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Autism on Screen- Cube

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to talk to you about the portrayal of autism in the 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror film ‘Cube‘ (not the fun TV show! πŸ˜› ).

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I came across this (apparently) cult film last year when I was researching films featuring autism for a college assignment and decided to check it out.

The film focuses on a group of strangers who wake up in (surprise surprise) a giant cube comprised of a series of interconnecting rooms, each rigged with booby traps with the potential to kill the occupants of the cube. For example, there is a room that upon triggering a motion sensor will cause a wire grille to close in on the unwitting victim and slice them to pieces…

It’s a pretty grim film…

In order to leave, the group must work together to figure out how to escape their deadly prison and crack the puzzle that is the cube.

This film was definitely not my cup of tea (if I were a tea drinker! πŸ˜› ), but hey if you’re into the sci-fi horror genre then check out the trailer and see what you think!

But what has this film got to do with autism?

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the invisible puppeteers who control the cube hand selected their prisoners so that they could combine their skills to navigate the maze, and who did they select? None other than an autistic savant…!

Why?!

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This character is key to the prisoners escape as his mathematical skills enable them to calculate how the cube moves so that they can navigate their way to the exit in relative safety…or so they thought!

Buuut I won’t spoil it for you in case you want to see it! πŸ™‚

Sooo aside from yet another stereotypical mathematical savant, how is this films portrayal of autism?

The actor is actually pretty good showing lack of eye contact, stimming and repetitive movements, colour sensitivity etc.; however, once again I felt as though I was watching the same stereotypical character I’ve seen in dozens of films before.

Autism is a spectrum, each character we see on screen should be unique; but I guess Hollywood has yet to get the memo!

These scriptwriters seem to be stuck in a repetitive cube of their own! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Until next week Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Making Friends

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today we’re going to talk about something that many autists find difficult-making friends.

When it comes to making friends there is no exact science, something which can trip up many a logically thinking autist.

It’s not that we don’t want to make friends, but we often struggle to navigate the social playing field, sometimes choosing our own company to avoid the various trials and tribulations of social interaction.

There are no set rules when it comes to friendship, and we just can’t seem to wrap our brains around it.

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In my own experience, I found that connecting with my peers was a real barrier to formulating friendships in school. We had different tastes in music and film, were interested in different hobbies, wanted different things, held opposing beliefs etc. I found it really challenging to find common ground to converse on.

Making friends isn’t the easiest of tasks, but there are some things that I’ve learned over the years to make the process a little less challenging :

  • Take classes- I found that dance classes were a great social outlet as a child. I partnered up with different children, got invited to a lot of birthday parties (although I have many memories of wandering off to be by myself! πŸ˜› ) and it helped with my coordination. Speech and drama classes can also be very useful in helping to build your confidence and social skills.
  • Try to find common ground with your peers. When in conversation, ask the other person about TV shows, bands, films, sports etc. you may be surprised at what you have in common.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you’re struggling to connect with your peers- I was 11 before I truly made a lasting friendship, and it wasn’t until college that I finally felt that I belonged socially. The average school-goer can often be small minded when it comes to befriending people who dare to be different. While some amazing efforts are being made to de-stigmatize and embrace autism in the younger generation, there will always be some who rebel against difference. Forget the haters- there are so much better people out there who are worthy of your friendship πŸ™‚

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  • Try not to compare yourself to your neurotypical peers- We all make friends in different ways, prefer different types and sizes of social groups. What seems to work for others may not work for you. Social mimicry may seem logical, buuuutt, it doesn’t always work.
  • Be yourself- As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true! πŸ˜› I have spent many a year feigning interest in matters that I thought my peers would respond to, but when I stayed true to myself, that’s when I discovered true friendship. True friends love you for you πŸ™‚

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  • And if that all fails, you can always do what I do- bake to make friends! Nothing like a plate of home made sugary goodness to create a lasting impression πŸ˜‰ Even if you burn it, you’ll still get a funny story out of it! As I’ve grown into adulthood, the stories of my many mishaps have become quite the conversation starter πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

If things don’t work out, don’t be so hard on yourself about it. Not all friendships are built to last. One of the biggest mistakes that I make is to hyper-analyse why a friendship breaks down in my efforts to understand where I went wrong to avoid future problems. Whilst yes, social lessons can be taken from past experiences, there’s no use in torturing yourself about it- you may not even have made a misstep.

Sometimes, these things just happen.

But that does not mean that you should not try again. The social complexities of formulating friendship can be overwhelming, but the reward is great πŸ™‚

I have been so blessed in the friends that I have made in my lifetime, people who love and accept me as I am- even embracing my quirks.

Sometimes people are not always the most accepting of those who dare to be themselves, but that doesn’t mean that you do not belong socially. It took me years to find my pack, but in the end, I found my place πŸ™‚

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Have a great week everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Autism Management- Concerts

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Ah, live music! There’s nothing I love more than a decent rock concert!

“But wait- wutt?!Β 

You’re autistic! Surely you can’t enjoy a loud, flashy, crowded rock concert?!”

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Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! πŸ˜›

What do I always say? No two autists are alike!!!!

Sure, sudden noises can make me jump, but in actual fact I love the noise! I relish the chaos of alternative rock! The vibration of the music through your body, the bright lights, the pyrotechnics, the showmanship- it’s really hard to beat a decent concert.

That being said, my love for gigs has not come without it’s challenges.

At my very first gig (Paramore’s Brand New Eyes tour, 2009), I suffered both a meltdown AND a shutdown! The crowd made me very unsettled and uncomfortable moshing during Paramore’s opening number, so I spent the remainder of the concert on the sidelines crying and alone! πŸ˜› We subsequently almost missed our bus home, the stress from which brought on a shutdown.

Certainly a memorable and eventful night! πŸ˜›

Indeed, concerts can be overwhelming for both neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, but that does not mean that a concert can’t be an enjoyable experience. It’s all about finding what works for you πŸ™‚

Here are my tips for finding comfort at a concert:

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  • Outdoor vs indoor venues: This is one that I’m learning the hard way. Outdoor gigs, whilst a little easier on the ears than indoor venues, can be a real mixed bag in terms of enjoyment. Crowds are bigger, snagging a good vantage point can be tricky and security have far less control over crowd behaviour. I spent much of my last gig being kicked in the back by a girl sitting on her boyfriends shoulders. Take my advice- choose indoor gigs for your favourite artists.
  • Choose seating– After my first “pit” experience, I have made a point of always choosing to pay a few euros more for a decent seat in large arenas. This way you avoid strangers touching you, claustrophobia, tall people, reduce exposure to potentially unpleasant odours (outdoor gigs are a real pain if you hate smoking as I do) and prevent being unexpectedly hit by stray “balloons”, flying glasses of beer and, on one random occasion, black nail varnish! Don’t you just miss the emo kids of the mid noughties? πŸ˜›

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Alternatively, if you’d rather be closer to the action, smaller venues (< 2000 capacity) generally offer more comfortable standing experiences. Crowds are spaced out more and are better behaved with security always close at hand πŸ™‚

  • Sunglasses-Not as crazy as it sounds I promise! Sunglasses are my best friend as they really help to take the edge off bright lights. I’ve even been known to wear them on a night out in the club on occasion! Don’t worry about what other people think- it’ll be dark and everyone will be too focused on the stage to notice πŸ™‚
  • Earplugs– This one may seem a little bit counter productive, but lot’s of people do it. Loud music is part and parcel when it comes to gigs, but sometimes the noise can be a little excessive. Take my most recent concert just last week. I was standing in front of a girl who insisted upon screaming every 5 seconds for 2 and a half hours- not like your average fangirl, but a murder victim (the kind of piercing scream that makes you jump every time you hear it)! Quite frankly, she’s lucky she wasn’t my murder victim! πŸ˜œπŸ˜‚Β I was rather envious of a nearby concertgoer for having had the sense to bring a pair!

So there we have it, my top tips for managing autism at a gig!

As I always say, you should never allow an autism diagnosis to hold you back- if you can’t climb the mountain, there’s always a way around it πŸ™‚

So rock on dear Earthlings! πŸ˜‰

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Aoife

Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Ah the cinema- giant screens, surround sound, confectionery counters, reclining chairs; a perfect treat in many respects (until you need to dash for the loo, or eat too much sugar! πŸ˜› ).

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But for many people with autism, a trip to the cinema can present a number of sensory challenges- the brightness of the screen and overly loud audio can be quite distracting for example.

In recent years, a number of cinemas have begun to host special sensory screenings for children with autism.

In case you hadn’t noticed from all of the autism on screen posts I write, I’m a bit of a film buff, so naturally when I saw that my local cinema was hosting a sensory screening of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul‘ I had to give it a try! πŸ™‚

For anyone thinking of seeing the film, it’s not as good as the previous ones- the cast change didn’t really work! πŸ˜›

So what’s different about a sensory screening?

A sensory screening differs from the average cinema experience in the following ways:

  • A special sheet of acetate (it reminded me of a giant plastic pocket) appeared to cover the usual backdrop to reduce the screen brightness
  • There are no trailers (woohoo πŸ˜€ !)
  • Sound levels are reduced
  • The lights remain on throughout at a dimmed level

This last part was quite nice actually as I did not emerge from the cinema with the usual vampire-esque response to daylight! πŸ˜‰

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So what did I make of the experience?

Well, to be honest it was a little weird for me at first as someone who frequents the cinema quite regularly. I wasn’t expecting the lights to stay on, but you adapt pretty quickly. It was quite a pleasant transition to go from dark to light scenes without feeling blinded! πŸ™‚

This did however, make it a little bit harder to see any of the night-time scenes which I found a tad distracting.

But all in all I found the experience quite nice and would highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with sensory issues πŸ™‚

However, I would have a slight critique to make in the choice of sensory films that are shown. Any films that I have seen advertised as sensory friendly here in Ireland fall into the family friendly/childrens category. While it is brilliant that many children with autism are afforded the opportunity to attend these screenings, we often forget that children with autism grow into adults with autism, adults who may want to watch the latest Marvel or James Bond movie, or a racy rom com in sensory comfort.

As they say- a lot done, more to do.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

Can animals have autism?

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’d like to explore something I’ve been wondering about a lot recently: can animals be autistic?

We’ve often been told how closely related human and animal genomes are, but what about our brains?

I often look at my German Shepherd and see a lot of autistic traits in him- he has ADHD and anxiety, behaves inappropriately, thinks creatively (he once buried a bone in a mattress) and never really grew out of his puppy brain despite recently turning 6!

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^^^Not my dog, but similarly bonkers! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Naturally, I could be imagining it (as a scientist it’s hard not to over analyse), but what does the evidence have to say?

In clinical research, there are a number of animal models which have been genetically bred to exhibit autistic traits including rats, fruit flys, monkeys and most commonly mice. These animals will have mutations in genes that have been linked to autism which causes them to exhibit some common autistic traits. In the mouse model for example, mice show signs of repetitive behaviours, deficits in social interaction and reciprocation, memory deficits and increased aggression.

But what about in nature?

There is very little evidence to suggest that animals can be autistic, however, a recent study by veterinary behaviorists in the USA has indicated that there is evidence ofΒ canine autism!Β 

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I know!

Maybe I should get my dog diagnosed… πŸ˜‰

In fact, vets have considered the possibility of autism like symptoms in dogs since 1966!!

The 2015 study examined tail chasing behaviours in bull terriers in addition to running DNA analysis. Β These researchers found that tail chasing was associated with trance-like behaviour and random outbursts of aggression in these dogs. In addition to this, tail chasing was more common in males than females- just like human ASD’s. This group also suggested that the physical featuresΒ of these bull terriers (long face, high-arched palate, and large ears)Β could be indicative of Fragile X Syndrome- Β a genetic condition where 15-60% of this population are additionally diagnosed with autism.

This study is not definitive, but it does open us up to the possibility that autism may naturally exist in the animal kingdom.

As autism can be difficult enough to diagnose in humans, you never know- other animals could quite possibly have autism, we’ve just never considered it! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common autistic traits- difficulty with eye contact. This can be particularly troublesome when it comes to situations such as job interviews where good eye contact is important to success.

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Growing up, I was often told by my family that I had trouble with eye contact, but I never really noticed much myself until I was older. On some level I knew that making eye contact made me feel uncomfortable, but I never really gave much thought as to the reason. We just sort of assumed that I cast my eyes away for lack of self confidence.

In my experience, making eye contact just feels awkward and weird to me. I’ve never really been able to explain why, it just does.

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Over the years, at my family’s insistence, I gradually learned to force myself to make eye contact. There are still times when I find eye contact uncomfortable (if I’m mid or teetering on the edge of a meltdown, any attempt to lock eyes goes out the window!), but I’ve found ways to get through it.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that I seem to have automatically adopted a coping system for making eye contact in close quarters. I make the contact, hold the gaze for an appropriate amount of time, then look away briefly before returning to centre. Other times, I move my gaze around to focus on different group members, breaking the contact just enough to remain comfortable without coming across as weird (I hope πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ )!

It kind of looks something like this:

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Top Tip: If you feel uncomfortable making eye contact as you’re walking along the street, I find that wearing sunglasses (provided the weather is somewhat appropriate πŸ˜‰ ) can be a great help πŸ™‚

So what does the scientific community make of our struggles with eye contact?

One study suggests that the reason we avoid eye contact is actually related to how we process visual information. In this study, children with autism were shown images in both the centre and periphery of their vision. In a neurotypical brain, a large portion of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing information in the centre of your visual field. In the autistic brain, a larger portion of the cortex was engaged when the image was shown in the child’s peripheral vision.

In other words, we have more neurons dedicated to processing peripheral visual information, hence why direct, central eye contact is often avoided.

We’ve known for a while that autists perceive the world in a unique way, now we know that we actuallyΒ see the world differently too! πŸ˜‰

Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” πŸ˜›

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This is a fairly common complaint for autists when it comes to clothing.

A single sharp fiber in your skinny jeans, an irritating label on your neck, a twisted bra- the niggling is a killer to the autistic brain!

When my skin is irritated, I find it very difficult to concentrate on much else until the offending stimulus is removed. It drives me insane- especially if I’m not in a position to remove or adjust the offending item of clothing. I’ve often had to find creative ways to navigate clothing irritation when out in public such as well placed blister plasters (I did this to the irritating clasp of a lanyard once!) and toilet roll to create barriers against the fabric!

Needs must after all! πŸ˜‰

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But is my skin really this sensitive?

According to science, the answer is yes!

Research suggests that gene mutations cause problems for the sensory nerves in our hands, legs, arms, fingers and of course, the skin covering them. Mutations cause these nerves to be excessively sensitive- described by scientists as having the volume turned up to the max setting. When these nerves relay sensory information back to the brain, the brain feels the touch of certain stimuli at a heightened, exaggerated level.

Hence my internal screams! πŸ˜›

Another study, which tested the response of autists and neurotypicals to sensory stimuli (e.g. a scratchy wool jumper) in a brain scanner, found that the autistic brain reacts more strongly. The primary cortex of the brain (involved in sensory processing) and the amygdala (involved in emotional regulation) were both hyperactive during this experiment, suggesting that autists a) process sensory input differently, and b) struggle to regulate their emotional response to stimuli.

So what can you do to help an autist with sensitive skin?

This is a tough one to advise. Sensitivities vary from person to person. Some may favour loose clothing, others enjoy the comfort of tight clothes which provide calming deep pressure. In my experience, the best tip that I can offer is to use a seam ripper to properly remove labels (the remnants of the tag can be just as irritating). After that, trial and error is the best way to find out what works for you/or your child πŸ™‚

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned πŸ˜› ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to be exploring the benefits of music for people with autism.

We all know that feeling we get when we listen to our favourite songs- the rush, the rippling chills, the feeling that the music is physically running up and down your spine.

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But what if I told you that music can do so much more than just entertain us?

Research has shown that music therapy can greatly benefit people with autism by helping to improve social behaviours and interactions, focus and attention, coordination and spatial awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Music therapists aim to improve the wellbeing of their patients through music by encouraging singing, listening to, moving to and discussing music among other actions.

So how does music benefit the brain in this way?

The simple act of learning to play an instrument can greatly improve brain processing, fine motor skills and non-verbal reasoning skills. Interestingly, physical changes are taking place in your brain when you learn to play an instrument. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) can grow thinner in certain regions which can lead to such issues as anxiety, depression and attention difficulties. Evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument however thickens the cortex in areas associated with emotional processing, executive functioning, and impulse control– functions that are affected in many people on the spectrum.

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Studies have also shown that the vibration of music can help to stimulate and improve brain and muscle function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a role in the brains response to music. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, dopamine regulates emotions and mood. Researchers have found that music encourages dopamine release and positive mood changes, whereas noise exposure negatively impacts mood. As dopamine levels are out of sync in people with autism, music could really help our brains to better control mood swings and improve emotional processing.

In my own life, music has been highly beneficial to help process my emotions.

I have had a lifelong passion for music. The riffs, the vocals, the lyrics- there’s nothing quite like it! Music has always held a special place in my heart, but especially the lyrics from my favourite songs.

As I’ve discussed previously, many autists struggle to identify and/or describe what they are feeling, a condition known as alexithymiaΒ (from the Greek meaning “no words for mood“). Many years ago, long before my diagnosis, in times of strife I found myself intensely drawn to music. The lyrics soothed my soul and calmed my mind allowing me to process the storm of emotion passing through. Whenever I could not make sense of my emotions, I could always find a song that would verbalize my struggles, and after a time, everything became a little clearer πŸ™‚

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There we have it Earthlings! We’ve all felt the power of music, and the science shows it’s potential.

So grab your ipod and dust off your guitar this bank holiday weekend- your brain will thank you! πŸ˜‰

Aoife

Change to Schedule

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Just a quick post to tell you about a temporary change to the blog schedule.

I’m really, really busy at present and can’t dedicate as much time to writing this blog as I would like to. So, for the moment I have to change the schedule to one new blog post a week.

Instead of Mondays and Fridays, I’ll be posting once a week on Friday’s at 8pm.

When my schedule frees up again I’ll reassess the situation and start posting more frequently, but rest assured:

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Until then Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

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I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

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I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

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….I wake up feeling like deathΒ in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! πŸ˜›

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! πŸ˜›

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, whereΒ higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day! Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β Β sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! πŸ™‚
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets 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 (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! πŸ™‚

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! πŸ˜‰

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow πŸ™‚

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on πŸ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife