Autism and Public Transport

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following a recent trip to the chaotic city of London I decided that this week I would explore autism and public transport.

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Navigating public transport in a busy city can be challenging for the best of us, however for autists, this can be completely overwhelming. The throngs of human traffic, strangers accidentally touching/sitting next to you, the stress of late buses/trains, the smells, the noise (the screeching of the brakes on the London underground was one of my least favourite parts of my trip!)- it can be a lot for the autistic brain to take.

As scary as public transport can be however, an autist can’t always avoid using it (especially if you struggle with getting the hang of driving/or prefer not to deal with the stress of driving to/and or around busy cities).

So here are my top tips for navigating public transport:

Plan ahead– sounds obvious, but if you’re prone to panicking (as I often do) don’t wing it! Check out your travel options, look at the timetables, allow enough time for delays with your service (if you have a time sensitive engagement), make a backup plan- Google Maps is particularly useful to show you the public transport options if you give them your start and endpoints. You’ll be a lot calmer and far less overwhelmed if you know all of your options, especially if you’re travelling round a busy tourist city with lots of intersecting travel lines.

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Pre-book tickets– if you’re concerned about getting a seat on a service (or getting the right seat), if the service allows, you should pre-book. This can guarantee you your seat, or for some bus services will at least entitle you to priority boarding at a busy bus stop and cut out a lot of stress.

Aim for a single seat– if you’re anything like me and don’t like sitting next to people when you’re travelling alone (have had far too many unpleasant experiences sitting next to people who make me uncomfortable/smell funny/take up so much space that you’re squished against the window :P), keep an eye out for an individual seat. There are usually a couple of these on buses nowadays, you can even book ahead for a single seat in some countries such as Spain. Failing that, having a lot of stuff on the seat next to you can help as (in Ireland anyway) people are less likely to bother you when you have lot’s of stuff to move- unless it’s one of the few seats left, then sadly there’s not a lot one can do.

Keep earplugs near at hand– ah the trusty earplug, often an autists best friend! Why not keep a pair in your pocket/wallet/handbag for when the noise threshold begins to rise, this could be particularly useful for underground services where the sounds are amplified by the confined space.

Make use of smart phone apps– Most travel companies have their own apps with live information about their services and timetables all at the touch of a button. This can be a great tool to help you to keep track of your service/travel options options and set your mind at ease.

Get a travel smart card– to avoid panicking about the need for exact change/fumbling with coins, if you regularly travel round a city you should investigate smart cards; all you need do is top it up, tap and go! 🙂

Always factor plenty of time– perhaps one of the most stressful parts of navigating public transport is when you’re under pressure for time. To lighten the load, make sure to leave plenty of time ahead of your journey- be sure to factor in events around your location which could cause traffic disruptions (such as marathons, concerts, holiday shopping or if you’re travelling though rural Ireland, the likelihood of being held up by farm machinery! 😂), the weather, general service delays, road works etc.

There we have it dear Earthlings, I hope you enjoyed this post! 😀 Public transport can be daunting for an autist, but with proper planning and a bit of practice, it won’t be scary for long 🙂

weee

Aoife

Autism and Fear

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In light of this spooktacular week, I’ve decided to take a closer look at fear and autism.

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All of the Halloween themed memes floating around on social media this week have put me in mind of how strange some of my childhood fears were in comparison to those of my peers (in fact it’s estimated that as many as 41% of autists tend to have more unusual/irrational fears).

For starters, I was PETRIFIED of comedian Charlie Chaplin! 😛 Absolutely TERRIFIED- he haunted my nightmares for years and I was convinced if I lingered in a dark room for too long that he would come out from the shadows to grab me! In addition to this, I was also irrationally afraid of chemicals and overhead power-lines (so afraid in fact I was convinced just touching the wooden pole would kill you- it was an innocent time before I learned about science and insulators vs conductors!🤓).

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Fear has often been a dominant emotion in my life, fear of what people might think of me, fear of saying the wrong things, fear of losing my cool and melting down in public etc.  According to world famous autist Temple Grandin, “the principal emotion experienced by autistic people is fear.”

But is there any scientific reason for this fear? Might autists be biologically predisposed to being more fearful?

When we experience a fearful situation, a biological fear response is triggered in the amygdala of the brain. Activity in this region when exposed to fearful stimuli triggers fear based changes in body functions such as sweating, shortness of breath, fight or flight, paralysis etc.

As discussed in numerous previous posts, changes/dysfunction in the amygdala are regularly attributed to autistic symptoms. So therefore it stands to reason that perhaps these changes in the amygdala may also influence/exacerbate the fear response in autists compared with their neurotypical peers.

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Other studies have also suggested that there is a muted fear response in autists which may explain the lack of perception concerning safety/danger often seen in young autists.

So there we have it, hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a great weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Colour

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this week I’m just going to expand a little bit on something I’ve briefly talked about in previous posts– autism and sensitivity to colour.

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Yes- I know it sounds like a silly thing, but colour sensitivity in autism is real!

Thankfully I have no such issues with colour (I’m all about that rainbow! 😀 ), but many autists actively gravitate towards a particular colour and/or actively avoid other colours. Autists have been known to eat only white coloured foods, or to only play with toys of one particular colour for example.

You can see this avoidance behaviour quite comically in the film ‘My Name Is Khan’ where the title character sees a man in a yellow top and awkwardly turns around to walk in the opposite direction to him! 😂

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But is there a scientific reason for such an unusual behaviour?

Due to some of the structural abnormalities in an autists’ brain, difficulties in sensory processing and the integration of this sensory info can cause colour sensitivity, as autists will often detect colours with higher intensity than neurotypicals.

The colour yellow has been particularly known to trigger this behaviour in boys with autism as studies show that they really struggle to process this colour. Scientists think that this may result from a sensitivity to luminance in autists. Alternatively this may occur as yellow is one of the most heavily sensory loaded colours (it’s the brightest colour in the visible spectrum), as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye. Furthermore yellow has been known to be the most fatiguing colour to the eyes which could explain why sensitive autists avoid it.

From a psychological perspective, yellow has been known to increase a persons temper, and babies who are exposed to yellow rooms tend to cry more (will have to find another gender neutral colour when the time comes so! 😛 😂). Yellow is also associated with danger/acts as a warning in the animal kingdom (i.e. bees and wasps). This is also true for fluorescent vests and street signs, which could also potentially trigger avoidance behaviour in the autistic brain!

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Hope you enjoyed this ‘colourful’ post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a great weekend! 😀

Aoife

Lesser Known Signs of Autsim

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this week I wanted to briefly put together a post about some of the lesser known autistic traits. I’ve discussed most of these before, but I wanted to put them all in the one place 🙂

Fecal Smearing– yep, really diving in at the deep end on this one! 😛 As disgusting as this is to talk about, fecal smearing or scatolia, can be one of the earliest signs of autism. Reasons for smearing are generally thought to be either behavioural (attention seeking) or sensory. Scatolia in particular seems to be linked to periods of under-stimulation in autists and so the behaviour appeals on a textural and olfactory level… This is in actual fact a pretty common autistic behavaiour, but the vast majority of people are unaware of it- because let’s face it, who wants to talk about poo! 😛

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Skin Picking–  As we’ve previously discussed, skin picking, or neurotic excoriation, is a pretty common autistic behaviour (an estimated 14.8% of autists may exhibit this behaviour). Autists may pick, scratch and squeeze their skin as a physical expression of emotional/psychological distress to relieve their discomfort through self- stimulation.

Regulation of Tone– Another common but lesser known behaviour is that of autists’ struggles to regulate their tone of voice. Impairments in audio processing and prosody in the autistic brain can make it difficult for an autist to accurately gauge the tone and volume of their voice, so try not to judge too harshly if they accidentally shout in quiet conversation 🤫

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Digestive IssuesPerhaps one of the most common but equally unknown challenges of autism is that of co-morbid digestive issues. Autists may be over 3.5 times more likely to suffer from issues such as diarrhea, constipation, food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)- the associated pain from which can exacerbate behavioural symptoms.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have fun this 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

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

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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