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Happy Easter! :)

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Just taking this opportunity to wish you all a very happy Easter! πŸ™‚

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Hope you all have a great weekend!

Try not to eat too much chocolate now! πŸ˜‰

Aoife

Autism and Change

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

David Bowie: “Ch-ch-ch-anges-”

Autism: NOOOOOOOO!

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Yes, this week we’re going to talk about autism and change! πŸ˜‚It’s a well known fact that autists do NOT like change. We like routine, structure, predictability- we like to be in control.

Historically, I’ve never been the greatest with change. As a child I went into a full-scale meltdown when the school banned chocolate (it’s pretty hilarious when I picture my 11 year old self wailing “I’m a chocoholic!” at the teacher!πŸ˜‚), I couldn’t sleep for 2 weeks after my sister changed the angle of her bed; worse still when we sold my family home, it took years to get my head round the loss. Sure, it may have only been 4 miles up the road, and I still went to the same school, but this one simple shift was as if a ton weight had been dropped on my fragile, pubescent head.

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New things can be a lot more complicated for an autist than the average person. You have to consider the sensory implications- how might a new smell affect you; will the taste of this new food make you sick; will this new top make you want to rip off your own skin? Last year I tried paint-balling for the first time without pausing to think of any potential sensory issues. The noise of the guns, the overpowering smell of the mask, the pain when I got hit- I was completely overwhelmed! I had to be removed within 10 mins after having a meltdown behind a tree! At least I drove myself there so I could make a quick escape to the PS4 to shoot things from the safety of my couch instead πŸ˜‰

It’s not that an autist is not capable of change, it’s just oftentimes it can be a lot easier to stick with the status quo for fear of the unknown.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I know I like a particular dish at a restaurant, so why would I rock the boat and risk an adverse sensory reaction?

That being said, here are some tips to cope with change:

Take baby steps- you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk. Make small changes in your life and you’ll gradually learn to cope with bigger ones.

Challenge yourself- Setting goals to change something in your life can be a great motivator. Choosing to make a change on your terms can help to prepare you for the unexpected changes that life likes to throw at us.

Do the research– for any impending changes, take the time to educate yourself. If moving to a new place, familiarize yourself with the area- check out the amenities, the bus routes, use google street view to digitally walk around etc. The more you know about it, the sooner it becomes familiar which ultimately feels like less of a change.

Rewards and bribery– not always the best plan but it can help to incentivise behaviour change! As I’ve discussed previously, bribery worked to help me change my study habits as a teenager by trading hours of study for hours of gaming!

You can read more tips for coping with change in the link below:

https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/preparing-for-change.aspx

But might there be a scientific explanation for our struggles with change?

In 2017, researchers discovered that the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain is associated with changes in routine behaviour. As of yet this area has not been extensively studied, however the research would suggest that there is some level of dysfunction taking place in this cortex in the autistic brain. Current evidence indicates that there is poor connectivity, reduced metabolic activity and structural changes at the cellular level in the neurons within this region.

No wonder change is difficult if your brain is actively fighting against you! Perhaps the real change that is needed is our attitude towards an autists struggles with change; maybe then change won’t be so scary after all πŸ™‚

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Have a good weekend Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Clothing

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to briefly expand on something that I touched on in my previous post about skin sensitivity,Β -the importance of clothing and autism.

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No, I’m not going to talk about fashion, but function!

For many autists, it can be quite difficult to pick out clothes. A stray fiber, an itchy label or a prickly seam can unleash a storm of sensory discomfort. Gene mutations cause the nerves in our skin to be extra sensitive to certain stimuli. This coupled with hyperactivity in the cortex and the amygdala (both regions involved in sensory processing) don’t make for the happiest of bedfellows.

But what if the clothes that irritate us could in fact be used to manage autistic symptoms?

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Clothes are now being designed and adapted to cater for the different needs of autists. Companies are now producingΒ  seamless socks and underwear, looser fitting clothes made from softer materials, and most interestingly, weighted and compression clothing.

Based on the research of the great Temple Grandin and her hugging machine, both weighted and compression clothing provide calming, deep pressure stimulation much like a soothing hug. The pressure switches off the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), promoting the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters. Based on this, it’s thought that autists are better able to cope with sensory issues, hyperactivity, motor skills and sleeplessness when wearing sensory clothing.

It’s a really interesting premise- there’s even been an inflatable sensory scarf produced that’s designed to provide soothing pressure in addition to emitting calming aromas! Check it out:

https://www.wired.com/2015/08/odd-looking-clothing-designed-help-autistic-kids/

In reality however, the results are mixed. Scientific studies indicate that weighted and inflatable vests do not appear to be effective and are not clinically recommended, yet the personal testimonials of families across the globe beg to differ. One testimonial claimed that a child’s meltdowns went from 12 a day to having none in 3 years!

Either way, nothing ventured nothing gained, so if you think that sensory wear may be of benefit to you or a loved one with autism, why not give it a shot? πŸ™‚

With the variety of sensory wear available, you’ll at the very least look fabulous! πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Alexithymia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’d like to briefly elaborate on something that I’ve touched on in previous posts– autism and alexithymia.

So what exactly is alexithymia?

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Alexithymia is a personality trait wherein an autist may struggle to identify and describe emotions in themselves and in others. We feel emotions just like everyone else, we just aren’t always aware of what it is we are feeling. It can be incredibly frustrating (ironically I’ve often struggled to identify this emotion in the past πŸ˜› ) knowing that you feel something but not having a clue how to verbalize it or process it properly. I’ve honestly spent days going “The thing is…it’s just…um..I dunno!” round and round my mind until I can figure out what it is I’m feeling!

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Thankfully as I’ve gotten older this happens less and less frequently.

Aoife’s Top Tip: as I’ve discussed previously, music can be quite beneficial when dealing with alexithymia. If I can’t identify an emotion, I tend to gravitate towards songs that sound like what I’m feeling or a particular lyric that resonates with my experience which can help get you past a rough patch πŸ™‚

As many as 85% of autists may have varying degrees of alexithymia, but is there a scientific explanation for it?

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The science remains unclear, however some neurological studies may provide us with some clues.

Early studies proposed that there is a breakdown in communication along the corpus callosum between the emotional right and the logical left hemispheres of the brain when emotional information is transferred to the language regions of the brain. In one third of autists, the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerves which connect the hemispheres) is either partially or completely missing which could explain the struggles to identify emotions. Another study suggests that dysfunction in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain may contribute to alexithymia, an area of the brain associated with empathy that appears to be weakly activated in social situations in autists.

So try not to judge us too harshly when we struggle to show empathy πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Keep the Change

 

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

As it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, this week I decided to check out the 2017 indie film ‘Keep the Change‘ a quirky rom-com about 2 autists who meet at a support group and fall in love.

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David is an aspiring film maker that has been required by court order to attend a support group (after an inappropriate joke get’s him into a spot of bother) wherein he meets the bubbly Sara, an enthusiastic singer with perfect pitch. After a rocky start, the two fall in love, their differences and families push them apart but ultimately they get back together again.

Nothing particularly original there, it’s a similar premise to ‘Mozart and the Whale‘, however, the unique thing about this film is that the principal cast are all on the spectrum in real life! 😲

I know!

What’s more, the story is based on Brandon Polansky’s (the actor that plays David) first serious relationship in real life, which sadly ended before filming.

You can check out a trailer for the film here:

This film actually originated as a 15 minute short film in 2013 which you can see in it’s entirety below:

So what did I make of the film?

Well, for the first time I won’t be complaining about the lack of accuracy in the portrayal of life with autism as the actors themselves are living the experience every day! Similarly, there are no savant stereotypes portrayed, just regular people navigating life on the spectrum. It’s refreshing to see a film keeping it real and true to the autistic experience (although that being said, some of the romantic interactions seemed to me to be more exaggerated and cringe worthy than I’d imagine the true story was!).

However, as authentic and well researched as this film is, I personally found the film a little bit lackluster for my tastes. Moreover, I would have loved to see more diversity in the support group as we saw in the most recent series of ‘Atypical‘. We didn’t get much of a look a the different personality types, interests and traits of the supporting characters, so they all sorted of blended into one “happy-clappy” entity.

As I’ve said before, it would be great to see more diversity in the portrayal of higher functioning autists. Yes, a lot of the characters we see on screen are high functioning, but these characters are still quite dependent on their families and each other to navigate the world. It would be nice one day to see the ‘lost generation’ of autists on screen- those of us who travel through life undiagnosed, undetected and struggling in silence.

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All in all, if you’ve an interest in films about autism, this one’s a must add to your list πŸ™‚

Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Making Assumptions about Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

I had intended to write a different post this week, however, after watching the most recent episode of ABC’s acclaimed ‘The Good Doctor‘ (a TV show that follows a surgical resident with autism), I’d like to talk a little bit about making assumptions about an autist and their abilities.

Just in case any of you are fans and are not up to date look away now *spoiler alert.*

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*Spoiler* In recent episodes, the new chief of surgery has made the decision to remove Shaun (aka the ‘Good Doctor’) from the surgical program following a minor social miscommunication with a patient, and place him in pathology, refusing point blank to get to know him or give him his job back. Naturally, this did not help Shaun’s mental state and need for routine, which ultimately led to the mother of all meltdowns and his subsequent firing from the hospital.

It was a nice bit of acting by Freddie Highmore if you’d like to see a clip following his firing:

Spoiler over!

Now it’s not often that I really feel a connection with Shaun (as we are very different in a lot of ways- no two autists are the same after all!), but this episode got me right in the feels.

Shaun’s predicament was one that I knew all too well. Shortly after my diagnosis I encountered a similar scenario in my career where assumptions were made about my abilities. Once the ‘A’ word was on the table, my employers opinion of me changed overnight, but alas, not to my benefit. Suddenly I found myself adrift in career limbo because someone jumped straight to the conclusion without stopping to discuss.

This is something that we’re all guilty of, not just employers. We hear the word ‘autism’ and suddenly our brain paints a picture. We see traits that may not be there, we imagine difficulties that may not even exist, we make assumptions on a persons character, interests, idiosyncrasies etc. based on what we know of autism without first taking time to see the person in front of us.

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I’m worn out trying to tell people that no two autists are the same! Yes, there are similarities and common traits, but just because John hates to be touched, doesn’t mean that Mary automatically hates hugs. She may love them- but if the assumption is made you’ll never get to find out.

We cannot make assumptions on an autists ability. We need to educate ourselves, get to know a person, take time to see the person beyond the diagnosis. What I need is different to what Shaun the ‘Good Doctor’ needs; who I am and what I can do are worlds apart from him. Shaun is a skilled surgeon that sometimes struggles with communication, I’m an outgoing sciencey-artsy type who never shuts up, yet most people on hearing the word ‘autism’ would tar us with the same brush.

When it comes to autism, you can never judge a book by it’s cover-but especially don’t make an assumption as stupid as this one πŸ˜› :

https://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/i-took-my-autistic-mate-to-the-casino-and-lost-17000-in-ten-minutes/

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? 😲

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health 😲

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength ofΒ synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism- Atypical Language Use

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d just like to briefly talk about the use of atypical or unusual language in autism.

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Now you may have noticed in previous blogs that I don’t always use the most simplistic of language to express myself- I have always been fond of big words, and have a tendency to regurgitate these randomly in casual conversation.

One infamous incident was the time that I told my Maths teacher that I intended to drop to ordinary level Maths after I had been “ruminating” on it for the previous few days- my family have never let that one go! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‚Β Similarly, my supervisor nearly shot me for including the word “multitudinous” in my first publication! Needless to say it was pulled during edits πŸ˜›

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I was most interested to learn after my diagnosis that my verbosity (couldn’t help myself choosing this word! πŸ˜‚)Β Β is not uncommon among autists, particularly among those with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact the tendency to use more formalized language was first observed during Kanner’s original observations of autism back in the 1940’s and is included on the common list of diagnostic criteria.

So is there a scientific explanation as to why many autists tend towards atypical language?

Studies of individuals with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain have been known to have a proclivity for verbose language. Moreover, brain imaging studies of autists have shown that there is a tendency towards “rightward asymmetry” (a tendency for certain brain functions to be more specialized in the right side of the brain) in language areas versus their neurotypical peers. Taken together, alterations to the right hemisphere of the brain may explain why some autists prefer a more formalized use of language when communicating.

Alternatively you could just enjoy using big words as I do- like I always say, why use a smaller word when there are so many glorious synonyms floating around in the back of my brain!Β  πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism and Handwriting

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about something that you may not be aware is an issue for autists- handwriting.

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Experts have noted that a large number of autists have difficulties with handwriting skills and in particular tend to have worse quality in forming letters than their age matched neurotypical peers.

Seems a trivial issue I know, but the affliction of “doctor’s scrawl” can be incredibly frustrating, and particularly challenging for written examinations.

In my childhood I picked up handwriting itself fairly easily (I was so proud that I was one of the few who could write their name before they started school! 😎), however, when it came to learning joined writing- that was an entirely different kettle of fish!

I was ABYSMAL (still am to be fair, unless I try hard! πŸ˜› ). Everyone else in my class had no issue with handwriting, but just as with knitting, skipping, cycling and tying my shoelaces, I fell way behind. My mother even bought me loads of special inky/gel pens to try to encourage and improve my technique. Granted, I got there in the end (well sort of…it’s still an untidy scrawl, but it is joined up!), however, it was extremely frustrating to develop this skill.

So why is handwriting such a struggle?

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Based on the research it seems that the difficulties autists experience with handwriting are related to hand muscle strength and poor control of finger movements. Moreover, many of the regions of the brain associated with handwriting such as the superior frontal sulcus and the cerebellum, are altered in the autistic brain.

Some autists may also suffer from a co-morbid condition known as dysgraphia- a neurological condition that impacts handwriting and coherence (I’ll write a separate post on this at a later stage) which would explain why some autists struggle with handwriting tasks more than others.

So is there anyway to improve handwriting issues?

Time, practice and patience are key when it comes to handwriting difficulties, however encouraging an autist to use their hands more for such activities as colouring or working with play doh will help to improve finer motor skills, which will in turn help to improve issues with handwriting.

I also found in my experience, as simple as it was, that the pens my mother bought were quite useful in helping me to develop my joined writing skills. Although the inkier pens can be a little messy, there was far less resistance as they moved across the paper, allowing me to develop and better control my handwriting.

If however handwriting is proving particularly challenging, from an academic perspective it may be helpful to look into getting a scribe for exams or to ask your teacher if they will accept typed homework (I’ve strangely never had the same coordination issues with typing as I’ve had with handwriting!🀷)

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

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