Autism and Alexithymia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly elaborate on something that I’ve touched on in previous posts– autism and alexithymia.

So what exactly is alexithymia?

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Alexithymia is a personality trait wherein an autist may struggle to identify and describe emotions in themselves and in others. We feel emotions just like everyone else, we just aren’t always aware of what it is we are feeling. It can be incredibly frustrating (ironically I’ve often struggled to identify this emotion in the past 😛 ) knowing that you feel something but not having a clue how to verbalize it or process it properly. I’ve honestly spent days going “The thing is…it’s just…um..I dunno!” round and round my mind until I can figure out what it is I’m feeling!

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Thankfully as I’ve gotten older this happens less and less frequently.

Aoife’s Top Tip: as I’ve discussed previously, music can be quite beneficial when dealing with alexithymia. If I can’t identify an emotion, I tend to gravitate towards songs that sound like what I’m feeling or a particular lyric that resonates with my experience which can help get you past a rough patch 🙂

As many as 85% of autists may have varying degrees of alexithymia, but is there a scientific explanation for it?

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The science remains unclear, however some neurological studies may provide us with some clues.

Early studies proposed that there is a breakdown in communication along the corpus callosum between the emotional right and the logical left hemispheres of the brain when emotional information is transferred to the language regions of the brain. In one third of autists, the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerves which connect the hemispheres) is either partially or completely missing which could explain the struggles to identify emotions. Another study suggests that dysfunction in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain may contribute to alexithymia, an area of the brain associated with empathy that appears to be weakly activated in social situations in autists.

So try not to judge us too harshly when we struggle to show empathy 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? 😲

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health 😲

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength of synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism- Atypical Language Use

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d just like to briefly talk about the use of atypical or unusual language in autism.

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Now you may have noticed in previous blogs that I don’t always use the most simplistic of language to express myself- I have always been fond of big words, and have a tendency to regurgitate these randomly in casual conversation.

One infamous incident was the time that I told my Maths teacher that I intended to drop to ordinary level Maths after I had been “ruminating” on it for the previous few days- my family have never let that one go! 😛 😂 Similarly, my supervisor nearly shot me for including the word “multitudinous” in my first publication! Needless to say it was pulled during edits 😛

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I was most interested to learn after my diagnosis that my verbosity (couldn’t help myself choosing this word! 😂)  is not uncommon among autists, particularly among those with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact the tendency to use more formalized language was first observed during Kanner’s original observations of autism back in the 1940’s and is included on the common list of diagnostic criteria.

So is there a scientific explanation as to why many autists tend towards atypical language?

Studies of individuals with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain have been known to have a proclivity for verbose language. Moreover, brain imaging studies of autists have shown that there is a tendency towards “rightward asymmetry” (a tendency for certain brain functions to be more specialized in the right side of the brain) in language areas versus their neurotypical peers. Taken together, alterations to the right hemisphere of the brain may explain why some autists prefer a more formalized use of language when communicating.

Alternatively you could just enjoy using big words as I do- like I always say, why use a smaller word when there are so many glorious synonyms floating around in the back of my brain!  😛 😉

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism and Handwriting

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to talk about something that you may not be aware is an issue for autists- handwriting.

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Experts have noted that a large number of autists have difficulties with handwriting skills and in particular tend to have worse quality in forming letters than their age matched neurotypical peers.

Seems a trivial issue I know, but the affliction of “doctor’s scrawl” can be incredibly frustrating, and particularly challenging for written examinations.

In my childhood I picked up handwriting itself fairly easily (I was so proud that I was one of the few who could write their name before they started school! 😎), however, when it came to learning joined writing- that was an entirely different kettle of fish!

I was ABYSMAL (still am to be fair, unless I try hard! 😛 ). Everyone else in my class had no issue with handwriting, but just as with knitting, skipping, cycling and tying my shoelaces, I fell way behind. My mother even bought me loads of special inky/gel pens to try to encourage and improve my technique. Granted, I got there in the end (well sort of…it’s still an untidy scrawl, but it is joined up!), however, it was extremely frustrating to develop this skill.

So why is handwriting such a struggle?

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Based on the research it seems that the difficulties autists experience with handwriting are related to hand muscle strength and poor control of finger movements. Moreover, many of the regions of the brain associated with handwriting such as the superior frontal sulcus and the cerebellum, are altered in the autistic brain.

Some autists may also suffer from a co-morbid condition known as dysgraphia- a neurological condition that impacts handwriting and coherence (I’ll write a separate post on this at a later stage) which would explain why some autists struggle with handwriting tasks more than others.

So is there anyway to improve handwriting issues?

Time, practice and patience are key when it comes to handwriting difficulties, however encouraging an autist to use their hands more for such activities as colouring or working with play doh will help to improve finer motor skills, which will in turn help to improve issues with handwriting.

I also found in my experience, as simple as it was, that the pens my mother bought were quite useful in helping me to develop my joined writing skills. Although the inkier pens can be a little messy, there was far less resistance as they moved across the paper, allowing me to develop and better control my handwriting.

If however handwriting is proving particularly challenging, from an academic perspective it may be helpful to look into getting a scribe for exams or to ask your teacher if they will accept typed homework (I’ve strangely never had the same coordination issues with typing as I’ve had with handwriting!🤷)

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Early Signs of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Happy New Year! 😀

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Still can’t quite believe I’ve been blogging now for over 2 years, it’s madness! 🙂

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the early signs of autism to look out for. ASDs are usually detectable before a child’s third birthday, with some signs appearing even earlier (a recent study detected signs as early as 6 months). A definitive diagnosis can only be obtained after the age of two, however, here are some of the early signs to look out for:

Diminished Visual Attention/Eye Contact– if a baby shows more interest in objects/toys than the people interacting with it, this could be an early indicator of autism. This behaviour may be noticeable as early as 6 months. Similarly a tendency to avoid eye contact may also be an indicator

Aversion to Cuddling– a lack of response to cuddling or a lack of interest in initiating a cuddle may too suggest that your child might have an ASD

Colic- There is some evidence to suggest that colic may be a very early sign of autism (yours truly for example was a colicky baby). Colic is defined as “episodes of crying for more than 3 hours a day in an otherwise healthy baby”. The cause is unknown, however many believe it may be linked to GI discomfort- and GI issues are often co-morbid in cases of autism. Colic rates do not appear to be elevated in the ASD population, however excessive crying may still be an early indicator of autism

 

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Fecal smearing– As discussed previously, fecal smearing (or scatolia) can be one of the earliest signs of autism, most likely thought to be a sensory response to periods of under-stimulation in autists.

Other early signs of autism may include a lack of physical gestures for communication, lack of interest in playing with others, a (perceived) lack of empathy or if your child fails to imitate movements and facial expressions.

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When it comes to autism, early diagnosis can be critical to getting your child the best possible interventions to allow them to thrive in later life, so it’s useful to know the early indicators to watch out for.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Catatonia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this week I’d like to talk about a rare condition that affects approximately 12-18% of autistic adults- autistic catatonia.

But what exactly is this when it’s at home?

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Autistic catatonia is a neuropsychiatric condition that causes abnormalities in behaviours, speech and motor functions with varying degrees of severity. In other words, it’s a form of autistic breakdown- one that is often misdiagnosed.

There are over 40 symptoms associated with the condition, many of which overlap with autistic symptoms and traits, so it can be quite challenging to diagnose- even for the most experienced professionals in the field. Symptoms may include mutism, hyperactivity, immobility, stupor, agitation, odd repetitive movements and echolalia. Due to the overlap in symptoms, it’s thought that this condition may be far more prevalent among autists than we realize.

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But what causes it?

As with autism, it’s cause too remains a mystery, however it is thought that vitamin deficiencies, trauma, infection and co-morbid disorders such as schizophrenia and biopolar disorder may contribute to it.

So how do we treat it?

There are currently no cures for autistic catatonia, however a number of therapies have been used to manage symptoms such as antidepressants, muscle relaxers, benzodiazapines (such as Lorazepam) and anti psychotics. Electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy), brain stimulation and NMDA receptor antagonists (a class of anesthetic drugs that are often used recreationally e.g ketamine, nitrous oxide, PCP and the heroin substitute methadone) have also been controversially used to treat catatonia.

There is limited research in this area at present as to how best to treat autistic catatonia, however a psychological approach to treat underlying stress and anxieties which may trigger catatonia is thought to be the best.

Whilst there is no cure, as in the case of autism, with early detection and intervention the condition can be managed 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings and that you’re Christmas preparations are coming along nicely 🙂

Aoife

 

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 🙂

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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

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