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

Autistic Burnout

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from previous posts about shutdowns and meltdowns, today I’d like to discuss the “autistic burnout”.

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So what exactly is that when it’s at home?

Autistic burnout (also known as “autistic regression”) happens when an autist has maxed out their capacity to mask and to socially cope following a period of prolonged stress (such as major change, attempting to be “normal”, poor self care etc.). This triggers a shutdown like state where the autist can become “more autistic” and is often unable to utilize the skills they have learned to cope- the mind is so exhausted that the autist no longer has to energy to try to overcome their difficulties.

Some people have even reported that these skills did not come back at all after recovering from a severe burnout- hence the name autistic regression.

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From a scientific perspective, the autistic burnout has not been explored as of yet on a medical level, however, there is much discussion of burnout within the autistic community.

Thankfully I have not really experienced such a full on burnout, but I have circled the drain a few times. When you’re particularly under pressure from doing too many things at once, sleep deprived, dehydrated, hungry etc., that’s when the mask starts to slip. In times like these I have felt much more symptomatic than normal, causing me to snap or say inappropriate things and act more eccentrically than I ordinarily would. It’s as if a part of your brain switches off to keep from overloading- and that part seems to be the one that controls our cloaking device, like the faulty invisibility booster on Arthur Weasleys flying Ford Anglia!

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So how can burnouts be avoided?

Much in the same way as meltdowns and shutdowns 🙂

As I have discussed in a number of previous posts, the key things to remember are:

  • Self Care– Stay hydrated, get plenty of snacks, get lot’s of sleep etc.
  • Utilize stress busters– Find respite in hobbies, in exercise, specialist interests or relieve stress through stimming
  • Take a break– If a situation is taking it’s toll, take a step back. Leave the room, take a holiday (if work related) or go outside for a walk; time in solitude to decompress and reset can be particularly helpful 🙂

Here’s a useful chart from the Autistic Women’s Network summarizing autistic burnout:

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Remember to make time for you this weekend 😉

Aoife

Autism and Memory

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In today’s post we’re going to explore the concept of memory and autism.

When we think of autism and memory, we often picture the ‘Rain Man‘ stereotype- an individual with superb, photographic memory.

Whilst this is a stereotypical view of autism, stereotypes often are based on fact. It is indeed true that many autists possess impeccable and often eidetic memories (although the scientific jury is still out as to whether or not true eidetic memories really exist).

Just check out this autstic artists sketch drawn entirely from memory! 😲

However, the opposite is also true in that many individuals with autism equally possess a number of memory deficits such as difficulties with short term and working memory (a part of the short term memory that temporarily stores information for processing-e.g decision making, reasoning and behavior). As a result of this, children with autism often have poorer memory for more complicated information.

My own memory has always been kind of strange- I fall somewhere between having a normal memory and an eidetic one (I definitely don’t have a full eidetic memory- school would have been a lot easier if I had! 😛 )

bitmoji792226925Whilst I can’t recite the entire works of JK Rowling word for word, my brain does however, tend to randomly churn out eidetic memories every now and again (known as sporadic eidetic memory). I sporadically come out with full eidetic memories recalling such minuscule details as clothes, smells, songs, haircuts etc. My memories are so detailed that I once when recounting the previous night’s episode of Desperate Housewives to my Physical Therapist went so far as to mention the likely flavour of smoothie that the ladies of Wisteria Lane were drinking as they gossiped! 😂😬

I’ve unwittingly been dubbed the “family historian” as a result 😛

But what has the science to say about memory and autism?

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The research is conflicting. Scientists have had great difficulty in obtaining consistent results across memory studies- they are as diverse as the spectrum itself!

However, there are a couple of areas in which scientists seem to agree:

  • Visual memory is thought to be a particular strength in autists due to increased activity in visual areas of the autistic brain, resulting in enhanced perceptual processing (and eidetic memory formation)
  • Deficits in working memory may arise from alterations in the brain networks involved in working memory such as the amygdaloid complex and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) affecting their ability to encode and process information

Fun Fact: The regions of the brain involved in declarative memory (memory of facts and events) are thought to compensate for social deficits in autism, becoming activated in social situations to allow autists to mask (for example using formulaic speech i.e. learned phrases)

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings- I hope this post was ‘memorable’ 😉

Enjoy the weekend! 😀

Aoife

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. bitmoji-39779843

Granted, I cannot provide any personal insight into the matter, (I could never be described as non verbal 😛 ), but I’ll do my best to explain it! 🙂

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 🙂

Here’s a video of Carly in action 🙂 :

 

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings! 🙂

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend!! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Voice Control

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😛

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, the left medial prefrontal cortex and the right anterior cingulate cortex should be deactivated 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. This  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 out 😬 😉

Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Masking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😛 ). 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 😛 )

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! 😬

I became really good at being invisible….well, at least between meltdowns! 😛 😉

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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! 🙂

Aoife

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