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Autism in Books: Diary of a Young Naturalist

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As we have just celebrated St. Patrick’s Day here in Ireland, this week I’d like to review a book by a young Irish author- Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty.

Diary of a Young Naturalist: WINNER OF THE 2020 WAINWRIGHT PRIZE FOR NATURE  WRITING: Amazon.co.uk: McAnulty, Dara: 9781908213792: Books

Dara is a 16 year old autistic naturalist and author who wrote ‘Diary of A Naturalist‘ to chronicle his fourteenth year on this planet. In the book, Dara gives us beautiful insight into his intense connection to nature and how it provides him with an escape to cope with his autism. The book has won numerous literary awards, making Dara the youngest recipient of the Wainwright prize for nature writing and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) medal in the UK.

Here’s a video of Dara discussing his experience of how nature helps him manage his autism:

So what did I make of the book?

The book is beautifully written, powerfully evoking vivid imagery of the Northern Irish landscape and it’s local wildlife where Dara lives with his family. You really feel Dara’s intense passion for the natural world through his writing whilst giving us an insight into his everyday experiences of autism. Dara bravely tells us about his struggles with bullying, sensory overload and mental health showing a maturity way beyond his 16 years. Autists so often struggle to describe their emotions (as many of us have alexithymia), it’s a real privilege to have such an intimate insight into Dara’s mind.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the book for me personally, although small, was Dara’s account of his struggles with change and his mental turmoil as his family moved to a different part of Northern Ireland. I experienced a similar situation when I was 11 after selling my childhood home. We only relocated a few miles down the road (to a new house that was designed in a near identical layout to our previous house), but the change was devastating to my mental health. I always felt ridiculous that something seemingly so small could have such an effect on me, but it’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in this experience.

May be an image of 1 person and book

All in all, this book is a must read for anyone who is passionate about the natural world and conservationism ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and MDMA/Ecstasy

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from my previous post about autism and CBD, this week I’d like to explore another drug that is being researched in the treatment of autism- MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy.

Yes, you’ve heard me correctly, the psychoactive drug MDMA is indeed being explored as a treatment option for autists!

So how can a recreational party drug help people with autism?

First synthesized for use in psychotherapy by Merck in the 1910’s, MDMA is the active ingredient in the street drug ecstasy and is thought to improve anxiety, sensory perception and sociability in those who take it. Many autists who have taken the drug recreationally have reported feeling more at ease in their body and increased empathy.

So how does the drug work?

MDMA increases release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine in the brain- neurotransmitters that are dysregulated in the autistic brain. In addition, MDMA is also thought to boost the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin the body which are also implicated in autistic symptoms. These hormones and neurotransmitters are heavily involved in anxiety and social behaviours, so targeting these makes pharmacological sense for autists.

That’s fine in theory, but does it work?

A pilot study (a small scale preliminary study) was conducted in 2016 to compare the impact of MDMA assisted psychotherapy on anxiety levels in autists versus psychotherapy alone. The study found that social anxiety significantly reduced in the group that received MDMA, a positive change that occurred rapidly and show signs of long term duration. This was however only a small pilot study and studies are ongoing with larger cohorts.

The drug does not currently have any legally approved medical uses, but if these clinical trials prove successful, this may change in the coming years.

In case you’re getting worried, the street drug itself is not being explored- ecstasy does not contain enough MDMA for therapeutic benefit, and it is often combined with other substances such as methamphetamine which make long-term use highly addictive and damaging to overall health. However, long-term use of MDMA does hold similar safety caveats such as sleep disturbances, depression, heart disease, decreased cognitive functioning and concentration so further research is required.

Nearly half of people who regularly consume ecstasy have tested their drugs

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in ‘The Imitation Game’

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to have a look at the depiction of autism in the 2014 historical drama ‘The Imitation Game‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.

The Imitation Game (2014).png

So what’s the film about?

Based on a true story, ‘The Imitation Game‘ follows computer scientist and mathematician Alan Turing during World War II as he works together with a group of code breakers to decrypt the German cipher machine Enigma, successfully intercepting key messages for British Intelligence. In designing his own computer (the Turing Machine) to decrypt the messages, Turing’s efforts allowed the allies to win a number of key battles in the war, with experts estimating that the war was shortened by as many as 2 years saving 14 million lives.

A trailer for the film can be found here:

Now this film isn’t strictly about autism, but as Alan Turing is widely believed by scholars to have had Asperger’s syndrome, it’s worth looking into the portrayal of Turing on the big screen.

So how did ‘The Imitation Game‘ fare?

In my opinion, I found Cumberbatch’s characterization of Turing to be very convincing of a man with Asperger’s syndrome- a blunt, literal, socially awkward character, with poor eye contact and a tendency towards unusual verbose language (although I will admit that these are once again, highly stereotyped autistic traits). It helps that Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to autism- for his turn in Danny Boyle’s Frankentein, Cumberbatch did a lot of research about autism and met with many individuals on the spectrum, his experiences of which would likely have influenced his portrayal of Alan Turing.

The True Story of The Imitation Game | Time

On the other hand, Turing’s intellect does further perpetuate the stereotype of the autistic genius, however, as in the case of ‘Mozart and the Whale‘ (also based on a true story), it’s hard to downplay a historical figure that is in fact a genuine genius ๐Ÿ˜› We just need to get Hollywood on board with showing us a more diverse range of autistic characters in fiction films ๐Ÿ˜‰

Interestingly, historians have criticized the film’s depiction of Turing as the autistic traits depicted do not align with Turing’s adult personality. Turing has been described as quite sociable and friendly with a good sense of humour, a man who did not have issues working with others- so it would appear that the filmmakers took some liberty with the facts in an attempt to convey that Turing was likely on the spectrum. Perhaps a more subtle portrayal of Turing’s autistic traits would have led to a more accurate portrayal of an alleged real life autist.

All in all, it’s a really interesting biopic and worth a watch to while away the lock-down blues ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in The Rosie Result

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to conclude my review of the Rosie trilogy by discussing autism in the book ‘The Rosie Result‘ by Graeme Simsion.

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion | Waterstones

So what is the book about?

The third book in the series picks up with Don and Rosie several years after ‘The Rosie Effect‘ as they prepare to move back from New York to Australia with their son Hudson. Hudson naturally shares many of his fathers quirks, and following his enrollment at a new school, the teachers are quick to recommend him for an autism assessment. Determined that his son will not be disadvantaged or pigeonholed by such a diagnosis, Don takes a sabbatical from his career as a geneticist so that he can devote his time to Hudson and impart on him the many coping mechanisms that he himself has used to “fit in” (aka ‘The Hudson Project’).

Here’s a fun little trailer for the book:

So how did this book compare with the others in the series in it’s portrayal of autism?

I really enjoyed the book, however, many ranked this book as their least favourite, with some even criticizing it for portraying autistic characters as “caricatures” of autism. For the first time in the trilogy, the subject of autism is tackled head on, and to an extent I would have to agree with this summation of the books portrayal of autism. There are several autistic characters in the book, and indeed many of them are quite stereotypically nerdy, Sheldon-Cooper-esque types. Hudson is indeed cut from the same cloth as his father, and naturally has many of the same classic symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, such as his aversion to change, fondness for routine, niche specialist interests, sensory sensitivities etc. Granted, as Don’s son you would expect similarities, but as autism is unique to the individual, it would have been nice to add a different twist to Hudson’s traits.

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion | Hilarious, Rosie, Author

Regardless of this, it was a highly entertaining read and I would highly recommend it as a lockdown distraction. Yes, the character’s are stereotyped, but this book does challenge our perceptions of autists in a lighthearted humorous manner- a refreshing change from the doom and gloom that is often depicted around autism in popular culture ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Epilepsy

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Following on from last weeks post about CBD/medical marijuana and autism, this week I’d like to take a closer look at epilepsy, a neurological condition that is often co-morbid with autism. In fact, some reports suggest that as many as half of people with autism also suffer with some form of epilepsy! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

So what exactly is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by abnormal electrical activity along the neurons in the cortex of the brain. In the brain, neurons are usually activated in order along the nerve as messages travel from one point to another- in other words, only one nerve cell at a time is activated. Think of nerve cells like a chain of people passing a note along- only one person will hold the note at a given time. During an epileptic seizure however, the nerves fire excessively and abnormally all at the same time. The exact mechanism is unclear, but evidence suggests that changes in the membrane of nerve cells or dysfunction in inhibitory brain cells may cause symptoms.

Here’s a handy video from ‘The Doctors‘ that talks through some of the common types of seizures:

But how is it linked with autism?

Researchers are unclear as of yet if epilepsy is a consequence of autism or a contributory factor in developing it, however, both autism and epilepsy share common genetic roots. Some studies have found that there is a lot of overlap between the genes implicated in both conditions, where mutations in these genes (such as SCN2A and HNRNPU genes) give rise to symptoms.

The main theory behind their overlap is that they stem from similar biological mechanisms wherein both conditions are caused by alterations and imbalances in excitation and inhibition of nerve activity in the brain.

If you want to do some more reading about how epilepsy manifests in autism and how to manage it, here’s a useful link: https://www.epilepsy.ie/content/epilepsy-and-autism

873 Epilepsy Illustrations, Royalty-Free Vector Graphics & Clip Art - iStock

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend,

Aoife

Autism and Medical Marijuana/CBD

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

With increased public interest in medical marijuana and CBD oil in recent years, this week I’d like to a look at the controversial use of cannabinoids in the treatment of autism.

So what has pot got to do with autism?

Many recent studies have explored the implications of Cannabidiol or CBD (one of the non-intoxicating chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant) in the treatment of epilepsy, which can be co-morbid in some cases of autism. Through these studies it emerged that there were signs of improvement in autistic symptoms while the patients were taking CBD, suggesting that it may also be an effective treatment option in non-epileptic autists. Symptoms that showed improvement include ADHD, cognitive and motor deficits, communication and sleep disorders.

But how does it work?

The brain possesses proteins known as cannabinoid receptors (CB receptors) to which the ingredients in cannabis bind to and activate, resulting in the psychoactive effects we have come to associate with marijuana. These receptors are also found in neurons throughout the body. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, binds to and activates these receptors, whereas the CBD component of the plant blocks them. Blocking the CB1 receptor appears to reduce the incidence of seizures and improves learning and sociability in animal models. Research suggests that CBD particularly alters brain function in the regions of the brain commonly associated with autism, potentially explaining why behaviours show signs of improvement. Studies have also indicated that THC may have an impact on reducing outbursts in autists, but unlike CBD, the intoxicating side effects are problematic.

CBD oil revolution: Introducing what it is and why the hype?

It sounds promising, but is it safe?

The jury is still out on whether or not it is safe to use. It is rarely lethal in large doses, but regular usage may cause long term effects. Research suggests that there may be a risk of liver damage with long term use, however there are limited long term studies available for the impact that CBD could have on the brain. Recreational use of Marijuana during teenage years has been shown to have long term impacts on cognitive functioning, however, given that medical prescriptions use much lower doses, it’s unclear if medicinal usage would have the same impact. As it is not widely available due to legal restrictions on medical marijuana usage in many countries, it is unlikely that there will be any further long term data any time soon.

All in all, the use of cannabinoids for autism management shows some potential, but are you willing to roll the dice on you or your child’s safety?

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Happy 4th Anniversary!

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

Happy New Year! ๐Ÿ˜€ Please God 2021 will be a lot kinder to us than 2020 has been (current Irish lockdown aside ๐Ÿ˜› ).

It’s time again for my annual reader appreciation post! ๐Ÿ˜€

Can you believe it’s been 4 years already?! ๐Ÿ˜ฑ I know I say this every year, but I am genuinely shocked that I’m still here and that you’re all still interested in listening to what I have to say! ๐Ÿ˜‚

Thank you all so much for sticking with me whether you’re new to the blog or have been with me over the last few years. I greatly appreciate your readership and messages. Particularly during these difficult times, I’ve really enjoyed hearing from you this year; you’ve given me many warm fuzzies to lighten the darker days ๐Ÿค—.

I’ll have a brand new post for you next week so stay tuned! ๐Ÿ™‚

Wishing each and every one of you all the best for 2021- we’ll make it a good one!

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Merry Christmas 2020!

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Just the quickest of posts before the year is out to wish all of my loyal readers every blessing for the holiday season! ๐Ÿ˜Š

Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a much happier and brighter year for us all! ๐Ÿฅฐ

Stay safe!

Aoife

Autism and Christmas

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As we face into the holiday season, this week I’d like to talk about Christmas and autism.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, yet as with most aspects of life on the spectrum, it can sometimes be overwhelming for autists. Flashing lights, busy and noisy crowds, interrupted routines and unexpected visitors can really throw an autist, even amidst the high jinks and excitement for Santa.

Here are some tips for an autism friendly Christmas:

Go shopping at off peak times– I know this can be hard to avoid over Christmas with shopping crowds (although perhaps this year human traffic will be lighter), but try to get out for Christmas shopping midweek or early in the morning to avoid getting overwhelmed by the crowds.

Wear sunglasses if Christmas lights are too bright– Ah the old reliable. I know I advise this as a solution to most light related sensory issues, but I do swear by my sunglasses! I rarely leave my house without them- I’ve even been known to wear them in clubs! Thankfully Christmas lights have never been an issue for me, but if you don’t want to miss out on any light displays, or official turning on of the lights ceremonies, just slip a pair on to take the edge off ๐Ÿ™‚

Use a stocking/sack instead of gift wrapping presents– This can help reduce sensory overload from all the bright colours, noisy paper and textural sensitivities. I always had a Santa sack growing up and it was great fun to dig around in it and focus on one present at a time as I pulled them out ๐Ÿ™‚

Autism friendly Santa Experiences- If your child tends to get overwhelmed with the crowds at Santa’s grotto, many places offer autism friendly experiences where the lights are turned down, there’s less noise, and the numbers are limited for a more calming experience. Granted, these may be harder to come across than normal this year, but something to look forward to in the future ๐Ÿ™‚ There are also a lot of autism friendly pantomimes and shows to watch out for.

Decorate the house gradually rather than all at once– The sudden change in decor might be overwhelming for an autist, so putting up the decorations bit by bit will allow them to get used to the change gradually. Equally, the decorations could also be removed slowly to avoid similar incidences.

Use a static light setting on the Christmas tree/outdoor lights- If flashing lights are a problem, try buying a static set or set the flash pattern to static. If colour sensitivities are a problem, try to stick with plain white bulbs, or if yellow is a trigger colour (as is the case with many male autists), calming blue might be a nice alternative.

Pre-arrange Christmas visits if possible– To reduce the stress of unexpected visitors, try to plan out times/days when your family or friends might visit. This way there is time to get used to the idea and your child will not be thrown by a sudden arrival/routine disruption.

Maintain routines where possible– To avoid added stress, try to stick to regular bedtimes, bath times and mealtimes.

Be cautious of holiday scents- Be careful if trying out Christmas scented candles, air fresheners or when buying a real Christmas tree in case these scents are a sensory trigger. A couple of Christmas’s ago, one seasonal Yankee candle made me throw up when I smelled it, so beware (it could also have been a side effect from the strong antibiotics I was on at the time, but I’ve avoided it ever since to be sure๐Ÿ˜‚)!

Ho-ho-ho-pe you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a lovely weekend,

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Backstreet Dreams

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about the representation of autism in the 1990 drama film ‘Backstreet Dreams‘ starring a young Brookie Shields and Jason O’Malley.

BackstreetDreams1990.png

So what’s the film about?

The story follows a young hoodlum named Dean as he navigates fatherhood. Things become complicated when Dean’s son Shane get’s diagnosed with autism, causing his marriage to fall apart, and making Dean a single father. With the help of Shane’s therapist Stevie, Dean forms a connection with his son, finding the strength to leave his backstreet activities behind him.

You can check out a trailer for the film here:

So how did this film fare in it’s portrayal of autism?

Filmed in 1990, this was one of the earlier film portrayals of autism, and as such is very stereotyped in the autistic traits discussed. There’s a lot of mono-tonal speech, lack of eye contact, repetitive behaviours and stimming so nothing really out of the ordinary in this film. That being said, for a child actor in a role this young, it’s tricky to accurately depict the realities of autism unless the actor is themselves autistic. The story also tended to focus more on the impact of autism for Dean rather than Shane, which further distracted from the issue.

Cineplex.com | Movie

On the other hand, it was heartening to see the impact that appropriate interventions and support were having on Shane’s development, something that wasn’t always highlighted in these early films featuring autism. Most early films focus on accepting autism or how burdensome the condition can be, but this film showed a turning point in how it’s not all doom and gloom, and how proper interventions can really improve symptoms and outcomes for autists.

All in all, it was a fairly poor offering both in terms of autism and cinema, but by all means give it a go if you think you might like it!

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

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