watch at least once, even if just for Sean Penn’s acting 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Time Management

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t been posting as frequently lately to the blog as I have been extremely busy offline. As such, this week I’ve been inspired to discuss the topic of time management 🙂

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Time management is something that many people struggle with, however, as with several every day tasks, this can be even more of a challenge for an autist. Many autists have difficulty with information processing, understanding the concept of time and predicting the outcome of actions, which can make it tricky to organize and prioritize tasks.

For me personally, time management is something that I’m really good at (most of the time), but it can often be a source of great stress. Trying to wrap my head around the tasks to be completed, once plans are in place spending ages mentally going over and over the particulars, beating yourself up for not being able to achieve all that you’ve set out to do within a certain time frame- I can be pretty hard on myself for this. I’m capable of juggling so many balls at once I often get frustrated that I’m not juggling as many balls as I could be during my downtime (like spending the weekend napping instead of writing). This has perhaps been one of the hardest time management attitudes to break since joining the workforce 😛

I’m no expert when it comes to time management, but here are some tips that I’ve found helpful:

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Colour coding– colour coding different tasks for importance can be a great way to help you assess and prioritize tasks- with the added plus that this may also help you to remember your “to-do’s” through stimulation of the creative right hemisphere of the brain.

Write things down/get a diary– I don’t do this as often as I should; but it is a great way to organise both your tasks and your thoughts. Life became a whole lot easier when I took the extra few minutes to make a shopping list rather than frantically running round the shop back in college.

Focus on small, easily achievable tasks fist- as with studying, this can be a great way to keep from getting overwhelmed by the volume of tasks that you need/or want to complete and will help you learn to prioritize better. For example, today I need to pick up some groceries and walk the dog; that painting I want to finish off can wait until the weekend.

Set reminders/alarms– if paper’s not a good option for you, setting alarms or calendar reminders on your phone can be a great way to keep on top of things. I’d never make a meeting on time if it wasn’t for my Outlook calendar reminders!

Make time for you– this can often be the toughest part of time management for an autist in my experience. You can get so focused on all that needs to be done, you easily forget that just because something needs to be done, doesn’t mean it has to be done right away. Patience isn’t always an autistic virtue, in spite of the irony of the world needing to be patient with autists!😂 Make sure that in the midst of a heavy schedule, there are always “me moments” scattered throughout.

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Hope you enjoyed my post dear Earthlings! 😀

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism and Studying

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’d just like to write a quick post about studying and autism.

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Knuckling down and studying can be hard at the best of times, but even more so for an autist. There are often learning challenges such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and concentration issues with ADHD which can make studying quite tricky. Frustrated meltdowns when things aren’t clicking can also be tough to navigate (can’t tell you how many times I chucked my maths book at the wall trying to study!😂).

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So here are some of my top tips for studying on the spectrum:

Stimming-Self stimulatory behaviours can be a useful way of channeling excess brain activity. By having a stress ball, a pen to chew or something to fidget with can help to free up your mind and allow you to better concentrate on the topic you’re studying.

Make it Visual- Autists are often very visual and highly creative, many operating between both the logical left and creative right hemispheres of the brain at the same time (due to the absence of a connecting bundle of nerves that splits the brain in two). Making things visual using graphs, videos and images can help to improve concentration by stimulating the creative right hemisphere of the brain instead of the usual logical left.

  • Aoife’s top tip: Use coloured pens for note taking. This was one of the best pieces of advice that my art teacher gave me as it really helped my concentration and retention levels by manipulating neuroscience! However, be careful with the colour choices as some autists can be hypersensitive to certain colours like yellow. Find the colours your child likes and buy lots of pens in those colours for them to write out their notes. My friends in college often told them how happy my notes made them as a rainbow of colour waved back at them every time I opened my notebook 😂

Bribery– I know this is one of my more common tips for managing numerous autistic traits, buuuut bribery is one of the best motivators! Concentration wasn’t always an issue for me when studying, but motivation was. When it came to boring subjects I just tuned out, so my mother traded me gaming hours for hours spent studying- 2 hours study meant 2 hours on the Playstation! It proved highly effective! 😂

Set small goals and take frequent breaks– This can be tricky for the all or nothing autistic mind, as once you get going, you tend to want to get it all done at once, which can often lead to frustration when you’ve pushed your brain past it’s limits. Setting small goals and taking regular breaks can be one of the best ways to study, especially where concentration levels can be an issue. Focusing on one small task at a time can build up a sense of achievement and encourage you to keep going without getting overwhelmed and frustrated. To this day I still do this at home or in work when I get overwhelmed by the volume of tasks that need to be completed.

Focus on what you can do before tackling more challenging subjects– One of the most commonly advised exam strategies is to complete the questions you do know first before going back to the harder ones to avoid getting overwhelmed and to build up your confidence. The same goes for studying- I’ve used this mantra several times of late when I’m writing to get me started on a task and keep from getting overwhelmed and it never fails! It’s not the easiest habit to form for an autist (as logic dictates everything should be done in exact order), but once you get in on it everything becomes so much easier 🙂

Take advantage of all available aids– when it comes to exam time, accept the help of a scribe or a reader (if you’ve dysgraphia or dyslexia) and take any extra time offered to you. Educational departments understand that autists often need a little extra time and help during exams, so if you need it take it- there’s no shame in asking for it. I was past my schooling by the time I got my diagnosis, but it would have been nice to have had a little extra time for exams when awkward questions threw me, or at least the comfort of knowing it was there if needed.

If you follow these tips you’ll be studying like a pro before long!

And always remember- it’s just temporary! We all have to study at some point (unless you’re one of the lucky few with an eidetic memory) to get to where we need to go, but it’s not forever, just keep focusing on the finish line and you won’t go wrong 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Stress Management

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post, this week I’d like to briefly discuss stress management and autism.

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As highlighted previously, it’s very important for autists to manage their stress levels for our long term mental and physical health due to our higher levels of biological stress.

To an autist, life and the world can be quite overwhelming so it can be very difficult to manage stress when surrounded by stressors.

So here are a couple of tips and tricks for managing stress with autism:

Weighted blankets- these are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin and dopamine to relax and calm the racing mind.

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“Stimming”- Self stimulatory behaviours such as hand flapping or noise making can help to calm down the brain using a similar biological mechanism to weighted blankets. Glutamate is one of the excess excitatory neurotransmitters that is released in the autistic brain. When we “stim” it triggers the brain’s reward system to release the pleasure hormone dopamine which causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain! Items such as stress balls and fidget spinners can be useful tools for stimming to channel excess neurological energy in this way 🙂 

Specialist interests- specialist interests can be one of the most effective ways of coping with stress. They often provide a safe haven, a way to switch off and escape from the pressures of life which can help autists to manage stress. Hobbies are great dopamine and serotonin boosters- both of which are dysregulated in autism. I doubt I’d have survived my teenage years without the escape that Harry Potter gave me! 

Exercise– the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind really rings true here. There’s nothing like working up a good sweat or going for a nice walk to release endorphins and lower your stress levels.

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Preparedness– one of the most stressing aspects of autism is navigating and coping with the unknown. Nothing get’s my stress levels up more than finding myself in a situation that I don’t know how to navigate- like getting lost on the road in an unfamiliar area; driving in general is one of my largest stressors 😛 Plan routes, study timetables, look up menus- all these little things add up to reduce your stress in the long run. You can’t prepare for everything, but every little bit helps 🙂

At the end of the day, everyone has their own methods for minimizing stress and as with autism, stress management is not one size for all. Try and find what works for you or your child and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Food

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Following a recent report about a teenager who has been left blind from a restrictive diet of roughly 4 nutritionally lacking food items, this week I’d like to discuss the topic of food and autism.

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Did you know that feeding difficulties are estimated to occur in as many as 70 to 90% of children with autism?

It’s a shocking statistic!

People with autism are often described as selective or picky eaters, often favouring carbohydrates and highly processed foods while rejecting fruits and vegetables- but why is that?

Research has found that food issues in autism overlap with sensory sensitivities to taste, texture, colour  and smell. As such, autists will often actively avoid these foods to avoid adverse sensory reactions. In the animal kingdom, many species develop conditioned aversions to certain unpleasant tastes, associating them with danger and illness. As the autistic tongue is so sensitive, it’s thought that autists can also develop aversions to foods in this manner.

In my case, although my autistic traits are extremely mild, food continues to be an issue for me. Certain smells, tastes and textures in particular will make me want to throw up. Fruit and veg in particular have been troublesome on a sensory level- for example I love the taste of strawberry, but I can’t tolerate physically eating one due to the texture.

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It’s made things quite difficult at times when I’ve been out eating with friends to try to maintain a neutral expression when a foodstuff disagrees with my brain to avoid hurting someone’s feeling. A lot of the time it’s just easier to pretend that I’m not hungry to avoid an awkward social/sensory situation- pro tip, always keep snacks in your car/handbag.

Selective eating habits are commonplace for autists, however, serious food aversions can can be diagnosed clinically as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), previously known as selective eating disorder (SED).

But is there any getting around these sensory issues?

CBT as with many other aspects of autism, cognitive behavioural therapy can help to change behaviours surrounding food over time.

Persistence- keep trying to build up your tolerance to certain textures/tastes. When I was younger, I could not stand to drink a glass of water as it felt so weird compared with other soft drinks. It was not easy to adjust to this texture at first  (I even had to swap shots of water for shots of orange juice to get it down! 😂), but I stuck with it, and now I drink several litres a day willingly 🙂

Prepare food in different ways- this has perhaps been the most helpful for me. Changing the way some foodstuffs are prepared/cooked can really impact the textural outcome. Smoothies have been particularly useful to help me achieve my 5 a day. I may not be able to eat the fruit itself, but throw it in a blender and bye-bye textural issues. Similarly, with apple tart, if the apples are too chewy, I find it extremely difficult to stomach, but if you bake the tart until the apples are soft and mushy I can’t get enough of it!

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a good weekend!

Aoife

 

Autism and Stress

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Stress- it’s hard to escape it in the modern world; even more so for an autist.

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Ordinary day to day life can be very stressful to navigate. Such simple things as responding to an email, dealing with crowds, sensory triggers and social interactions can be completely overwhelming. The thought alone of these seemingly innocuous situations can be incredibly stressful for an autist.

In my case, just the mere idea of driving in Dublin city centre for example majorly stresses me out- I have genuinely told my friend that if his directions landed us there I would get my car towed and grab a taxi 😛 Any unexpected scenarios, detours or maneuvers in my car will leave me hot under the collar, praying out loud for help to keep from freaking out!

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But are there any scientific reasons why autists are more predisposed to stress?

Interestingly, autists show signs of greater biological stress than their neurotypical peers. In particular, studies have indicated that autists have higher levels of stress hormones than neurotypicals. As I’ve previously discussed, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released in response to stressful situations from the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis or HPA axis. This is a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA) to control our response to stress- a network that is hyperactive in autists.

Following exposure to a stressful situation, stress hormone levels should return to normal, however, research has shown that stress hormone levels tend to persist in autists, which can make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts and meltdowns. In other words, we’re constantly living in a state of fight or flight.

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Long term activation of the stress system can lead to a number of health problems such as poor mental health, weight gain, sleep issues, digestive and cardiovascular problems to name but a few- many of which are regularly comorbid with autism.

In addition to this, studies have shown that autists have higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between anitoxidants and free radicals (unstable oxygen atoms that can damage cells causing illness and aging – not so fun fact, free radicals are thought to contribute to hair greying) in our bodies. Several studies have indicated that antioxidant enzyme levels that regulate free radicals in the body may be altered in autists. As such, oxidative stress has been linked to the appearance of autistic symptoms such as language delay in previous studies.

In addition, as with prolonged exposure to stress hormones, oxidative stress may also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and mental health problems such as depression. Worryingly, heart disease and suicide are among the leading causes of mortality for autists, with studies indicating that the average autist lives 16 years less than their neurotypical peers! 😲  In addition to this, research suggests that psychological stress may worsen the symptoms of ASDs.

Therefore, as for everyone, it’s very important for an autist to find ways to manage their stress levels for both their long term physical and mental health.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

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