Autism and Cholesterol

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Menopause

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Tics

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 🙂

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! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Periods

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😉

Have a lovely weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Puberty

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 😛 )!

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 😛

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! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Epilepsy

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😲

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! 🙂

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 🙂

On a slightly more morbid note, recent studies have indicated that autists have a shorter life expectancy than neurotypicals (18 years younger!😱 ), 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 🙂

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 😛 🙃

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Language Barriers

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 😛 ) 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! 🙈

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! 😛

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! 😂

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 😉

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! 🙈

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Temperature

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

With the summer drawing to a close, this week I’d like to talk about thermosensitivity and autism.

As I’ve discussed on multiple occasions, autists’ are very sensitive to sensory stimuli, so it should come as no surprise that autists have different reactions to temperature versus their neurotypical peers.

temperature

In my experience, I have found that I can be sensitive to higher or lower than average temperatures. I’m a bit like Goldilocks- I don’t like to be too hot, don’t like to be too cold, but I do like a nice moderate temperature (which is why Ireland suits me so well I suppose!😂). If the temperature starts to drift in either direction away from my comfort zone, I tend to get quite irritable and my masking abilities are impacted by the distracting temperature change. I may have gotten some weird looks from some girls a few rows in front of me at a Paramore concert once as my voice started to get higher, shout-y and more strangled from the frustration of sitting beneath a freezing vent while waiting on the band 😬

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I’m also more likely to have a meltdown if other buttons are pushed while dealing with temperature fluctuations, particularly where hotter temperatures are concerned-needless to say, I’m not a fan of sun holidays and dread to think what menopause may bring for me in the future! 😛

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I’m even quite picky when it comes to the temperature of food, being unable to stomach some foods under certain temperatures. For example, I’m a real carnivore, but if the meat is cold I can’t stomach it; similarly, hot drinks are an uncomfortable sensory experience, so even though I like the taste of hot chocolate, I won’t drink it!
Like me, many autists are quite thermosensitive, and find fluctuations in their surrounding temperature to be an overwhelming experience. On the other hand, several autists have also reported temperature insensitivity or an indifference to thermal stimuli.

temp

So what has the science to say?

The literature is a little contradictory when it comes to thermosensitivity. A 2015 study found that children with autism had a lower perceptual threshold for detection of hot and cold temperatures, indicating decreased temperature sensitivity and perception in certain brain regions. This was thought to be related to cognitive impairments and deficits in attention, so it could be that some autists are more distracted by other stimuli to notice temperature fluctuations. However, a more recent 2019 study found that there appeared to be no differences in temperature perception between autists and neurotypicals, concluding that temperature perception was entirely individual to the autist- which makes a lot of sense given the vastness of the spectrum.

On another scientific note entirely, research suggests that autistic behaviours are positively impacted by elevated body temperature. Multiple studies have noted that when an autist has a fever, many of their negative behaviours (such as irritability, hyperactivity, repetitive behaviours etc.) improve, but return to normal post-recovery. The reason for this remains unclear, however, one such theory cites the impact of temperature on neural circuits where it can either enhance or suppress brain activity in certain regions. This seems quite likely given that autists brains have an excess number of brain connections and increased neurochemical activity compared with neurotypicals, factors which heavily contribute to autistic behaviours. Brain activity might also be impacted by certain chemicals produced by our immune system to fight infection during a fever.

Perhaps it might be worth exploring the severity of autism between autists who live in hotter or colder climates to see if an increase in surrounding temperature could help manage autistic symptoms.

All in all it would seem that temperature response, like autistic traits, is entirely individual to the autist 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

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

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