Autism and Personal Space

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Sorry I’ve been away for so long- you wouldn’t believe how hectic these past few weeks have been!

This week I’d like to ease back in by talking about the topic of autism and space!

No- not that kind of space (we’ll leave that one to the billionaires); personal space!

Personal space is an interesting subject for autists. As we’ve discussed at length, social norms can be difficult to navigate, so our sense of personal space in company can be a little unusual. Some may stand on the sidelines away from the crowd, whereas other autists can be right in your personal bubble, and perhaps even a little too close for comfort. Sometimes you just don’t know how to judge how close is too close! From a meltdown perspective, most autists tend to seek out small, enclosed spaces away from crowds when the flight response is triggered.

For me personally, I do have a tendency to seek out smaller spaces when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I have lingered for many hours in many bathrooms and stalls across Ireland during my lifetime. The comfort of the enclosed and locked space is soothing, kind of like my environment is giving me a socially distanced hug. On the other hand, I’ve equally embraced wide open spaces when my flight response get’s triggered during a meltdown. Sometimes the best thing is to just sit down in the middle of a wide open field to help you can breathe again.

So is there any research behind personal space and autism?

An interesting study from 2015 found that autists have a tendency towards shorter distances in personal space compared with neurotypicals, not just between people, but also a shorter personal space between themselves and objects. In other words, most autists may be inches from your face and will not become uncomfortable! It’s thought that this occurs due to alterations in the regulator of personal space- the amygdala in the brain, a structure that has been implicated in many autistic symptoms.

In addition to this, it’s thought that personal space is related to our propricoceptive system- the neurological feedback system in our muscles responsible for our sense of space and pressure detection. As discussed in previous posts, alterations in this neural system can lead to dysfunction and difficulties in spacial awareness. The interesting thing about this system however, is that many autists stimulate it for relief of sensory issues through stimming and deep pressure. As pressure and space are both detected through this system, it’s thought that autists may seek out enclosed spaces as a means of stimulating it for sensory relief.

So while we might seem a little bit odd hiding under the table, there is method in the madness! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Gender Identity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from my previous post about autism and sexuality, this week I’d like to discuss an emerging area of research interest- autism and gender dysphoria.

In recent years, research is mounting that suggests that there is a higher prevalence of gender dysphoria and diversity among autists compared with the neurotypical population i.e. they don’t identify as the sex they were assigned at birth. It has even been estimated that transgender individuals could be 3-6 times more likely to be diagnosed as autistic! ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

As a cis-gendered woman I cannot personally comment on this issue (apart from thinking it would be a great idea to switch gender at will to avoid dealing with womanhood as a preteen ๐Ÿ˜› ), but based on these statistics I would just like to draw some awareness. Life can be hard enough as an autist or an individual with gender dysphoria alone, but when you marry the two, rates of depression and anxiety are reported to be much higher.

While the reasons for gender dysphoria are wide and varied, for autists, there may be a larger biological component as to why many may feel they have been born into the wrong bodies.

As I have discussed previously, MRI scans of autists brains have shown that men with autism have anatomically similar brains to neurotypical women, and women with autism have anatomically similar brains to neurotypical men which could lead to gender confusion. In addition to this, high levels of foetal testosterone in utereo have been linked to the development of autism in recent years. This exposure has been proposed as a possible reason that autistic women may suffer from gender dysphoria, but this does not explain why autistic men may wish to transition. Interestingly the current evidence does indeed support a prevalence of autistic traits among trans-men vs. trans-women. Research is ongoing to investigate the link between gender dysphoria and autism.

Whilst the current evidence suggests that gender dysphoria and autism may be linked, it is important to remember that they are not mutually exclusive. It is useful to know that there may be a link, but bear this in mind when seeking support.

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Cholesterol

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Following on from my recent post about diet and autism, this week I’d like to discuss a biomolecule that is not often talked about in the literature about autism- cholesterol.

When it comes to cholesterol, we usually think of it as a bad thing- that fatty yellow stuff that clogs up our arteries when we eat too much of the wrong foods. But there is so much more to cholesterol than most people realize. Cholesterol is an essential biomolecule involved in the synthesis of numerous other bodily substances such as steroid hormones, vitamin D and bile. It’s also an essential component of our cell membranes.

There are 2 types of cholesterol- LDL and HDL. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) makes up most of the cholesterol in the body. This is often referred to as the bad type of cholesterol as a build up of this can clog the arteries. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) on the other hand, is considered the good kind of cholesterol as it absorbs waste cholesterol and shuttles it to the liver for removal from the body.

So what has cholesterol got to do with autism?

Here’s where things get interesting. Cholesterol is involved in modulating the oxytocin receptor and the serotonin 1-A receptor- neurotransmitters that are dysregulated in the autistic brain which contribute to a number of autistic symptoms. Multiple studies have reported that some autists have hypocholesterolemia (i.e low cholesterol levels). Cholesterol deficits could interfere with the functioning of the oxytocin and serotonin receptors and contribute to autistic symptoms. Recent research has identified mutations in a cluster of genes involved in cholesterol metabolism in certain forms of autism which likely causes these lowered cholesterol levels. Cholesterol and omega fish oil supplementation may be useful to help counter the impact of low cholesterol on the brain.

Cholesterol Fat The Structural - Free image on Pixabay

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Menopause

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from my post about periods and autism, this week I’d like to explore another taboo aspect of life on the spectrum- autism and the menopause.

Apologies once again to my male readers!

I may be too young to give a personal slant on this subject, but I’d like to create some visibility for the often overlooked adult female members of the spectrum. Public discussions surrounding autism are so often centered on childhood, potential issues for adult autists can be forgotten.

The change brings many difficult physical and emotional changes for women such as hot flashes, memory issues, mood swings, sexual dysfunction and issues with mental health. Now imagine how these changes might impact an autist who is already sensitive to change and temperature, sleep disturbances, struggles to manage their emotions and can be predisposed to mental health difficulties?

The autistic life is already a roller-coaster, but throw in the menopause and the cart may just fly off the tracks.

Our knowledge of autism and the menopause is very limited as autism as a diagnosis in itself is only emerging from it’s infancy. Some of the first women to be diagnosed with autism are only now reaching menopause, so there is little available research about their experiences of the change. Of the studies that do exist, experiences of menopause for autistic women vary, however, many reported worsening of autistic symptoms. Some women reported that it they found it extremely difficult to mask their struggles and suffered serious deterioration in their mental health.

We clearly need to start a conversation about menopause and autism so that we can properly develop tools and supports to help women navigate this challenging time of life.

For those of you going through the menopause, have a look at this blog post about “Menopautism” from journalist Jane Renton writing about her experiences of the change as an adult with Asperger’s syndrome:

You can also find some useful additional resources for managing the menopause here:

https://www.aspireireland.ie/cmsWP/information/women-girls/menopause/

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Tics

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a topic that’s not discussed very often in conversations about autism- tics and tic syndromes.

So what exactly is a tic?

A tic is a sudden, repetitive muscle movement that can cause unexpected and often uncontrollable body movements or sounds. Affecting approximately 10-25% of autists, tics differ from stimming and other repetitive behaviours in that they are generally involuntary in nature such as abnormal blinking, head jerking, sniffing, throat clearing, or repeating phrases. Like autism, there is a spectrum of tic disorder’s, with Tourette Syndrome being the most common of these. Tic frequency and severity varies depending on activity levels, stress, boredom and even high energy emotions.

Thankfully my own experience of tics has not been severe, however, in times of serious stress I have been known to develop a bad eye twitch in my left eye. It was first brought on by the stress of my final school exams at 18, and has resurfaced a small handful of times since during particularly stressful work periods. Amazingly, no one has noticed this tic as it’s so mild, but it is a very odd sensation on the inside to feel your eyelid fluttering of it’s own accord. I was initially quite freaked out when it first started, but now I know that it just means I need to step back and manage my stress levels ๐Ÿ™‚

But why are tics so common for autists?

Although they are often comorbid, as with many aspects of the spectrum, the research into this phenomenon is once again limited. Recent genetic research has shown that there may be an overlap where genes thought to contribute to autism can also cause Tourette syndrome which could explain why they often appear together. At the biochemical level, tics have been linked to imbalances in dopamine and other neurotransmitters, imbalances that have also been linked to autistic behaviours.

So are there any treatment options?

As the frequency and severity can vary with life’s changes, learning what your triggers are and how to manage or avoid them is one of the best approaches. Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics or CBIT (a form of CBT) is the favoured interventional approach, however, in some severe cases, medications can be used to help control tics.

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Periods

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Continuing on from last week’s post about autism and puberty, this week I’d like to talk about autism and periods. I know, I’m about to alienate about half of my readers (sorry guys!), but this is a very important topic to cover for the often overlooked autistic female demographic.

Periods can be challenging for lot’s of women, however, for autists the experience can be somewhat of an ordeal. There can be a lot of overwhelming sensory issues where periods are concerned- new smells, sensations, and sensory issues related to the use of feminine hygiene products. Autists struggle greatly with change, and periods can be quite unpredictable over the course of our lives due to stress, hormonal changes, childbirth and eventually menopause (which I will discuss in a separate post at a later stage). As a result of this, female autists can develop a number of behavioural issues related to menstruation such as increased aggression and repetitive behaviours, not to mention changes in mood and mental health. Throw in a side of cramps and it’s no picnic!

In addition to the mental and behavioural toll, research has shown that periods are biologically much tougher on the autistic body. Studies have shown that women on the spectrum have higher levels of testosterone than their neurotypical peers (likely caused by dysfunction in the hypothalamus in the brain), leading to a number of menstrual related issues such as severe acne, hirsutism, irregular periods, polycystic ovary syndrome and dysmenorrhea. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is also highly prevalent in autistic women. Autists are also known to have high levels of inflammation in the body, which can further aggravate menstrual symptoms. Periods can even cause an increase in seizures in autists who also suffer from epilepsy due to hormonal fluctuations.

So what can you do to help a young autist through her period?

  • Educate them clearly about their changing bodies– autistic women can be particularly vulnerable, so they need to know exactly how their reproductive system works and the importance of consent. Use clear language that can not be misinterpreted or taken too literally. Understanding their body will also help them to better normalize menstruation so it is far less scary. As discussed in my last post, autistic women enter puberty much earlier than their peers, so it is essential that they are educated sooner rather than later about their changing bodies.
  • Check out autism friendly books about puberty/periods– there are a number of books available targeted at growing autists to help them navigate this challenging time. There are even books specifically about periods for young autistic women that may help.
  • Chat about different feminine hygiene options– as no two autists are the same, so no one option is better or worse when it comes to feminine hygiene products. There are far more options available these days to young women than just sanitary towels and tampons- they even make absorbent period underwear which could be very helpful for girls with sensory issues.
  • Setup a calendar/diary to track periods- the unpredictable nature of life and unexpected change can be particularly frustrating for autists. While periods can oftentimes be unpredictable and don’t always run on time, a calendar can nevertheless be very helpful to prepare an autist for upcoming periods and establish a routine. Knowing that an event is approaching can help to offset the scariness of it.
  • Break the taboo– reassure them that periods are a normal part of life and that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Periods may be overwhelming for autists, but they are by no means alone in their menstrual struggles.

Hope my female Earthlings at least enjoyed this week’s post! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a lovely weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Puberty

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a frequently sidelined aspect of life on the spectrum- puberty. So often people focus on childhood autism we forget that autistic children will grow up and go through puberty just like everyone else.

Puberty is a challenging time for everyone, but often even more so for those on the autistic spectrum. Research is limited on pubescent autists, but some studies have suggested that behaviours can worsen in autists during this time, in particular, aggressive behaviours. The smallest of changes to routine can trigger meltdown’s in an autist, so imagine how this response is amplified when your entire body decides to change. You couldn’t pay me to go through puberty again- the raging hormones were a minefield (although there are day’s during this pandemic where I might consider it to travel back to a time when I had freedom ๐Ÿ˜› )!

There can be a lot of sensory issues arising from the onset of puberty that can trigger further distress- body odours, sensory reactions to hygiene products, and my own personal hell, the sensory discomfort from wearing a bra. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I went to war for years with my mother against wearing one as the sensation of it against my skin freaked me out and I was incredibly uncomfortable- but as I was un-diagnosed, this was passed off as just being awkward ๐Ÿ˜›

During puberty, socialising, an already challenging task for autists, becomes even more complicated. When you’re a child, everything is easier as kids haven’t developed a filter yet, but once those hormones kick in, conversations become more nuanced, boys and girls interact differently and your peers start to become aware of your mind blindness and excentricities. It can be quite a socially lonely time for autists.

So how can we navigate this difficult time in an autist’s life?

  • Talk openly about the facts of life– Talk them through the changes their body will experience in clear, concrete language. Don’t leave any room for confusion or misinterpretation so that they will be fully prepared and less thrown by the changes to come- there were certainly a few books that I read growing up where overly simplified language such as “a special hug” was used to describe sex that would only confuse and misinform the more literal autist
    • An important thing to know about puberty and autism is that it can have a much earlier onset in girls. Studies have shown that female autists tend to enter puberty and start menstruation on average 9 and a half months earlier than their peers, so girls need to be prepared and educated about the facts of life earlier than you might expect
  • Use visual tools– Sometimes words are not enough to create the correct mental picture for an autist. Illustrated books about puberty can be very useful here, and there are now many books specifically targeted at autists which can really help them to navigate this time
  • Discuss appropriate/inappropriate behaviours– don’t leave it at just the facts themselves. Autists will need to be taught about consent, sexual behaviours and inappropriate conversational topics just like anyone else. As female autists often mask their behaviours, it is especially important that they are taught about these things as they can be quite innocent and may be taken advantage of if not adequately prepared for adulthood
  • Sensory friendly clothing– For the young women out there, the market is now opening up to produce sensory friendly bras to help combat the issues of traditional brassieres. Bralette’s and lightweight sports bras may also be helpful alternatives
  • Normalise the experience– Reassure them that everyone goes through this, that it’s a normal part of growing up. Don’t attribute the entire experience to their autism
  • Be positive– Don’t assume things will be harder for your child as everyone is different. A positive attitude can go a long way to easing your child into the murky depths ahead

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely Easter weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 Ageing

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As I am approaching a new decade in the coming days (eep!), this week I’d like to explore the topic of autism and ageing.

For the most part when talking or reading about autism, children with autism are the focus, but what happens when the child grows up? Autism is a lifelong condition, it doesn’t just magically go away once you’ve turned 18! Sadly, it is around this time that many services are taken away from autists and we “age out” of the system.

So what happens now? What do we know about ageing and autism?

As autism is still a relatively young diagnosis, there is limited data about about the impact ageing has on an autist. The first autists were diagnosed in the 1940’s, so the long term data is only now starting to emerge. So what does it indicate?

The data so far is a little bit mixed about outcomes for autistic adults. Some studies indicate that autism improves over time, but many of these have focused on outcomes for younger autists, all of whom were diagnosed and received interventions during their developing years.

Other studies indicate that autism in fact get’s worse with age where features such as communication, flexible thinking and social awkwardness become more severe over time. This study however focused purely on adults with autism, most of whom received their diagnoses later in life, so it’s hard to predict if their outcomes would have improved with age had they received support and useful interventions at an earlier age.

These studies also fail to take into the account the outcomes of the “lost generation” of autistic adults in the world, walking through life as I did, knowing something wasn’t quite right about me, but unable to put my finger on it.

Speaking from my own experience of autism over the last 30 years, my outcomes have improved dramatically over time. In particular, things have most improved in the years since receiving my diagnosis, as I now finally understand myself, and have been able to adjust my lifestyle accordingly ๐Ÿ™‚

On a slightly more morbid note, recent studies have indicated that autists have a shorter life expectancy than neurotypicals (18 years younger!๐Ÿ˜ฑ ), as we are at higher risk for accidents, cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health issues!

However, the risk may be indirect correlating to our tendency towards maladaptive behaviours and lifestyles, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you’re keeping on top of your health and fitness ๐Ÿ™‚

Finally, age has also been implicated as a factor in the risk of developing autism. Multiple studies have shown that there is a correlation between parental age and autistic risk i.e the older you are, the greater the risk that your child may be autistic.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this though- we’re not so bad ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ™ƒ

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Language Barriers

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss the joys of navigating language barriers on the spectrum.

Language barriers can be hard enough to deal with at the best of times, but throw in the glorious social awkwardness and mortification that autism brings and you’re in for a real treat!

Over the years, I’ve visited many non-English speaking/non-tourist regions in Europe, and my encounters have been a right barrel of laughs (in hindsight- not so much at the time ๐Ÿ˜› ) given that I have only a few remaining French phrases from my schooldays! There really is nothing quite like going to a pharmacist and trying to communicate the massive insect bite on your eye without words! ๐Ÿ™ˆ

Granted, Google translate and similar services have made it considerably easier to communicate than it would have been 15 years ago, but even so, things can still get wildly lost in translation. I’ve found ordering food to be somewhat of an ordeal with language barriers (even with translate in hand), a task already made difficult in English by my various food aversions!

I once had an interesting experience in an Italian pizzeria while trying to order a portion of chips (as I don’t eat pizza). I looked up the translation with an accompanying picture, showed it to the server and waited for my food, delighted that I had successfully navigated the transaction without a word of Italian. When my food came out however…it was a pizza…with chips on top!? Talk about a crime against humanity! I tried to communicate that the order was wrong buuut I awkwardly got stuck with the pizza… and with every other restaurant closed for the afternoon, I had no choice but to pick what few chips I could off the top that were not contaminated by the cheese! ๐Ÿ˜›

Language barriers are a veritable nightmare- but here are a few tips for navigating this minefield:

Do your research– before heading on a trip, try to plan out the best places to eat, tourist attractions, shops etc. You can see menus ahead of time and translate them (as roaming charges can make the internet less accessible than it may be at home for Google Translate) or find English speaking restaurants to offset any awkward situations. Pro tip– go old school and download and print off maps for key sites/restaurants on your trip. If you find the Google Maps arrow as confusing as I do, this may be prove very useful!

Use Google Translate audio to text translation- this is a useful feature where you speak and the phone translates to the desired language, which can be really helpful when you’re in a flap. If it doesn’t work, you get the added bonus of a great laugh out of it’s misinterpretations! ๐Ÿ˜‚

Request menus in your native tongue– a restaurant may not always have one, but there’s no harm in asking, even if you feel awkward doing so. Pro tip– just point at the menu item if you’re unsure of the translation. Don’t make a tit of yourself and risk ordering the wrong thing when you don’t have to ๐Ÿ˜‰

Ask for help/don’t go anywhere without your translator– determined to be independent and not burden anyone, my pharmacy experience above would have been much easier if I had asked my translator friend to accompany me! ๐Ÿ™ˆ

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

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