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Autism in ‘I Used To Be Famous’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about Netflix’s latest drama film ‘I Used To Be Famous‘ and an autistic character that appears in the film.

So what is the film about?

The film follows Vince (played by Ed Skrein), a former member of a famous boy band who has been struggling to make headway with his own electronic music since the dissolution of the band several years previously. One day while busking in the city, he happens upon a teenage boy who starts drumming a beat on a nearby bench in sync with his electronic stylings. The resulting music captures the attention of everyone around and a video of the incident goes viral online. As it turns out, Stevie is on the autistic spectrum and a passionate drummer. Vince tracks him down in a music therapy group for people with disabilities and proposes that they start a band together in his desperation to make it back on top, a move which changes both of their lives forever.

You can see a trailer of the film below:

So how was this films depiction of autism?

The writers have kept things simple in the film, choosing to make Stevie’s drumming abilities the main focus rather than his autism, showing us all that autism should never be a blocker to achieving your dreams. Now one of the great things about this film is that building on from Atypical, Netflix has cast an autistic actor, Leo Long, to play Stevie. Leo is a talented drummer with the London Youth Folk Ensemble and National Open Youth Orchestra, and a passionate advocate for making the music and film industries more accessible for individuals with disabilities.

It’s a heartwarming film with some great tunes to boot- perfect for a quiet evening in πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism in Thomas the Tank Engine

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I would like to discuss the introduction of an autistic character to the beloved children’s TV show Thomas the Tank Engine (the series has been renamed Thomas & FriendsAll Engines’s Go in it’s latest iteration).

In September of 2022, Bruno the Brake Car was introduced to season 2 of ‘All Engines Go‘ following a team-up between the show runners and a number of autism advocacy groups such as the National Autistic Society and Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) in the UK. In creating the character, the creators wanted to reach out to new audiences but to also ensure that their audiences were being fully represented (which makes sense given that so many autists love trains). The creators have also ensured that Bruno is always voiced by an autistic actor- 9 year old Elliot Garcia in the UK and 10 year old Chuck Smith in the USA & Canada.

You can check out Bruno in an episode of the show below:

So what’s Bruno like in the show?

It’s not immediately obvious that Bruno is autistic, but he does have a lot of subtle traits which can help teach neurotypical children about our differences and how to love and accept Bruno as just another train in the yard. The first thing I noticed about Bruno is that he doesn’t make eye contact, his eyes generally shift from side to side and up and down, never directly looking in just one place- something highly relatable for many autists. Every so often Bruno will flap his stepladders, mimicking the hand flapping stimming action of many autists. It’s really subtle, which is quite clever as it helps autists to feel seen whilst also normalizing the behaviour for neurotypical viewers. One of the things I enjoyed most about Bruno was how whenever things were too noisy or when he pushed on the brakes, smoke subtly came down over his ears in the shape of noise cancelling headphones- a true stroke of genius from the animators!

Bruno is also very literal, for example when Thomas describes Diesel as a ‘steamroller’ for his careless racing, Bruno get’s very confused as Diesel is a shunter/switcher train not a steamroller, prompting Thomas to explain that he was acting like a steamroller but not physically one. As a brake car, Bruno likes things slow and orderly, and is obsessed with routine and the train timetable, often getting unsettled when the other trains are off schedule. He’s also very funny, frequently cracking puns and using comedy to get through difficult situations- something I’m very familiar with it. It’s nice to see autists portrayed as having a good sense of humour as too often we’re depicted as gormless and immune to punchlines.

Overall Bruno’s characterization is spot on, nice and subtle and a great character to represent the autistic community. I would say however the choice of using yellow detailing on Bruno as an autistic character is a little unusual, as some autists have colour sensitivity issues, with the colour yellow being particularly triggering.

Autistic voice actor Eliot Garcia holding Bruno

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism & the Rose of Tralee

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Last week in Ireland saw the return of the annual international Rose of Tralee festival, and with it one of the first openly autistic Rose contestants- the Toronto Rose Maysen Tinkler.

But first things first, what is the Rose of Tralee?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Rose of Tralee is a festival celebrated every year in the town of Tralee in Co. Kerry in Ireland. First held in 1959, the festival was conceived to increase tourism in Tralee and to encourage expats to return home. The festival serves as a pageant of sorts to select the Rose of Tralee- a young woman of Irish heritage who embodies the virtues of Mary the title character in the eponymous song which the festival derives it’s name from. The chosen Rose should be “lovely and fair”, chosen for her personality to serve as role model and ambassador to Ireland for the duration of her reign. The festival is billed as a celebration of the “aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage” of modern young women.

Current Rose of Tralee Rachel Duffy from Westmeath

This years festival introduced us to the first autistic rose Maysen Tinkler from Toronto. Maysen, like me, was diagnosed with autism as an adult, finding the diagnosis a relief after years of feeling like an outsider. Refusing to be limited by autism, she decided to enter the competition to challenge stereotypes, providing visibility for autistic women everywhere. If you’re in Ireland (or have a really good VPN blocker) you can see her interview here round the 28 minute mark available until the 23rd of September.

Interestingly, she was not the only potential autistic candidate this year as there were two candidates, one in the Kerry selection and one in the Dublin selection who both discussed their diagnosis to raise awareness about the condition. Jennifer O’ Conner who competed in the Kerry Rose selection even recited a spoken piece she wrote called ‘Autistic Joy‘ about her experiences of autism and the festival over the years and the joy that is often overlooked:

As autism is so poorly understood in women, it’s amazing to have this representation in this international platform for young autistic girls to look up to.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Irlen Syndrome

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a condition that impacts approximately half of autists- Irlen syndrome.

So what exactly is Irlen syndrome?

First defined in the 1980’s, Irlen syndrome (also known as scotopic sensitivity syndromeΒ (SSS) orΒ Meares–Irlen syndrome) is described as a difficulty in the brain’s ability to process images/visual information. It is not exclusive to autists as it also impacts roughly 15% of the neurotypical population. As 70% of the information we process is visual, the inability to process this information can have a serious knock on effect on our brains ability to function effectively, causing issues with reading, coordination, sensory processing, spatial awareness, and ADHD– all co-morbid issues associated with autism.

But what causes it?

Irlen syndrome is caused by hypersensitivity to certain wave lengths of light which can cause the brain to process visual information incorrectly. The exact mechanism is poorly understood, but the brain seemingly becomes overactive in response to light causing dysfunction. Interestingly, Irlen syndrome is classified as a pseudo-medical diagnosis as there is skepticism over it’s existence as a stand alone condition with a distinct pathology. Experts are skeptical of Irlen syndrome as there is a lot of overlap in symptoms from other conditions and they may be lumped in under one convenient heading.

But is there anything we can do to manage symptoms?

The Irlen method is the main treatment approach for the condition. Pioneered by Helen Irlen, the Irlen method is a non-invasive approach using coloured lenses to filter light and to improve the brains ability to process visual information. The lenses can be either worn as glasses or in contact form.

You can see the impact that Irlen lenses have on the brain here:

However, the efficacy of this method has been difficult to prove. In particular there seems to be little evidence to support their use to improve reading issues and dyslexia. That being said, many people have found great relief from using Irlen lenses, such as actor Paddy Considine who has both Asperger’s syndrome and Irlen syndrome.

As with all pseudoscience/pseudomedicine, take everything with a pinch of salt, but if you think Irlen lenses may help your issues with light sensitivity it’s worth a try!

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Hyperlexia

Greetings Earthlings!

Leading on from previous post about dyslexia, this week I’d like to discuss the phenomenon of hyperlexia and autism.

So first things first, what is hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is a phenomenon where a child begins to read at a surprisingly early age beyond their expected ability compared with their peers. Onset is usually before 5 years of age, and the child tends to develop the skill without any training or prompting. It’s often described as a “splinter skill”- unique, but not very useful. It’s estimated that approximately 84% of those diagnosed with hyperlexia are on the autistic spectrum equating to between 6-14% of the overall autistic community.

There are 3 different types of hyperlexia:

  • Hyperlexia I– occurs in the neurotypical population where children learn to read at a very early age. This is usually considered temporary as their peers will eventually learn to read and catch up to hyperlexic children
  • Hyperlexia II– this is the form of hyperlexia that is most associated with autists. Beginning in infancy, hyperlexic autists are often obsessed with letters and numbers, tending to show a preference for books instead of other toys. Autistic hyperlexics also tend to have excellent recall for important numbers like phone numbers, dates and licence plates
  • Hyperlexia III– is quite similar to hyperlexia II, but the symptoms tend to decrease with time and disappear. Type III hyperlexics may have delays in verbal language and development like autists, but they tend to have remarkable skills for reading comprehension and excellent memory recall. However, unlike autists, these children generally have no issues with social interaction and anxiety

In my own experience, I’d say I probably had some mild hyperlexic tendencies as a child. I loved books- my mother couldn’t buy me enough to keep me entertained! As I’m sure I’ve told you in previous posts, my reading skills were so advanced at 6 years old in senior infants, my teacher from the previous year invited me to come and read to her junior infant class (4/5 year olds)!πŸ˜‚ I’ve always had an excellent memory and am pretty good at remembering dates, but as the experts say this skill isn’t the most exciting or useful- no point in donning a cape and calling myself a superhero πŸ˜›

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Sherlock

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to take a look at autism in the popular BBC mystery/crime drama series ‘Sherlock‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (I know, I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I only recently binged it during the pandemic πŸ˜› ).

So what’s Sherlock about?

The premise of Sherlock is fairly self explanatory- it’s a series based on the infamous Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set in modern day London. Holmes, a consulting detective, works closely with his friend Dr. Watson to solve mysteries and crimes across London by using Sherlock’s keen powers of observation and deduction in tandem with modern sleuthing technologies, giving Holmes’s story a contemporary edge.

Here’s a trailer of the series for those of you who have never seen it:

So how does autism tie into all of this?

There has been much debate as to whether or not the character of Sherlock has Asperger’s Syndrome. Many experts have theorized that he original character of Sherlock Holmes in the 19th century stories may have been displaying signs of autism decades before the condition was first characterized. Sherlock indeed displays many traits of Asperger’s- his powers of observation, his intellect and memory, obsession with his work, issues with sleep and drug addiction, mind blindness to social cues, his struggles with empathy, and moments of perceived sociopathy (some autists have been misdiagnosed as sociopaths) all tend to paint the picture of an autist. Moreover, the chief of police and Dr. Watson have even theorized that Sherlock may have Asperger’s.

You can find a video of some of Sherlock’s best bits in the show at the link below:

https://fb.watch/eIYlHsMlKw/

However, this depiction has not been without it’s critiques. It has been argued that this depiction of Sherlock as a superhuman intellect with sociopathic tendencies is damaging for the autistic community as this is a negative, somewhat romanticized and simplistic portrayal of the condition that can mislead the public in their perceptions of the condition (although let’s face it- 90% of autistic characters recycle the same traits and rarely give us an insight into the variety and complexity of the neurodivergent population πŸ˜› ). The autistic community on the whole however, has mainly been supportive in claiming Sherlock as one of our own as many relate to Sherlock and feel seen in Cumberbatch’s portrayal.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Dyslexia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to take a look at another neurological condition that can be co-morbid with autism- dyslexia.

First things first, what is dyslexia?

Dyslexia can be described as a specific type of learning disability that impacts a persons reading, writing and spelling abilities. Impacting approximately 10% of the population, dyslexia ranges from mild to severe characterized by cognitive difficulties with processing phonetics, working memory and speed of long term memory retrieval. Like autism, the exact neurological causes and mechanisms are unclear, but as dyslexia can run in families, genetic factors are largely thought to contribute.

So how is it linked to autism?

The link between autism and dyslexia has not been scientifically established, but there are some commonalities. Interestingly, dyslexia overlaps with many autistic co-morbidities such as ADHD, dysgraphia, dyspraxia (an estimated 52-53% of dyslexics are also dyspraxic), and auditory processing disorders, which would suggest that these conditions likely operate through similar neurological mechanisms and pathways.

Scientists have found it difficult to establish a direct genetic link between the two conditions, however, recent research may implicate gene deletions in CNTNAP5 (a gene involved in connecting neurons)  and DOCK4 (a gene that regulates junctions between cells) in both dyslexia and autism. In addition to this, a 2015 study found that declarative memory (the type of memory that can be “declared” like names, facts, figures etc.) can be used to develop coping mechanisms for both autism and dyslexia, suggesting that perhaps there may be overlap in the brain regions associated with this type of memory formation. Other studies exploring the neural mechanisms of dyslexia indicate structural changes in such regions as the frontal lobe (memory and problem solving), cerebellum (the motor centre) and corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves that splits and connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain)- all areas that have also shown structural changes in studies of the autistic brain.

Most recently, a 2021 study exploring the co-occurrence of dyslexia and other neurodevelopmental disorders reported that many dyslexic patients in their dataset also had issues with sensory processing and other ASD traits, but concluded that the links between the two conditions are complex and hard to underpin, especially given that some autists are hyperlexic (guilty!) rather than dyslexic.

Whilst there is no definitive scientific link, the overlap cannot be denied.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in Stranger Things?

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Following the recent release of Netflix sensation ‘Stranger Things‘ Season 4 Vol., this week I’d like to discuss a possible autistic character that many fans have been discussing online since the season dropped (don’t worry- I’ll keep this spoiler free!).

So before I get into discussing this character, what’s Stranger Things about?

For those of you who may not have heard of Netflix’s all time most streamed TV show, Stranger Things is an 80’s nostalgia sci-fi/horror/drama series set in the fictional town of Hawkins Indiana. Secret government cold war experiments exploring psychokinesis have ripped a portal to an alternate dimension filled with monsters called the ‘Upside Down’, leading to a series of mysterious events in Hawkins which a young group of pre-teens set out to investigate after their friend Will disappears.

Now back to autism.

In the most recent series, one of the new characters introduced in the last season, now appears to be showing a lot of neurodivergent traits- Robin Buckley, played by Maya Hawke (daughter of Hollywood legends Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke).

Robin is a highly intelligent high school student that befriends the main Stranger Things gang in season 3 when Russian scientists build a portal to the Upside Down in a secret lab beneath the mall that she works at. Described as “an alternative girl” when her casting was first announced, Robin has certainly captured the attention of autistic viewers as her character has developed in season 4. Throughout the season, Robin has been very quirky, exhibiting no filter and rambling constantly about random topics, but can also be quite easily distracted, suggesting that like many autists she has ADHD.

She mentions that she has no grasp of social cues and has awful coordination, claiming that she took 6 months longer to walk than the other babies which she says was not normal. Robin also claims to be a terrible liar and regularly addresses her weirdness and tendency to inadvertently come across as mean or condescending, constantly asking her friends if she is being annoying.

During one particularly memorable scene, Robin, a notorious tomboy, is dressed up in tight frilly clothing which she constantly complains about, arguing that the borrowed outfit is itchy, the bra is pinching her, and the blouse is strangling her, which could suggest that sensory sensitivities could be driving her penchant for baggy clothing.

Most autistic fans did not notice much in the line of neurodiversity in season 3, but other keen eyed viewers have noted traits prior to season 4 citing her ability to hyperfocus, her memory, her ability to connect dots the others can’t, her blunt truth bombs and that she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community (which a large proportion of autists are). Robin also remarked in season 3 “I feel like my whole life has been one big error“, a sentiment that many an autist can relate to. It could be argued that perhaps now that Robin is part of the gang, she is far more relaxed and doesn’t feel the need to mask as much as she did in season 3.

Whilst it is highly unlikely that Robin will have an autism story-line given how poorly understood autism was in women during the 1980’s, nevertheless it’s always nice for autistic fans to feel seen when watching our favourite shows. It will be interesting to see how her character develops in season 4 vol 2 and beyond!

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Brain Zaps

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from my previous post about autism and anxiety, this week I’d like to talk about the phenomenon of brain zaps which autists may experience.

So what exactly are brain zaps?

Brain zaps (also know as brain shakes/shocks/shivers/flips) are a poorly understood phenomenon where it feels as though the brain is undergoing an electrical shock or a shaking/shivering/vibrating sensation. I personally have experienced these from time to time as a vibrating sensation in my brain, where it feels like your brain is literally shaking in your skull. Others report that it feels like a zap has gone off in their head and they can hear a hissing or a ringing sound in their ears. In some cases people experience bursts of light and can feel faint and disorientated afterwards. They are not harmful to the brain but they can be distracting and uncomfortable, especially for autists who are already sensitive to sensory stimuli.

So what causes them?

Like many neurological sensations, they are somewhat of a mystery, but they generally tend to occur in response to withdrawal or missed doses of certain drugs such as anti-depressants, ecstasy and MDMA, and medications for anxiety and ADHD – many of which are prescribed for co-morbid mental health conditions in autists. As these drugs alter levels of key calming inhibitory neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA (levels which are naturally dysregulated in the autistic brain), it is thought that low levels of these neurotransmitters may cause over-excitement in the brain, leading to abnormal firing between the neurons causing localized minor seizures i.e. brain zaps.

Don’t be alarmed by the term seizure here- this theory has not yet been confirmed and there is no evidence that brain zaps have a negative impact on our health.

On the other hand, brain zaps can also occur in response to high stress and anxiety. When you experience chronic stress, the brain is hyperstimulated as your worries swirl round and around in your restless mind. Completely overworked and overexcited from stress, your neurotransmitter levels fluctuate causing lower levels of calming GABA and higher levels of glutamate- the primary excitatory neurotransmitter. Such changes may over-excite the brain resulting in a localised seizure/brain zap as described above. Autists may be particularly susceptible to brain zaps in this manner as we experience higher levels of biological stress than our neurotypical peers, not to mention that our neurons are naturally hyper-connected, our neurotransmitters dysregulated and our brains hyperstimulated as a result.

Interestingly, a recent study has suggested that lateral eye movement may be a triggering factor for brain zaps. This is particularly intriguing for autists as evidence suggests that we process most visual information in our periphery, so our natural inclination to avoid direct eye contact could trigger brain zaps.

There are no treatments for brain zaps, but while they may not be the most pleasant sensation, they are generally nothing to be worried about and can be mitigated with proper management of stress and your prescribed medications.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in ‘Convenience Store Woman’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about another autistic female character in the book ‘Convenience Store Woman‘ by Japanese author Sayaka Murata.

So what’s the book about?

The book tells the story of convenience store (orΒ konbini) worker Keiko Furukura, a 36 year old woman who has worked part time in her local store for the last 18 years. She is content with her life in the store, happily set in routine as a functional cog in the “machine of society”. But as content as Keiko may be, the world is not content with her life. Keiko is considered somewhat of an anomaly in Japanese society, as convenience store jobs are considered stop gaps for students, job seekers, housewives etc. As she approaches her late thirties, her family and friends become increasingly invasive in their questioning of her lifestyle- why has she never moved on from the store? Why hasn’t she married? Why won’t she try to be like everyone else? Everyone wants to “fix” Keiko so that she will become a “normal”, functioning member of society. Things become so bad that Keiko goes so far as to adopt an obnoxious former employee at the store as a room mate/ “pet” to get the world off of her back and to let them assume that she is in a relationship and finally acting “normal”.

Author Sayaka Murata

So is Keiko autistic?

While autism is never mentioned in the book, many autistic women have felt a real connection with Keiko and her struggles. Keiko is socially awkward, and a constant worry to her family. She regularly says and does the wrong thing- like hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in school to break up a fight, or asking to eat a dead budgie in the park, struggling completely to understand why these things were unacceptable.

The book I felt contains one of the best descriptions of autistic masking that I have come across. When Keiko first joined the convenience store, it was like she finally felt like a real person, as the detailed employee trainee videos trained her on how to act in the store, how to speak, to smile, phrases to use- she remarked that it was the first time that anyone had ever shown her what normal speech and facial expressions looked like. She took to the organized monotony of store life like a duck to water, finally feeling like she had a purpose. Based on her experiences in the store, Keiko learned to mask the behaviours of others around her, studying them, taking on their facial expressions, turns of phrases, speech patterns, even looking up their clothes and buying them online so that she could pass for what she felt the world considered “normal.” Reading this I saw myself reflected in her actions- how often I mimic my friends speech patterns and phrases, discerned standard responses to common questions, to picking up their bad behaviours (I deliberately developed a bad habit of chewing pens when I started secondary school as I had gotten it into my head from watching those around me that I needed to exhibit a habit like this to fit in and be “normal”!)

The book is a nice short read (160 pages in the English translation) and whether intentional or not, paints a quirky portrait of an autistic woman at odds with the world, which so many of us can relate to, and I highly recommend it’s portrayal of masking πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

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