Autism and Weather

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week, I’d like to delve into an somewhat unusual subject- how weather impacts people with autism.

I know what you’re thinking, she’s run out of things to say so she’s falling back on Ireland’s favourite topic of conversation 😛

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Joking aside, while this might seem like a silly topic, weather can have a surprisingly significant effect on autists both psychologically and physiologically. Coping with the sensory impact of extreme weather conditions, the lack of predictability and issues with change, and routine disruptions surrounding seasonal weather transitions can all be overwhelming. Something so simple as an unexpected shower or a really hot day could potentially trigger a meltdown (have certainly come to the brink myself when I’ve been overheated on occasion- although granted this was often coupled with hunger or exhaustion 😛 ).

Thankfully, a life spent living in the highly unpredictable Irish climate where one often experiences all four seasons in a single day has made me immune to most fluctuations, but for many others the weather poses daily challenges.

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Sensory issues aside, many studies have noted some behavioural changes in autists under certain weather conditions. Research has found that autists are particularly susceptible to drops in atmospheric/barometric pressure i.e. the weight of air pressing down on us from the earth’s atmosphere. When pressure is high, we have dry, sunny weather; when pressure is low, rain and dark clouds. This drop in pressure results in a drop in blood oxygen levels. Consequently, the body adjusts heart rate and blood pressure to adapt to these changes which can interfere with brain activity. This often leads to mood swings, increased impulsivity and autists are more likely to indulge in destructive behaviours (especially for those with ADHD).

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In addition to this, if you’re anything like me, drops in barometric pressure may also make you very sleepy and sluggish due to the fluctuations in brain oxygen levels (nice to know why taking naps has become somewhat of a pastime in recent weeks staring up at a perpetually wet and grey sky 😛 ).

There’s no clear reason why low pressure impacts autists more than neurotypicals, but given that our brains are wired differently, pressure related fluctuations in brain activity are bound to have more of an impact. Moreover, given the impact of deep pressure stimulation and it’s calming effect on the autistic nervous system, perhaps this could explain why our brains go a little bit crazy in response to drops in atmospheric pressure.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Hair

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week, I’d like to talk about the topic of autism and hair. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a weird post about people with autism having an excessive amount of hair or something!😂

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Hair can however be a an issue for autists on a sensory level when it comes to getting a haircut and is also tied to many behavioural issues.

Thankfully in my case I have no issues with hair cuts (in fact I actively look forward to them!), however, for many autists, the simple act of sitting in the hairdressers chair can be a completely overwhelming experience. Sensitivities to touch can make a hair cut extremely difficult- hair washing and touching, head tilting and hair styling could be painful or overwhelming. Moreover, the noise of the scissors, clippers and styling equipment like hairdryers can equally trigger a meltdown. You can find some useful tips for navigating visits to the hairdressers here: https://www.autism.org.uk/about/family-life/everyday-life/hairdressers.aspx

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In terms of behaviours, trichotillomania (TTM) has been linked to autism. Trichotillomania is a hair pulling disorder marked by a compulsive urge to pull out your own hair, often resulting in noticeable baldness. The condition can occur in response to stress and anxiety where the pulling action provides a calming sensation. MRI studies have shown that people with trichotillomania have more grey matter in their brains. As MRI’s of autists brains have also shown increased grey matter, this could explain why autists can tend towards this type of behaviour. Treatments for this behaviour include CBT and in some cases the anti-depressant clomipramine. In addition to trichotillomania, some autists with pica eat their hair known as trichophagia (also known as Rapunzel syndrome).

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On a scientific level, hair has interestingly been used to identify autism in some patients! In a recent study, researchers noted that children with autism also had abnormal hair whorls (tufts of hair that were growing in the opposite direction to the rest) in addition to prominent foreheads and an asymmetrical face suggesting that these features could be used for diagnostic criteria. Makes me wonder about the shape of my own face/direction of my own hair growth! 😂

Hope you enjoyed this post!

Have a good weekend dear Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Late Autism Diagnosis

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week after reading that British comedian Johnathan Ross’s daughter received an autism diagnosis late in life, I thought I’d write about my own experience of receiving an autism diagnosis as an adult.

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As you may know from my blog intro, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome a few weeks shy of my 24th birthday. With autism diagnoses on the rise in recent years, it seems hard to imagine that a person would not be diagnosed until their twenties, but this was my reality. As it turns out, I was far from alone in my predicament with such notable autists as Susan Boyle, Anne Hegerty, Dan Aykroyd and Gary Numan all receiving adult diagnoses.

So why are so many autists only being diagnosed as adults?

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Leading autism experts have described a “lost generation” of autists who grew up during a time where autism was poorly researched and understood. Many high functioning autists did not fit the criteria for classic autism, and as such slipped through the diagnostic radar. It is only in recent years following the introduction of the spectrum concept that many previously undiagnosed autists are finally getting the diagnosis they should have received decades previously. 

In my case, I was both academic and social in school, so no one really batted an eyelid or questioned that something was amiss. My meltdowns were put down to stress (you would not believe the amount of school reports to my parents that said I needed to chill!😂) or temper tantrums, or just plain being a drama queen- oh if my teachers/friends only knew that I wanted none of the attention that my meltdowns brought! 😛 It was only after I failed to grow out of my quirks in college and worsening social anxiety that my family sought to diagnose me (you can read the full story here).

In fact, statistically speaking, the vast majority of women with autism do not get their diagnosis until they are adults, often going unnoticed due to our ability to socially mask, or in some cases, misdiagnosed with conditions co-morbid with autism. Moreover, as I have discussed in numerous posts, women often present with completely different autistic traits to men, but these differences went unnoticed by the medical community for decades as the original descriptions of autism were based on a largely male cohort of patients.

So you’ve got your autism diagnosis, what happens now?

For many, the diagnosis comes as a relief. It feels as though you’ve got the final missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, like you’re just seeing the full picture of yourself for the first time. However, it equally takes a while to get your head around it all, and the experience often leaves you with more questions than answers. You’re handed this life changing diagnosis, but realistically there are little to no supports available for autists over the age of 18 in most countries. So where does that leave you?

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Here are some tips that I found helpful for dealing with a late autism diagnosis:

Educate yourself- I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, so whenever I don’t understand something I hit the books. Learning about autism was one of the cornerstones to helping me to better understand and embrace my diagnosis, allowing me to be a little kinder to myself in my symptomatic moments.

Check out some autism blogs/diagnosis stories- I found that reading the stories of other autists was quite comforting as I was coming to terms with my diagnosis. You’re not alone in this 🤗

Link up with local autism support groups/charities– there’s no better source of information and available supports than those who’ve gone through an autism diagnosis in your area. They will all have been through the same thing as you, whether as a recently diagnosed adult or as a parent to autistic child, and will be able to provide you with the best resources available in your locale.

Try CBT– as I’ve discussed in a previous post, CBT wasn’t really my thing for helping me manage my symptoms, but it was highly beneficial in those early few months after my diagnosis to have a professional there who knew about autism to talk things through and to help me to understand my behaviours better.

Talk about it with your friends and family– in many ways, an autism diagnosis is not a journey we walk alone; our friends and family walk it with us. They are on a journey to better understand you too and will want to be there to support you in every way you need.

At the end of the day, while it was not ideal receiving an adult diagnosis, the personal and mental benefits that I have attained in recent years have been completely worth it. I finally understand myself and feel comfortable in my own skin. At long last, I’m able to fully be me in all the weird and wonderful ways God made me to be 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Stay safe!

Aoife

Autism and Self Injurious Behaviors (SIBs)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss an issue that impacts roughly half of all autists at some point in their life- self injurious behaviours or SIBs.

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So what are SIBs?

Self-injurious behaviours are simply behaviours where a person physically harms themselves. This can manifest as self biting, hair pulling, skin picking, hitting, head banging (not the good kind 🎸), cutting etc.

So what triggers this sort of behaviour in autists?

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Research suggests that there are a number of potential physiological and psychological reasons for self injury:

Biochemical factors- Some studies have indicated that neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin may be associated with self injury. This may be particularly relevant given that these neurotransmitters are often dysregulated in autism which may predispose us to such behaviours.

Stimulation– Like stimming, some research suggests that SIB’s may be a repetitive behaviour in response to a lack of or an increase in sensory stimulation. Some autists may self harm to increase their alertness in times of low stimulation; other’s my harm in response to stress or anxiety to dampen their emotions.

Pain- Ironically, SIBs can be a response to pain as a means of reducing it. Beta endorphins (opiate like substances in the brain) may be released following self injury which can dampen the pain response. Moreover, self injury may act as a diversion from the pain that an autist may be experiencing in another region of the body, or in response to a sensory stimulus that causes pain (e.g the noise of a fire alarm may register as painful to an autist).

Communication and Frustration– Some autists may be unable to communicate an emotion that they are experiencing and may resort to SIB’s out of frustration or in a non-verbal attempt to communicate that something is wrong, boredom, excitement etc.

Control- As in the case of eating disorders, self harming may provide an autist with a sense of control when life spins out of it.

 

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SIB’s can be deeply distressing for a friend or parent to witness, but when mild, they are often not cause for concern. If these behaviours are escalating however, there are a number of interventions such as medications, CBT, autism support dogs (I’ve seen amazing videos of dogs calming down autists/using their paws to intervene and stop self hitting) and encouraging replacement behaviours such as wearing rubber bracelets and necklaces to divert self biting and skin picking impulses.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Asthma

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Having just been officially diagnosed with asthma this week (after 23 years of uming and ahing about whether to diagnose as it’s been mild thusfar), I decided to do some investigating to see if there are any links between ASD’s and asthma.

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Did you know, that autists are 35% more likely to suffer from asthma than the general population?

Seemingly random, but true!

So what exactly is happening in the lungs of asthmatics?

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways in the lungs. Inflammation in the airways in response to triggers (such as allergens, cold air, tobacco smoke etc.) causes the airways to narrow and spasm, resulting in bouts of wheezing and shortness of breath- which I’m ironically experiencing as I write this *drags deeply on inhaler*.

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But how exactly are asthma and ASD’s intertwined? 

The exact cause of asthma, like autism remains unknown, however, it’s inflammatory nature may reveal it’s links to autism. A recent study suggests that there is a connection between inflammation and ASD’s. Post mortem examination of the brains of autists show that there are increased levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine (a substance secreted by the immune system) IL-18 in the amygdala and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain- areas where alterations are often linked to autism. Perhaps these increased inflammatory markers may predispose autists to the development of asthma. Moreover, research has shown that there is genetic overlap between asthma genes and multiple mental health disorders such as anxiety, ADHD and major depressive disorder (MDD) that are often co-morbid with autism, which could suggest a common genetic pathway for both asthma and autism.

In addition to the link between asthma and autism, recent research suggests that having a parent with an asthma diagnosis may slightly increase the risk of autism development. However, there are conflicting studies as to whether or not the use of asthma medications during pregnancy may increase this risk (although the most recent of these studies supports their use).

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

 

Autism and Trust

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to briefly talk about the issue of trust and autism.

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Trust is something that we all struggle with from time to time. In an increasingly disingenuous world, it can be tough to tell friend from foe. This is even more problematic for the autistic community.

Studies have shown that autists struggle to read facial cues for signs of trustworthiness in others. As an autist is so often transparent in their words and actions with their black and white thinking, it’s a struggle to comprehend that others may not be. For example, if an adult tells an autistic child a lie, they will usually believe them without question- after all, why would a grown up lie to you? Isn’t lying supposed to be bad? This is particularly worrying for an autist coming up against potential bullies and predators.

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I found this to be a problem during my school days. On the surface, my peers seemed nice to me. I thought many were friends, but I was unable to tell from their tones that they were mocking me and my eccentricities. It was only after the damage was done that I saw through the facade, which made it hard to trust my peers for a long time. When you see everything in black and white, it can be hard to discern that a smiling face may be a sarcastic sneer.

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But is there a biological reason for our trust issues?

Studies have shown that changes in the structure of the autistic brain can cause issues with trust. Changes in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the area that assesses social rewards) in people that tended to be more trusting of others, and changes in the amygdala (an area associated with memory and emotional responses) in both those who were more and less trusting of others appear to be linked to trust issues.

Moreover, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to be associated with social behaviour, emotional attachment and trust. Multiple studies suggest that oxytocin levels are dysregulated in autists, which could explain our struggles when it comes to trusting others.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Food

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Following a recent report about a teenager who has been left blind from a restrictive diet of roughly 4 nutritionally lacking food items, this week I’d like to discuss the topic of food and autism.

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Did you know that feeding difficulties are estimated to occur in as many as 70 to 90% of children with autism?

It’s a shocking statistic!

People with autism are often described as selective or picky eaters, often favouring carbohydrates and highly processed foods while rejecting fruits and vegetables- but why is that?

Research has found that food issues in autism overlap with sensory sensitivities to taste, texture, colour  and smell. As such, autists will often actively avoid these foods to avoid adverse sensory reactions. In the animal kingdom, many species develop conditioned aversions to certain unpleasant tastes, associating them with danger and illness. As the autistic tongue is so sensitive, it’s thought that autists can also develop aversions to foods in this manner.

In my case, although my autistic traits are extremely mild, food continues to be an issue for me. Certain smells, tastes and textures in particular will make me want to throw up. Fruit and veg in particular have been troublesome on a sensory level- for example I love the taste of strawberry, but I can’t tolerate physically eating one due to the texture.

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It’s made things quite difficult at times when I’ve been out eating with friends to try to maintain a neutral expression when a foodstuff disagrees with my brain to avoid hurting someone’s feeling. A lot of the time it’s just easier to pretend that I’m not hungry to avoid an awkward social/sensory situation- pro tip, always keep snacks in your car/handbag.

Selective eating habits are commonplace for autists, however, serious food aversions can can be diagnosed clinically as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), previously known as selective eating disorder (SED).

But is there any getting around these sensory issues?

CBT as with many other aspects of autism, cognitive behavioural therapy can help to change behaviours surrounding food over time.

Persistence- keep trying to build up your tolerance to certain textures/tastes. When I was younger, I could not stand to drink a glass of water as it felt so weird compared with other soft drinks. It was not easy to adjust to this texture at first  (I even had to swap shots of water for shots of orange juice to get it down! 😂), but I stuck with it, and now I drink several litres a day willingly 🙂

Prepare food in different ways- this has perhaps been the most helpful for me. Changing the way some foodstuffs are prepared/cooked can really impact the textural outcome. Smoothies have been particularly useful to help me achieve my 5 a day. I may not be able to eat the fruit itself, but throw it in a blender and bye-bye textural issues. Similarly, with apple tart, if the apples are too chewy, I find it extremely difficult to stomach, but if you bake the tart until the apples are soft and mushy I can’t get enough of it!

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a good weekend!

Aoife

 

Autism and Stress

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Stress- it’s hard to escape it in the modern world; even more so for an autist.

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Ordinary day to day life can be very stressful to navigate. Such simple things as responding to an email, dealing with crowds, sensory triggers and social interactions can be completely overwhelming. The thought alone of these seemingly innocuous situations can be incredibly stressful for an autist.

In my case, just the mere idea of driving in Dublin city centre for example majorly stresses me out- I have genuinely told my friend that if his directions landed us there I would get my car towed and grab a taxi 😛 Any unexpected scenarios, detours or maneuvers in my car will leave me hot under the collar, praying out loud for help to keep from freaking out!

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But are there any scientific reasons why autists are more predisposed to stress?

Interestingly, autists show signs of greater biological stress than their neurotypical peers. In particular, studies have indicated that autists have higher levels of stress hormones than neurotypicals. As I’ve previously discussed, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released in response to stressful situations from the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis or HPA axis. This is a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA) to control our response to stress- a network that is hyperactive in autists.

Following exposure to a stressful situation, stress hormone levels should return to normal, however, research has shown that stress hormone levels tend to persist in autists, which can make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts and meltdowns. In other words, we’re constantly living in a state of fight or flight.

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Long term activation of the stress system can lead to a number of health problems such as poor mental health, weight gain, sleep issues, digestive and cardiovascular problems to name but a few- many of which are regularly comorbid with autism.

In addition to this, studies have shown that autists have higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between anitoxidants and free radicals (unstable oxygen atoms that can damage cells causing illness and aging – not so fun fact, free radicals are thought to contribute to hair greying) in our bodies. Several studies have indicated that antioxidant enzyme levels that regulate free radicals in the body may be altered in autists. As such, oxidative stress has been linked to the appearance of autistic symptoms such as language delay in previous studies.

In addition, as with prolonged exposure to stress hormones, oxidative stress may also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and mental health problems such as depression. Worryingly, heart disease and suicide are among the leading causes of mortality for autists, with studies indicating that the average autist lives 16 years less than their neurotypical peers! 😲  In addition to this, research suggests that psychological stress may worsen the symptoms of ASDs.

Therefore, as for everyone, it’s very important for an autist to find ways to manage their stress levels for both their long term physical and mental health.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Auitsm and Echopraxia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post on echolalia, this week I’d like to briefly discuss the phenomenon echopraxia.

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Yes I know, it’s another mouthful, but what exactly is echopraxia?

Echopraxia (also known as echomotism or echokinesis) is a type of tic disorder characterized by involuntary imitation of another persons actions e.g. waving a hand, touching your nose, kicking something, even facial expressions. Echopraxia is one of the core features of Tourette’s syndrome, however it has also been found to occur in ASD’s. It is often paired with echolalia, but it has been known to occur independently in autists.

I know what you’re thinking- imitation of actions is critical to early development in childhood and perfectly “normal” behaviour, so it seems like echopraxia might be reading into things too much. However, when this behaviour persists and becomes reactionary rather than a learning tool, then it can be viewed from a pathophysiological  perspective. As such, it can be very difficult to diagnose this behaviour in children. 

So what does the science have to say about echopraxia and autism?

There’s very limited research in this area, however experts believe that echopraxia is related to damage or dysfunction within the frontal lobe known as the action cortex of the brain- an area that is often implicated in autistic behaviours. Other’s have theorized that abnormalities in the mirror neurons located here may be responsible.

Nope, I’m afraid mirror neurons are not quite this exiting- mirror neurons are in fact a particular type of nerve cell that fires when a person or an animal acts and witnesses another person complete the same action. This type of behaviour has been particularly observed in primates, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

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In general, echopraxia is considered harmless, however if it starts to interfere with social functioning, then behavioural modifications, medications and psychotherapy are possible treatment options 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

 

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