Autism and Stress Management

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post, this week I’d like to briefly discuss stress management and autism.

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As highlighted previously, it’s very important for autists to manage their stress levels for our long term mental and physical health due to our higher levels of biological stress.

To an autist, life and the world can be quite overwhelming so it can be very difficult to manage stress when surrounded by stressors.

So here are a couple of tips and tricks for managing stress with autism:

Weighted blankets- these are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin and dopamine to relax and calm the racing mind.

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“Stimming”- Self stimulatory behaviours such as hand flapping or noise making can help to calm down the brain using a similar biological mechanism to weighted blankets. Glutamate is one of the excess excitatory neurotransmitters that is released in the autistic brain. When we “stim” it triggers the brain’s reward system to release the pleasure hormone dopamine which causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain! Items such as stress balls and fidget spinners can be useful tools for stimming to channel excess neurological energy in this way 🙂 

Specialist interests- specialist interests can be one of the most effective ways of coping with stress. They often provide a safe haven, a way to switch off and escape from the pressures of life which can help autists to manage stress. Hobbies are great dopamine and serotonin boosters- both of which are dysregulated in autism. I doubt I’d have survived my teenage years without the escape that Harry Potter gave me! 

Exercise– the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind really rings true here. There’s nothing like working up a good sweat or going for a nice walk to release endorphins and lower your stress levels.

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Preparedness– one of the most stressing aspects of autism is navigating and coping with the unknown. Nothing get’s my stress levels up more than finding myself in a situation that I don’t know how to navigate- like getting lost on the road in an unfamiliar area; driving in general is one of my largest stressors 😛 Plan routes, study timetables, look up menus- all these little things add up to reduce your stress in the long run. You can’t prepare for everything, but every little bit helps 🙂

At the end of the day, everyone has their own methods for minimizing stress and as with autism, stress management is not one size for all. Try and find what works for you or your child and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Change

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

David Bowie: “Ch-ch-ch-anges-”

Autism: NOOOOOOOO!

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Yes, this week we’re going to talk about autism and change! 😂It’s a well known fact that autists do NOT like change. We like routine, structure, predictability- we like to be in control.

Historically, I’ve never been the greatest with change. As a child I went into a full-scale meltdown when the school banned chocolate (it’s pretty hilarious when I picture my 11 year old self wailing “I’m a chocoholic!” at the teacher!😂), I couldn’t sleep for 2 weeks after my sister changed the angle of her bed; worse still when we sold my family home, it took years to get my head round the loss. Sure, it may have only been 4 miles up the road, and I still went to the same school, but this one simple shift was as if a ton weight had been dropped on my fragile, pubescent head.

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New things can be a lot more complicated for an autist than the average person. You have to consider the sensory implications- how might a new smell affect you; will the taste of this new food make you sick; will this new top make you want to rip off your own skin? Last year I tried paint-balling for the first time without pausing to think of any potential sensory issues. The noise of the guns, the overpowering smell of the mask, the pain when I got hit- I was completely overwhelmed! I had to be removed within 10 mins after having a meltdown behind a tree! At least I drove myself there so I could make a quick escape to the PS4 to shoot things from the safety of my couch instead 😉

It’s not that an autist is not capable of change, it’s just oftentimes it can be a lot easier to stick with the status quo for fear of the unknown.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I know I like a particular dish at a restaurant, so why would I rock the boat and risk an adverse sensory reaction?

That being said, here are some tips to cope with change:

Take baby steps- you’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk. Make small changes in your life and you’ll gradually learn to cope with bigger ones.

Challenge yourself- Setting goals to change something in your life can be a great motivator. Choosing to make a change on your terms can help to prepare you for the unexpected changes that life likes to throw at us.

Do the research– for any impending changes, take the time to educate yourself. If moving to a new place, familiarize yourself with the area- check out the amenities, the bus routes, use google street view to digitally walk around etc. The more you know about it, the sooner it becomes familiar which ultimately feels like less of a change.

Rewards and bribery– not always the best plan but it can help to incentivise behaviour change! As I’ve discussed previously, bribery worked to help me change my study habits as a teenager by trading hours of study for hours of gaming!

You can read more tips for coping with change in the link below:

https://www.autism.org.uk/about/behaviour/preparing-for-change.aspx

But might there be a scientific explanation for our struggles with change?

In 2017, researchers discovered that the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain is associated with changes in routine behaviour. As of yet this area has not been extensively studied, however the research would suggest that there is some level of dysfunction taking place in this cortex in the autistic brain. Current evidence indicates that there is poor connectivity, reduced metabolic activity and structural changes at the cellular level in the neurons within this region.

No wonder change is difficult if your brain is actively fighting against you! Perhaps the real change that is needed is our attitude towards an autists struggles with change; maybe then change won’t be so scary after all 🙂

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Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Clothing

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to briefly expand on something that I touched on in my previous post about skin sensitivity, -the importance of clothing and autism.

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No, I’m not going to talk about fashion, but function!

For many autists, it can be quite difficult to pick out clothes. A stray fiber, an itchy label or a prickly seam can unleash a storm of sensory discomfort. Gene mutations cause the nerves in our skin to be extra sensitive to certain stimuli. This coupled with hyperactivity in the cortex and the amygdala (both regions involved in sensory processing) don’t make for the happiest of bedfellows.

But what if the clothes that irritate us could in fact be used to manage autistic symptoms?

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Clothes are now being designed and adapted to cater for the different needs of autists. Companies are now producing  seamless socks and underwear, looser fitting clothes made from softer materials, and most interestingly, weighted and compression clothing.

Based on the research of the great Temple Grandin and her hugging machine, both weighted and compression clothing provide calming, deep pressure stimulation much like a soothing hug. The pressure switches off the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), promoting the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters. Based on this, it’s thought that autists are better able to cope with sensory issues, hyperactivity, motor skills and sleeplessness when wearing sensory clothing.

It’s a really interesting premise- there’s even been an inflatable sensory scarf produced that’s designed to provide soothing pressure in addition to emitting calming aromas! Check it out:

https://www.wired.com/2015/08/odd-looking-clothing-designed-help-autistic-kids/

In reality however, the results are mixed. Scientific studies indicate that weighted and inflatable vests do not appear to be effective and are not clinically recommended, yet the personal testimonials of families across the globe beg to differ. One testimonial claimed that a child’s meltdowns went from 12 a day to having none in 3 years!

Either way, nothing ventured nothing gained, so if you think that sensory wear may be of benefit to you or a loved one with autism, why not give it a shot? 🙂

With the variety of sensory wear available, you’ll at the very least look fabulous! 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Perseverance

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As I’m currently attempting to add dressmaking to my list of skills (which is not coming as easily as I thought it would!), this week I’d like to discuss the importance of perseverance when it comes to autism.

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As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day“, so too the same holds for learning new skills and autism. Many autists struggle with learning difficulties (I will discuss this in greater detail at a later stage) which can be challenging when trying to learn social or motor skills and develop coping mechanisms.

But just because things don’t come as naturally to an autist as they do to their neurotypical peers, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Perhaps some of the most frustrating challenges I’ve faced in my life have come from my efforts to learn new motor skills such as riding a bike, learning to knit, learning to drive etc. Attempting to formulate the necessary neural pathways to forever commit these skills to memory was beyond frustrating! Book-based learning I can handle, but ask me to use my hands and it’s an entirely different kettle of fish!

Knitting was a particular struggle- I would sit and watch my peers making headbands and knitting scarves whilst I sat tangled in a ball of wool. Frustrating as this was however, with a LOT of practice, (and several litres of blood sweat and tears) , before long you couldn’t keep the needles out of my hands, and even today I regularly commit to large knitting projects in my spare time.

Similarly, perseverance was key to developing my baking skills. When I first began to use fondant, I was HOPELESS- I could never get it to go smooth, it was always full of holes, it was too dry, or too wet, it never seemed to go right! So bad was I in fact that one of my friends told me that an early creation of mine was so terrifying that it belonged in a horror film 😛 :

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Needless to say I have not been able to attempt a canine cake since 😛

BUT- I did get the hang of cake decorating eventually as you can see in one of my most recent (and most complex) creations for my Granny’s 90th birthday:

When you get frustrated trying to learn new things like this, it can be all too easy to throw in the towel (God knows I’ve wanted to smash my sewing machine to bits lately after sewing yet another wonky line! 😛 ), but you can’t let your brain get the better of you. Granted it isn’t always as easy to forge new neural pathways and learn new skills as for neurotypicals, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be formed. Like digging trenches through soil or stone- a stone trench will take longer, but the result will be the same.

Just focus on the three P’s- patience, practice, persistence!

It will take time, but persevere and you’ll get there in the end 🙂

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Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

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 🙂

weee

Aoife

Autism and Going Away to College

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’m going to to talk about perhaps one of the biggest challenges for a teenage autist- going away to college.

Ah college, some of the best years of your life- but years that can be difficult to adjust to for people on the spectrum. Granted, going away to college is a huge step for anyone, but considering an autists’ difficulty with change the stress can be tenfold. Living away from home, living with new people, finding your way around campus, the lack of routine, social expectations etc.- it can be completely overwhelming!

When I think about preparing for college, it always put’s me in mind of this Blink-182 song:

I haven’t been this scared in a long time, and I’m so unprepared…

This is exactly how it felt for me when I went away to college- sure, I was sick of school and excited to learn new things, but it is still one hell of a transition! I definitely cried a LOT those first few days/weeks settling in.

But never fear- here are some tips that I found helpful for starting out in college:

  • Register with the university disability service– If you think you need a little extra support when starting out, don’t be afraid to ask. Even if you don’t currently need any of the disability support services the college offers, it’s always good to have the safety net there when academic problems related to autism arise
  • Join a club/society– I know it can be really scary and overwhelming at first, but you won’t regret it! There’s loads of societies to choose from, and surely one that will suit your interests- they even have Harry Potter societies and Quidditch teams in colleges now (which sadly didn’t come to my university until after I had graduated 😥 )  It’s a great way to meet like minded people, make new friends and give you a break from the books 🙂 And if there isn’t a society that you like, why not set one up?
  • Get to lectures early– This is one that could really have helped me out during my first few weeks in college (but sadly I tend to me a tumble out of bed, last-minuter in the mornings). Give yourself plenty of time to get to the right room/building; universities aren’t always designed well and can be an absolute maze to navigate (which won’t help your stress levels). But more importantly, this can help you to keep an eye out for people you know. In my first month in college, sitting in a lecture hall with 300+ science students, I found it very difficult to get to know people, and when I did get chatting, I found it even harder to physically find the same person to chat to a second time among the masses. In getting to class early, you can pick a prime seat to watch out for familiar faces so you can flag them down to sit with you
  • Get a head start on your assignments– An obvious one I know, but a critical one if you tend to be a last minuter. College life is stressful enough coursework aside; don’t risk needlessly stressing yourself out and melting down

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  • Invest in scented candles/air fresheners– If you’re anything like me, the smell of some unfamiliar dishes cooked by your roommates can turn your stomach! Find a scent that you’re comfortable with or something that reminds you of home when offending odors threaten your senses. But make sure you test it out before you buy it- some odors can be even worse than the offending stimulus (I had a bout of nausea from a Christmas Yankee Candle last year- although that could have been a side effect of the antibiotics I was taking! 😛 )
  • Buy a decent pair of earplugs/noise cancelling headphones– the night time activities of the average student can often impact sensitive ears (I went through a few weeks of insomnia in my first year due to late night partying, fire alarms and drunken doorbell ringing), so plan ahead to ensure you get your full nights sleep
  • Google, Google Google– When navigating a new city, Google is your best friend, Google Maps, Google Street View, Google everything! When you’re not feeling confident about your directions, where to find shops, college facilities, timetables for public transport etc., pull out your smart phone and within a few clicks you’ll have everything you need. I would not have gotten through college without Google Street View. It really helped to put my mind at ease when travelling to unfamiliar parts of the city/university and kept me from getting overwhelmed
  • Make use of video chats– Video chatting has become far more accessible than it was when I started out in college, but nevertheless having the comfort of Skyping my family every evening really helped me to settle in during my first year (after that I rarely needed this crutch). Seeing my sisters in the familiar office at the Desktop after they came home from school every day really helped the transition from my old routines to my new college life

Going away to college can be a very scary experience, but try not to stress it- everyone finds it tough at first, but before long you’ll wonder why you ever resisted this change 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dearest Earthlings! 😀

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism Assistance/Service Dogs

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re taking a cuteness break to take a look at autism assistance dogs!

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Just look at him!!! 😍

Sooo cute- but, they also provide a very important service to children, and adults, with autism (some days I wish I could justify getting one to have an official reason to always have a dog around! 😂).

To state the obvious, an autism assistance dog is a service dog that has been trained to help autists to navigate the world and allow them to gain some independence. Some service dogs have been trained to keep their human from leaving the house unattended,  alert children/adults with autism of dangerous situations, prevent self injurious behaviours and even induce calm by applying pressure to the foot or lap of their charge!

So smart!! 😍

Ever since the first autism assistance dog was trained 21 years ago back in 1997, these cuddly canines have made a world of difference to the lives of their owners.

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But what does the research have to say about these benefits?

There is limited research data to show the specific/scientific impact of service dogs as of yet, however the glowing reports from assistance dog owners speaks for itself.

As I discussed in a previous post, some studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet as they act as “social lubricants”. Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a noticeable biological calming effect on people with autism as stroking animals has demonstrated a measurable drop in anxiety levels! So just by being there, autism assistance dogs are having a huge impact to the mental and social wellbeing of their human.

These dogs do however cost around €15,000 to raise over two years, so if you’re thinking about applying for one, really consider yours/your childs needs first as there are many out there who could really benefit from their assistance.

Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! 😀 I do love it when I get an opportunity to chat about dogs! ❤

Okay- maybe just one more cute pic 😉 😍

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Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Robots

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly discuss a somewhat unusual topic- robots and autism.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, Aoife has finally lost it- but just before you call in the men in the white coats, let me tell you about the clinical benefits of using robots for children with autism! 🙂

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Recent technological advances in the field of robotics offer great possibilities in the treatment of autism. As interactive robots are increasingly becoming more human like, this technology can be used clinically to help teach social skills to children with autism.

Whilst the research into the therapeutic benefits of robots is in it’s infancy, several schools across the globe have begun to use social robots reporting very positive results 🙂

So how do these robots work?

The robots engage autists with a specially tailored curriculum. For example, the robot makes a sad face or starts laughing and the child has to say what the robot is feeling, or when interacting with the robot if they do something that could hurt a real person, the robot will cry out so that the child can learn that this  behaviour is not appropriate.

It’s really cool! 😀

You can check out Milo below- one of the many models of social robots helping kids with autism worldwide (try not to let  him creep you out though, Kaspar the robot is way freakier….might have further to go in making these robots more approachable in my opinion 😬).

The benefits of using this technology currently include improved:

  • Engagement
  • Eye contact
  • Vocabulary
  • Attention
  • Self-motivation and regulation
  • Emotional recognition and understanding, and
  • Improvements in appropriate social behaviour

And all of this within just 1-4 months of using a robot like Milo! 😲

All in all the technology looks really promising in the treatment of autism, even if a few tweaks may be needed to improve the appearance of these robots 🙂 😛

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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

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