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Autism on Screen- Atypical (Season 2)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following on from last years discussion of the Netflix smash ‘Atypical‘, I wanted to see how the second season fared in it’s portrayal of autism 🙂

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In case you need a reminder, ‘Atypical‘ focuses on autistic teenager Sam as he navigates his senior year of high school. The show also focuses on Sam’s wider family and friends so that we are not given a mere one dimensional look at the reality of living with autism.

Picking up where the last season left off, ‘Atypical‘ follows Sam through the latter half of his senior year in high school, charting his girl trouble, struggles with change, and his fears and ambitions for life after school. The season in particular focuses a great deal on the difficulties Sam experiences with change as he comes to terms with the consequences of his mother’s affair, needing to find a new therapist, his sisters transfer to a private school along with an assortment of other changes associated with the end of his school days.

You can check out the trailer for season 2 here:

Just like last season, I highly enjoyed this refreshing and endearingly comedic portrayal of autism. The acting was again excellent and I believe that the show gave a well rounded view of the autistic experience.

What I liked in particular about this season was Sam’s support group. In order to prepare himself for “the abyss” or his future after graduation, Sam joins a group for high-school seniors with ASD’s. The good thing about this group meant that it allowed for other autistic characters and their traits to shine through in the series.

In addition to this, many of these group members were themselves on the spectrum (as the first series was criticized for not making greater use of spectrum actors) which meant that we actually saw a realistic portrayal of several spectrum characters! 😀 This was great for showcasing autistic women, especially as one of the characters was shown to have “super empathy” after stealing Sam’s art portfolio to keep him from going to college as he was afraid of becoming a starving artist! 😂 Additionally the struggles to regulate tone were also evident in this group- a common trait with limited awareness.

Furthermore the season highlighted a growing area of importance- first responder autism training. Sam get’s overwhelmed when he attempts to sleep over at his friend Zahid’s house and leaves for home in his PJs. He is subsequently arrested for his odd behaviour in his attempts to “stim” and calm down, even after Zahid tells the officer that he is autistic. Here in Ireland, autism charity AsIAm are particularly dedicated to offering training to a number of services in the public sector for encounters such as this one:

https://asiam.ie/our-work/asiam-public-sector-training/

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However, there was one major issue in this season, which we Irish found highly irksome- the mispronunciation (or absolute butchering) of Kilkea, Athy, Co. Kildare (https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/banter/trending/irish-netflix-viewers-bemused-by-atypical-characters-pronunciation-of-kildare-athy-and-kilkea-37308271.html). This town was pronounced as kill-kay-ah, ath-ee, county kill-daahr. For the record- it’s pronounced kill-key, a-thigh, county kill-dare (literally no reason to mispronounce the last one! 😛 ).

I didn’t even realize where they were talking about until they said Ireland at the end! Perhaps the scriptwriters would do well to double check their place names in future 😛

All in all I highly enjoyed the sophomore season of ‘Atypical‘ and would highly recommend this quirky comedy for a weekend binge watch 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen-Little Man Tate

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

This week I’d like to focus in on the 1991 film Little Man Tate and it’s depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Directed by and starring Jodie Foster, Little Man Tate tells the story of Fred, a young genius (sigh) with Asperger’s syndrome and his relationship with his loving mother Dede. Fred struggles to relate to his peers due to his high intellect in school whilst his mother wonders why he can’t just be a “normal, happy little kid”. Life begins to change for the better for Fred however when his intellect is discovered by a child psychologist who wants to enroll Fred in a school for gifted children.

You can check out the trailer for the film below:

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

Aside from the obvious genius/savant conundrum (I’m sick of giving out about it’s over-portrayal in film at this stage! 😛 ), the Asperger’s traits portrayed here were highly stereotypical in my opinion. Granted, the film never explicitly mentions autism, however many experts consider the character as having Asperger’s.

The film is very dated in it’s portrayal, however, this would have been one of the earlier film portrayals of autism when knowledge was limited in contrast to newer more accurate representations such as in Mozart and the Whale, My Name is Khan and most recently in the Netflix orignal TV series Atypical.

However I have to give props to casting-  Adam Hann-Byrd could easily pass for Jodie Foster’s real son in looks and accent! 😂

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In addition to this, Foster’s character has to be commended for her determination to make Fred’s life as “normal” as possible, despite him being delightfully unique (as I always say normal is overrated!). Far too often autism is used as an excuse these days which will ultimately impede autists from reaching their true potential.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Attachment to Objects/Toys

 

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly talk about autism and attachment to toys and or objects.

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Why Aoife I hear you ask? Is it not “normal” for children to be attached to toys, blankets, teddies etc.?

Indeed, as many as 70% of children will be so attached to a particular toy that they take it everywhere, however, for autists, the attachment can last late into childhood and beyond (some autists are even more attached to objects than people).

Take Jamie Knight for example (a computer programmer who was involved in the creation of the BBC iPlayer). Since college, Jamie’s childhood teddy ‘Lion’ goes everywhere with him.

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In my own case, I had a particular rabbit “teddy” (although it was more sock than teddy by the time I let it go from all of my mother’s repairs 😬)  that I couldn’t sleep without until I was 16, as embarrassing as that is to admit-but hey we can blame it on the Asperger’s! 😛 😉

Other autists have been known to be attached to more obscure objects than soft cuddly toys, such as batteries, fruits and vegetables, cereal boxes, even sticks!

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But why does the attachment to such objects endure for autists beyond childhood?

The reasoning for attachment to objects remains unclear however, the general thinking is that these attachments offer comfort (especially as more textured items offer opportunities for stimming), and stability, helping to ground autists in a world (to their mind) spinning out of control.

In Jamie’s case for example, carrying around Lion is a coping mechanism, providing him with structure, consistency and a sense of comfort. When overwhelmed, the familiar texture and scent reinforces a sense of structure and routine to quickly soothe the mind.

Similarly, artist, comedian and performer Tilley Milburn relies on her pig Del to navigate everyday life, providing her with comfort and a medium through which she can communicate by proxy in overwhelming situations. For example, her mother often says that Del is more reasonable than she is, so she will often ask to talk to Del! 😂

These attachments might seem a little odd, but they can serve a very important purpose, so don’t be too quick to judge an adult carrying around a plush toy 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Thrush

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Thrush- not the most fun topic to talk about, and not one that you would immediately associate with ASDs.

BUT!

This opportunistic infection may have more to do with autism than you might think!

Following a recent brush with thrush in my throat (cheers for that Ventolin! 😛 ), and being a super nerd who likes to understand their afflictions, through my reading I’ve discovered that candida infections in the gut are thought to contribute to the symptoms of autism.

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So first things first, the basics- what is thrush?

For those of you fortunate enough to have not been infected at some point in your life, Candida is a type of yeast that usually exists in small colonies in the body, kept at bay by the immune system and our friendly neighbourhood symbiotic bacteria. However, when our immune system is run down, or after taking some forms of medication (such as antibiotics and steroid inhalers), this fungus can overgrow and cause a yeast infection (more commonly known as thrush). These infections for the majority of cases are mild and easy to treat, however more severe infections can be life threatening.

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But how does this relate to autism?

In recent years, emerging evidence suggests that autists may have over double the amount of candida in their gut than their neurotypical peers. As we have discussed in my previous post exploring digestive issues in autism, the microbiota of the gut can play an important role in influencing brain development and behaviour. As such, it has been theorized that toxins such as ammonia released by yeast during infection may interfere with mental processing and induce autistic behaviours. Some doctors have reported improvements in autistic symptoms through the use of anti-fungal medication and candida diets (low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet purported to improve gut health); however, the vast majority of physicians remain skeptical about candida’s role in autism due to limited scientific evidence (at present).

So might there be a reason that autists are particularly prone to thrush infections?

Interestingly in my reading about pro-biotics (particular strains of live bacteria which can have beneficial effects for gut health such as in yogurts, supplements, pro-biotic drinks etc.) and their use against thrush, I discovered that the bacterium L. reuteri is thought to be one of the main gut defenders against a number of candida infections.

Now why does that name sound familiar?

In my post about digestive issues in autism we learned that this strain of lactobacillus is absent in some cases of autism. Moreover, some studies suggest that administering pro-biotics for L. reuteri to autists can improve behavioural symptoms, which would suggest that perhaps this bacterium, or lack there of, may predispose autists to thrush infections!

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See? Far more interesting than you may have thought! 😉

Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Levels of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous posts about the different forms of autism (lesser known ASDs; Asperger’s Syndrome (AS); Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP) etc.), I’d like to talk about some changes in the classification of autism that have taken place since the introduction of the all encompassing ASD in 2013.

To recap- an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term to describe a range of neurodevelopmental disorders (such as AS, classic autism, PDD-NOS etc.).

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In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 as it is more commonly known, changed the previous diagnostic criteria to effectively subsume all previous separate diagnoses under the one term- ASD. As such, these separate diagnoses no longer exist in the eyes of psychologists.

However, in using the umbrella term without these separate diagnoses, it is difficult to determine levels of functionality among autists.

So how do we break it down?

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Autism is now classified using 3 different levels:

  • Level 1 Autism: Requiring Support- These autists have noticeable issues with socializing and communication skills. This level is characterized by:
    • decreased interest in social interactions or activities
    • capable of social engagement but may struggle with conversational give-and-take
    • difficulty with planning and organizing
    • struggles with initiating social interactions, such as talking to a person
    • obvious signs of communication difficulty
    • trouble adapting to changes in routine or behavior
  • Level 2 Autism: Requiring Substantial Support- Symptoms for these autists are similar to level 1, but more severe as they often lack both verbal and nonverbal communication skills which can make daily activities difficult. These autists may also exhibit a number of behavioural problems
  • Level 3 Autism: Requiring Very Substantial Support- This level is where you will find the most severe cases of autism. These autists experience extreme difficulties with communication and also exhibit more signs of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than may be observed in the other levels.

The behaviours at each level can be broken down a little further than this, but these are the nuts and bolts of how autism is classified under this system.

Until recently, these updates have mainly applied to the American classification system, however in the last few weeks the global updated version of the “International Classification of Diseases” (ICD-11) now mirrors it’s US counterpart, dissolving all separate diagnoses of autism in favour of the all encompassing ASD.

So how do I feel about the dissolution of my own diagnosis?

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In many ways, this new classification system is a good thing as it will greatly benefit autists who experience greater challenges. It also allows clinicians more flexibility in that the clinician determines if a patient is on the spectrum using their best judgement rather than the patient fitting a specific combination of traits/reaching a set number of traits, which may benefit borderline/masking autists who are highly functioning enough to pass just under the diagnostic radar.

However, I am concerned for higher functioning autists. I would classify as Autism 1 under the new system, however, whilst I fit some of the bill for this level in my childhood, it does not describe me as well as my original diagnosis. In fact instead of benefiting an aspie, to my mind, it could in fact disable them further as the very word ‘autism’ infers a greater level of need than Asperger’s Syndrome.

Yes AS is a form of autism, but it is worlds apart from many of the lower functioning forms. If an employer for example were to hear the word’s ‘autism level 1’ or ‘high functioning autism’ rather than Asperger’s, this could have a serious disabling effect in their perception of the autist before them. Indeed, in recent years we have become a more inclusive society and are better educated about the spectrum, but for many the ‘A word’ still rings trouble.

On the other hand, the vagueness as to what classifies as support is concerning for autists at each level. Sure, this generalized approach widens the spectrum net, but we also cannot ignore the finer details and traits that ultimately determine the needs of the autist- every case is unique after all.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings- enjoy the weekend! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Robots

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly discuss a somewhat unusual topic- robots and autism.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, Aoife has finally lost it- but just before you call in the men in the white coats, let me tell you about the clinical benefits of using robots for children with autism! 🙂

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Recent technological advances in the field of robotics offer great possibilities in the treatment of autism. As interactive robots are increasingly becoming more human like, this technology can be used clinically to help teach social skills to children with autism.

Whilst the research into the therapeutic benefits of robots is in it’s infancy, several schools across the globe have begun to use social robots reporting very positive results 🙂

So how do these robots work?

The robots engage autists with a specially tailored curriculum. For example, the robot makes a sad face or starts laughing and the child has to say what the robot is feeling, or when interacting with the robot if they do something that could hurt a real person, the robot will cry out so that the child can learn that this  behaviour is not appropriate.

It’s really cool! 😀

You can check out Milo below- one of the many models of social robots helping kids with autism worldwide (try not to let  him creep you out though, Kaspar the robot is way freakier….might have further to go in making these robots more approachable in my opinion 😬).

The benefits of using this technology currently include improved:

  • Engagement
  • Eye contact
  • Vocabulary
  • Attention
  • Self-motivation and regulation
  • Emotional recognition and understanding, and
  • Improvements in appropriate social behaviour

And all of this within just 1-4 months of using a robot like Milo! 😲

All in all the technology looks really promising in the treatment of autism, even if a few tweaks may be needed to improve the appearance of these robots 🙂 😛

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Aoife

 

Research News Update July 2018

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

The world of research is fast paced- every day new studies are published telling us new and exciting things about the human body. As the scientific community has yet to pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms involved in autism, the wheel of research is constantly churning out new evidence to provide us with a better picture of the autistic brain.

Since my previous post about the neuroscience of autism, there have been several new and exciting insights into the physiology of the autistic brain, so I’ve decided to give you a brief summary of the research! 🙂

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Folding in the Brain

In recent weeks a study has emerged that suggest that symptoms of autism may be attributed to excessive folding in the brain.

No- I’m not talking origami, but the formulation of the squiggly ridges or ‘folds’ that make up the brain (by a process known as gyrification) as you can see in the gif below:

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Brain tissue folds to allow for a greater surface area for cognitive functioning within the cramped confines of the skull- like a bar of chocolate melts quicker when you break the pieces up, so too does the folded brain work more efficiently than if the surface were smooth.

Recent research shows that autists brains may not fold in the same way as their neurotypical peers. Some regions of the brain, such as those associated with facial recognition are smoother in autists, whereas other areas such as the temporal (sensory processing) and frontal lobes (memory and attention) show signs of exaggerated folding. Excessive folding in these areas could explain sensory sensitivities in autists, in addition to variations in memory and attention deficits. On the other hand, decreased folding in the occipital lobe may explain why autists struggle with facial reading and processing 🙂

Brain Shape

In addition to folding, recent research has focused on the cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) which contains roughly 80% of the neurons of the brain whilst only taking up 10% of it’s total volume! Thought to be associated with implicit learning (learning without awareness like learning to ride a bike or to swim), sensory function and cognitive function, 3D analysis of MRI data suggests that the shape and structure of the cerebellum may be different in autism. It appears that in some autists the cerebellum is flatter on the right side (the flatter the tissue, the lower the efficiency of the brain), but in autists with higher functioning social skills the structure is closer to that of a neurotypical individual- which may explain some of the communication difficulties associated with autism as the right side of the cerebellum is associated with language processing.

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Abnormal Brain Connections

MRI scans of preschoolers with autism have provided more evidence that the autistic brain is abnormally connected. In this study it appears that a number of brain networks connecting different areas of the brain show significant differences from neurotypicals. A number of components of the basal ganglia network in particular were altered in autism (which plays an important role in behaviour). Differences were also found in the para-limbic network which is also involved in behaviour in addition to emotional processing, motivation and self-control.

This may indicate the use of MRI scans to obtain faster autism diagnoses in the future, but it’s still very much early days 🙂

There we have it now dear Earthlings, hope you hadn’t missed me too much while I was away.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

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Aoife

Holiday Break

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Just a quick post to say that there will not be any new blogs for the next couple of weeks as I’m heading away for some much needed R and R 🙂

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Hope everyone is enjoying the summer! 😎

Aoife

Autism and Echolalia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re going to talk about something that effects approximately 75% of autists- Echolalia.

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I know, I know, it’s a mouthful- but echolalia is actually quite simple:

Echolalia is the meaningless repetition of noises, words or phrases immediately after their occurrence (although sometimes this can be delayed).

Derived from Greek echo, “to repeat,” and laliá, meaning “talk” or “speech,” Echolalia is an automatic and unintentional behaviour.  In most cases Echolalia is used in an attempt to communicate, practice or even learn language. In fact, Echolalia is part of normal development- every child experiences Echolalia when they learn a spoken language.

However, whilst “normal”, this behaviour can persist for longer in autists.

But why might this be?

Psychologically speaking, Echolalia is considered by some to simply be a repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviour in autists (as some experience this behaviour only when they are stressed), however, the general school of thought is that it is a communicative behaviour. Imitative behaviour is an essential part of social learning. As autists struggle so much socially, this imitative behaviour can act as a tool to help improve their social skills.

I’ve certainly exhibited such imitative behaviour during my formative years. For example, I somehow got it into my head that in my final year of primary school I needed to practice my swearing so that I would better be able to fit in when I made the jump to secondary school! 😬🙈 Wasn’t especially successful- sure I could swear like a sailor, buuuuuut it didn’t do much to improve my social skills or status (but I suppose I sounded a little less like a walking thesaurus for a change! 😛 ).

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On the biological side of things, much of the physiology of Echolalia remains to be explored, however, one study indicates that the ITGB3 gene (which carries the information for β3 integrin- a cell membrane protein that will interact with other proteins to trigger a number of biochemical reactions in our cells) seems to link autism and echolalia.

There we have it now Earthlings I hope you enjoyed this post! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

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