Non-Verbal Autism

Greetings Earthlings,

Leading on from my recent post about voice control and autism, this week I’d like to briefly talk about non-verbal autism.ย bitmoji-39779843

Granted, I cannot provide any personal insight into the matter,ย (I could never be described as non verbal ๐Ÿ˜› ), but I’ll do my best to explain it! ๐Ÿ™‚

So first things first, what is non-verbal autism?

Affecting approximately 25-50% of autists, non-verbal autism is pretty self explanatory- the autist is unable to speak.

So what causes non-verbal autism?

Again, as with most aspects of the spectrum, the cause is unclear. Non-verbal autism is highly under-researched and therefore poorly understood. However, one particular study does indicate that there may be differences in the structure of the brains of verbal and non-verbal autists in areas associated with language. Brain imaging analysis of toddlers indicated that autists who grew up to be verbal showed similar signs of activity in these areas to their neurotypical peers. Toddlers who grew up nonverbal however displayed signs of reduced brain activity in the same areas which would likely explain their struggles to formulate speech.

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With early intervention and improved techniques, many nonverbal children can now learn to speak, however, a minority of autists will remain silent. But don’t despair, technological advancements in speech generating devices are now helping to reveal the inner voice of nonverbal autists.

Take the inspirational Carly Fleischmann for example. As I have discussed previously (lesser known ASDs), Carly is a non-verbal autist…and talk show host! :O Carly never let her inability to speak to keep her from her dreams of being a talk show host ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a video of Carly in action ๐Ÿ™‚ :

 

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend!! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Voice Control

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today we’re going to briefly talk about an aspect of the spectrum that many of you may not be familiar with- voice control.

 

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We’re all aware that autism is often accompanied by difficulties with speech (non verbal autism, apraxia, speaking in monotones etc.) however, few are aware of the challenges to control the pitch and volume of our voices.

This is especially challenging for me as I often struggle to accurately gauge my volume. For example, I may think that I am singing along at an appropriate volume, buuuuuut those who are listening to me may have slightly different reactions…

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I’ve probably deafened several members of my friends and family at this stage! ๐Ÿ˜›

For years I could never understand how I was chastised for my mumbling in school, but a shouter at home- I just could never seem to get the balance right.

I naturally tried to rationalize my shouting with waxy ears and struggles to be heard over the din of the school- but is there any scientific explanation for my struggles to regulate tone?

Many acoustic studies have found that prosody (an area of linguistics that focuses on linguistic functions such as tone, intonation, stress and rhythm of speech) is impaired in autists. Prosody is used to reflect emotional states, sarcasm, stress, emphasis and other areas of language that are not conveyed through grammar and vocabulary- an area where many autists struggle.

MRI studies have shown that the areas of the brain involved in the perception and processing of prosody (the left supramarginal gyrus (SMG)) are abnormally activated in autists compared to their neurotypical peers. Neurons in the left precuneus,ย the left medial prefrontal cortex and the right anterior cingulate cortex should be deactivatedย when exposed to prosody, however these areas are active in the autistic brain.

As a result, we are often unable to discern the exact pitch, tone or emphasis we should use in conversation. Thisย  abnormal activation also explains why autists often struggle to accurately interpret another persons meaning/intention through their use of prosody in their speech.

Impairments in auditory processing of sound in the brain may also feed into this issue- so try not to judge me too harshly the next time I blow your eardrums outย ๐Ÿ˜ฌย ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Masking

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss something I’ve briefly touched upon in previous posts (women and autism, ‘Please Stand By‘)- autism and masking.

So what is masking?

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Masking is a common behavioural trait within the autistic community wherein social mimicry is used to “mask” other autistic behaviours in social settings.

Basically this means that autists consciously employ techniques from social observation (such as forced eye contact and rehearsed conversations) in order to better blend into the social landscape to prevent their autistic traits from sticking out. You may not see the autism, but it’s still there behind the mask. Some autists even carry multiple masks to be used for different audiences.

Masking mainly tends to happen among girls with autism rather than boys (boys have also shown signs of masking but not to the same extent). Studies have shown that autistic women are generally better at recognizing emotions than their male peers (almost as good in fact as neurotypicals) and show greater social attentiveness which feeds into our ability to mask.

For example, take a quick look at this video I shared in my previous post where a group of autistic women go speed dating with an oblivious group of neurotypical men:

For me personally, social masking kept me under the ASD radar for many years. Without realizing it, I had been giving an Oscar worthy performance for most of my life.

I figured out how I was “supposed” to act from observing those around me, reading books and watching films (though sadly the amount of rom coms/romance films/novels I consume led to some unfortunate learning curves! ๐Ÿ˜› ). I forced myself to make eye contact and to watch my mouth more, I even devised a sort of mental go-to phrase card with acceptable answers to such tricky questions as ‘How are you?’ or how to appropriately answer the phone (which I still dread by the way ๐Ÿ˜› )

In one of my more extreme forms of masking, I somehow developed the ability to cry only out of my right eye when I would experience mini meltdowns in school so that the tears would roll down unseen behind a curtain of hair!ย ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

I became really good at being invisible….well, at least between meltdowns! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Social masking in girls is thought to be one of the primary reasons that women with autism often go undetected into adulthood, if at all. Research suggests that the ability to mask may even prevent those who have been flagged for assessment from getting the formal diagnosis that they need. In addition to this, a recent survey of autistic adults reported universal exhaustion from their masking exertions which is why it is so important that we develop better diagnostic tools for women on the spectrum.

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Talking to your Child about Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Continuing on from my post discussing if you should tell your child that they have autism, this week I’m going to discuss how to talk to your child about their diagnosis.

When should I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with autism, the answer to this question is entirely individual. Some higher functioning autists may be ready for this information at a younger age than others, or may even be so high functioning as to not need this information during their formative years (as in my case- though in hindsight it would have helped a lot!).ย Timing can also vary with the age of diagnosis. Girls for example are often diagnosed much later in life than boys with autism.

In general, many experts recommend telling your child around the time they start to become self aware of their differences to their peers- roughly around 6 years old, but this awareness will vary among autists. I, for example, always felt that I was different to my peers, but I never openly questioned it until after I had received my diagnosis in my 20’s.

How do I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with when, there is no right or wrong way as to how you talk to your child about autism (just maybe don’t spring it on them out of nowhere the way my parents did ๐Ÿ˜› ), but here are some tips and tricks that may help you:

  • Pick your moment– be very careful with you timing. Make sure that your child is content and calm in a familiar place, things will be much harder if they are anxious
  • Don’t rush– Ensure that there is plenty of time to talk things through with your child. They will have questions and may need extra time to process what you are saying
  • Keep it simple– There will be plenty of time to introduce them to the world of neurodiversity as they grow. Just introduce them to autism one toe in the water at a time. Top Tip– There are a lot of useful kids TV shows (such as Sesame street andย Arthur)ย  and books explaining autism in an age appropriate way which could help this conversation ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Emphasize that this is a good thing– Whilst an autism diagnosis can be difficult to process initially, ultimately it is a good thing. Your child will get the help and supports they need to thrive, they will better understand themselves and be understood. However, the black and white autistic mind deals in good and bad. Sometimes an autist cannot perceive the difference between a little bit bad and plain bad which can cause great distress (ร  la 6 year old Aoife who thought she had to leave home as she could not be good! ๐Ÿ˜› ). Highlight the importance of difference and make it clear that this is not a bad thing for them- different, but not bad ๐Ÿ™‚

How do I explain autism to my child’sย siblings?

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In much the same way as you would tell a child they are autistic, sit them down and have a casual chat about their sibling (or even friend- awareness in the community is crucial to changing societies attitudes for future generations of autists ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Depending on the age of the child, what you tell them can vary to suit. Show them videos, give them a book, tell them a helpful analogy (I do love my Supergirlย one!) etc to help them understand. Explain that their friend/sibling works a little bit differently and that they don’t always mean to say or do certain things, but we must love and accept them as they are ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope you found this post useful Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP)

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today we’re going to discuss a type of autism that lies just outside the spectrum- the broad or broader autism phenotype (BAP).

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What on earth is that when it’s at home?!

BAP is a term used to describe a wider range of individuals just beyond the spectrum who have difficulties with language, personality, and exhibit a number of social and behavioural traits at a higher level than the average neurotypical, but not so high as to be diagnosed with autism.

In other words, this means that you have “a touch of autism” or “not quite autism (NQA)”.ย The individual has a high number of mild traits, but not enough to interfere with daily life.

So what do we know about BAP?

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Relatively little- it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!

This intermediate description is most commonly associated with family members (parents, siblings, and other extended family members) of those with ASD diagnoses (14โ€“23%), but it can also be found in the general population as well (5โ€“9%).

Interestingly, evidence of an intermediate autism phenotype has existed since the late 1970’s (the term itself was coined in 1994), but it is only in recent years, with the expansion of the spectrum, that it has become a source of research interest for scientists seeking to understand the range of ASD’s that lie beneath the spectrum rainbow.

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Much of the research in this area involves using the BAP to better understand autism- in particular it’s severity and genetics. By analyzing autism traits in families through the prism of BAP for example, researchers may be better able to identify the specific genes which underpin ASDs, paving the way for better therapies for autists.

Apologies for the shortness of this post dear Earthlings, but there is sadly very little information out there about BAP. Perhaps in the future there may be new research that will shed greater light on this subject ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Smell

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As I mentioned in last weeks post on taste sensitivity, this week we’re going to discuss sensitivity to smell in autism.

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As with other senses we have discussed, autists can be eitherย hyposensitive or hypersensitive to odours. One autist may enter a malodorous environment without noticing anything amiss, another autist may wretch, or worse!

As a child, my nose was particularly sensitive to my environment (although judging by how I could taste the beer my friends were drinking yesterday evening from the fumes alone, this may still be the case on occasion ๐Ÿ˜› ). Bad smells were especially trying- the smell of salads, fish, cigarette smoke, incense, even something so simple as a bag of popcorn could easily turn my stomach.

But it wasn’t all bad- this sensitivity comes with a heightened appreciation for pleasant smells too ๐Ÿ™‚

Baking, chocolate, nice perfumes, the outdoors, the smell of metal (don’t ask me why I love this one so much- must be something to do with my taste in music! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ )- in fact, such smells are not only a sensory sensation, but can also be used to help calm an autist.

As easily as an unpleasant smell could unsettle me, the right smell could calm me back down again as a child.ย  I always kept a teddy or a blanket near at hand that I could smell to help soothe and calm me and to lull me off to sleep- I couldn’t sleep without one particular teddy until I was 16!

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^^^^My teddy was a lot more raggedy than this…๐Ÿ˜ฌ

So why does smell affect autists so much?

Interestingly, some studies indicate that there are no differences in sensitivity to smell between autists and their neurotypical peers, however, much research points to the cortex of the brain. This region is heavily involved in smell processing, and yep, you guessed it- the autistic brain shows signs of dysfunction in this region. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex shows signs of overgrowth and excessive linkage in the neurons (just like an overloaded plug), so no wonder sensory perception is altered in autists! This region is also associated with the formation and retrieval of long term memories, whichย could also explain why smells are often tied to memory recall in autists (which I will explore in more detail at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

One study also shows that autists may not inhale smells in the same way to their neurotypical peers. Evidence suggests that autists inhale deeply and intensely for both pleasant and unpleasant smells, whereas neurotypicals will tentatively sniff in the presence of an offending odour, which could further explain differences in scent processing.

In addition to this, research suggests that alterations in smell can influence social behaviours. A recent study in fact suggest that autists cannot smell fear and that there is a reversal in their response to fear. In this study, a group of autists were calm when presented with a sample of sweat from a skydiver, whereas their neurotypical peers exhibited classic signs of fear. In contrast, their fear levels increased when presented with the sweat sample from a calm individual!

In other words, an autists social behaviour may be affected by an inability to interpret social cues carried in odours- the mind boggles!

So there we have it dear Earthlings- hope this post didn’t ‘stink’ too badly ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Taste

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As we have discussed in previous posts (such as sensory issues,ย light sensitivity andย sound sensitivity), people with autism are highly sensitive on a sensory level, so naturally, taste is no exception.

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Many autists have highly sensitive taste buds wherein we find a number of flavours and foods too strong and overpowering to tolerate. This sensitivity to tastes can make life very difficult when it comes to taking medicines, food selection (which we will discuss in greater detail at a later stage) and maintaining a somewhat neutral expression when put in awkward public tasting scenarios (perhaps one of my biggest personal challenges ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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On the other hand, some autists can in fact be hyposensitive to taste, often preferring foods with stronger flavours

So what’s causing these alterations in tongue sensitivity?

The research into this aspect of autism is currently quite limited, however, some neurological studies indirectly suggest that there is evidence of taste dysfunction in autism.

Many studies have shown evidence of brainstem dysfunction in the neurodiverse brain such as hypoplasia, or under development of the facial nerve nucleus (a collection of neurons in the brainstem that innervate the face). This nerve network carries taste information from the tongue and relays it to the brain. Any dysfunction or damage to this pathway can affect a persons ability to detect tastes.

Furthermore, the ability to identify tastes and flavour perception is controlled by a complex nerve network involving several different brain regions such as the thalamus, insula/operculum, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and our old friend the amygdala. Many of these regions have been implicated in autism, suggesting that dysfunctions in these regions may influence an autists taste buds.

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Recent evidence also suggests that autists may be more sensitive to bitter tastes due to genetic mutations in the TAS2R38ย tasteย receptor. Alterations in theย TAS2R38 gene can cause autists to perceive bitter tastes differently to their neurotypical peers which could explain why our taste buds are so sensitive (and why alcohol makes me gag ๐Ÿ˜› )

Finally, an increased sensitivity to smell also feeds into these alterations in tasteย which I will examine next week ๐Ÿ™‚

Until next time Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

Autism and Pain

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As I am currently recovering from the removal of my wisdom teeth (contrary to popular belief- my mouth is too small ๐Ÿ˜› ), I’ve decided to write about pain and autism this week.

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One might imagine that autists have a higher response to physical pain owing to our sensory sensitivities, however, pain perception, as with all aspects of the spectrum, is entirely individual to the autist.

Some are hypersensitive (touching the skin or simply brushing your hair can cause pain), whereas others may in fact have very high pain thresholds. Yours truly unknowingly lived with a permanent ulcer in their mouth from an impacted wisdom tooth for a couple of years due this without batting an eyelid! I thought that was how it was supposed to look…๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜ฌ!

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So why the polar responses to pain?

The evidence as to why this is is unclear. For many years, researchers believed that people with autism were insensitive to pain as they did not always respond to pain in the usual manner (crying, seeking comfort etc), in addition to the display of self injurious behaviours. However, more recent studies have challenged this notion indicating that people with autism show signs of hypersensitivity to pain in the brain, experiencing greater physiological responses to pain than neurotypical peers.

The autistic brain clearly demonstrates alterations in “normal” pain pathways, but is there a root explanation?

Some evidence points to genetic mutations in such genes as the Shank genes (which haveย  recently been implicated in a number of autistic behaviours), however, the explanation could be much simpler. As discussed in previous posts, numerous neurotransmitters are dysregulated in autism- neurotransmitters which play an important role in our perception of pain.

Evidence suggests that Dopamine in particular plays an important role in the modulation of pain perception and analgesia in the body. Many studies have linked dopamine dysregulation to autism, which could explain why pain responses vary among autists ๐Ÿ™‚

There we have it now Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope this post wasn’t too “painful” for you! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Okaaaay, that was a bad one! Sorry ๐Ÿ˜›

We’ll blame that pun on my wisdom teeth! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Light Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As twinkling Christmas lights are rapidly being erected around me, I’ve been thinking a lot about autism and light sensitivity this week.

Light sensitivity, also known as photophobia (although the phobia part has never really made sense to me! ๐Ÿ˜› ), is quite common for autists.

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We are hypersensitive to other sensory stimuli such as sound, so naturally, light too can cause sensory issues for many autists. The wrong lighting environment can cause a whole host of problems that can exacerbate behavioural issues.

If lighting is too bright, this can distort vision, cause headaches andย sleep disturbances, and of course, sensory overloadย andย meltdowns. Equally, some autists can be hypo or under sensitive to light. This can cause issues with depth perception, coordination and clumsiness in addition to blurred vision.

In my experience, I have some minor sensitivities to light. Bright lights don’t bother me as such, but I find that I sometimes need to wear sunglasses to take the edge off of a sunny day- sometimes even on a grey one. There exists many photos of me climbing a mountain in the midst of a rain storm wearing my sunnies without a care in the world!๐Ÿ˜‚

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Getting to sleep can also be a minor issue for me if the lighting is wrong- a past trip to Norway during 24 hours of light was an absolute nightmare! (it’s just not right!! ๐Ÿ˜› )

So why are we more sensitive to light?

Well, as with many aspects of autism, there has been little research into this particular trait. One study has shown that the pupillary light reflex (the reflex that causes our pupils to either shrink or dilate in response to light) is noticeably different between autists and neurotypicals. Results from this study indicated that this reflex is delayed in autists, where the pupils constricted at a slower velocity and a smaller amplitude (i.e. the maximum size the pupil could constrict to) to neurotypicals. If our pupils are not regulating the entry of light into our eyes as efficiently as our neurotypical peers, this could explain why light can sometimes overwhelm us.

Optic nerve hypoplasia (a condition where the nerve connecting the eyes and the brain is underdeveloped) has also been indicated in a number of cases of autism, with photophobia being one of the main symptoms. So perhaps the development of the optic nerve may be impacted in the autistic brain.

So what can you do to help navigate this sensory issue?

  • Wear sunglasses– Ah, my best friends! I carry a pair in my handbag at all times as you never know when the sun might unexpectedly peep out- even in Ireland! ๐Ÿ˜› For night time, why not try an eye mask (although if you’re as fidgety as I am at night, this could end up on the floor before dawn! ๐Ÿ˜‚)!
  • Install a dimmer switch– A useful tool to help optimize light levels to suit the individual (and loads of fun to play with! ๐Ÿ˜‰ )
  • Coloured Filters (overlays or lenses)– These are designed to block specific wavelengths of light which a person may be sensitive to in order to manage visual stress; however, there is no real research to support this claim. But as I always say- if it works for you, give it a try! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a great weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

 

 

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