Autism and Pensivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’m going to talk a little bit about pensivity and autism, or as my sister describes it in my interview with her, “staring into the abyss.” 😛

We all have those moments where we retreat into ourselves. Our eyes glaze over, we tune out from our surroundings and make weird, subconscious facial expressions as we dreamily ride the thought train round and round.

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For an autist, these spells of introspection tend to happen a little more frequently. Our minds move so fast that we often find it hard to concentrate, and somehow we slip into this abyss of swirling thoughts:

‘What do I want for dinner tomorrow?’

‘Is evolution real?’

‘What would I look like as a blonde?’

‘What would it be like to have an Alpaca farm!?’ (genuinely spent a weekend considering the practicalities once!)

These are just a few of the millions of questions that I spend my time pondering in the abyss, proceeding to explore these thoughts in minute detail! 😛

I’ve been known to spend almost an hour lying on my bed, staring into space without saying a single word to anyone!

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Once I’ve fallen in, my mind could literally go anywhere-I’ve even conjured up a musical based on the music of My Chemical Romance during one of these particular spells!

It’s not a bad thing in my experience, I get some of best ideas wandering the abyss, but people just don’t know what to make of me in this state in social situations. As my sister says, it really creeps her out watching me! 😛

I suppose I can’t blame her when I often sit around staring like this for 40 minutes:

 

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Half the time, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it, which can be awkward on a night out.  If it get’s very loud or the conversation goes stale, I just slip down into the depths, awoken from my reverie several minutes later by bemused friends and colleagues! 😬

What people fail to understand however, is that I am perfectly content in my little bubble. Yes I look strange, and my face may not show it, but I’m perfectly fine 🙂 In fact I sort of enjoy thinking, just floating around exploring the darkness of the abyss. It’s actually a little bit soothing in an odd way.

Autists are not good with the unknown. We like structure, things we can predict and prepare for. By questioning, or pondering the unknown in our minds, this can help to make the world seem a little less scary. Knowledge is power after all!

So don’t panic if you see me stumbling into the abyss- I’m probably just wondering where I can buy an alpaca! 😛 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Nail Trimming

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this post might seem a little unusual, but as the difficulties faced by autists when it comes to haircuts has been doing the rounds on social media of late (for the record- I LOVE getting my hair cut! 😀 ), I thought I’d write a quick post about something small that I find a sensory challenge- trimming my nails.

My friends have been complimenting my nails a lot this week, which is a little odd seeing as I have not cut them since 2002! 😲

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Yep- nail trimming freaks me out that much! 😂

Once my mother stopped trimming them for me, I have refused to put a nail scissors or file anywhere near them (save for a manicure in 2005- an experience I have not sought to repeat! 😛 )!

Don’t worry they aren’t freakishly long- I use my hands so much with my hobbies that they never seem to make it past a certain length!

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Trimming/filing my fingernails has always freaked me out. It’s really hard to describe, but for some reason it feels really wrong to me! There’s just something unnerving about nail scissiors cutting so close to the skin that it sends unsettling shivers up and down my spine. Nail filing in particular sends me into cringing convulsions-my hands are tensing up into balls just now at the thought of that abrasive piece of cardboard against my skin! 😂

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Oddly enough I’m fine with toenails, unless I cut too close to the skin 😛

I know I shouldn’t be unnerved by such an innocuous every day process, buuuuttt my brain just doesn’t seem to want to deal with this type of stimulus! 😛

Nail trimming issues are actually quite common among autists. This can be particularly troublesome if an autist is prone to skin picking or self injurious behaviours.

But there are some tricks that can help:

  • Trim your/your childs nails after a bath– this can soften the nail to make the task more comfortable
  • Pressing down on the nail before trimming– this application of deep pressure can temporarily reduce sensitivity
  • Distraction and Bribery– if you are cutting nails for an autistic person, try using bribes or distracting the person with something (particularly their specialist interest) to get the job done
  • Try not to keep the nail too short– aside from the weirdness of cutting my nails, if they were cut too short, or if I sustained a bad break, I found (and still sometimes find) this particular sensation quite unsettling (for want of a better term)

And if all that fails, you can always allow life to trim your nails for you like me (just maybe try to steer clear of your siblings if your nails are a little bit on the long side…😬)

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism- A History

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today, in continuation from my post exploring autism through the ages, I’d like to give you a brief intro into how we came to know of  autism.

So how about a bedtime story then Earthlings? 🙂

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A long time ago in the land of Austria, two researchers were born that would go on to make medical history- Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Whilst these men interestingly did not collaborate, together their respective research laid the groundwork for our current understanding of ASD’s.

So how did it all begin?

Whilst some of the earliest documented cases of autism dates back to the 1700’s, the new Latin term autismus (“isolated self”) was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler (who also coined the term schizophrenia) in 1910. Derived from the Greek word “autós” (meaning ‘self’), Bleuler used the term to describe a sub group of people with schizophrenia that were removed from social interaction.

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The term autism first began to take it’s modern form in 1938 when Hans Asperger adopted the term ‘autistic psychopaths’ in a German lecture on child psychology. During this period, Asperger was investigating the ASD which would later bear his name, examining a group of four boys of normal intelligence who struggled with social integration and empathy. Asperger dubbed these boys “little professors” due to their ability to lecture at length on their favourite subjects!

Fun Fact: Asperger himself is widely thought to have displayed many of the symptoms of his discovery himself!

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In 1944 Asperger published an article in German titled ‘Autistic psychopathy’ in childhood, a publication which largely went unnoticed within the English speaking medical community until the 1980s when child psychiatrist Lorna Wing brought his work into the limelight.

This obscurity was also due in part to the work of his contemporary Leo Kanner at the prestigious John Hopkins University in the USA, who pipped Asperger to the post with his paper Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact in 1943.

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In this work, Kanner described a group of 11 (8 boys, 3 girls) socially isolated children with a “need for sameness” and a “resistance to (unexpected) change.” Kanner claimed to have discovered a new medical condition which he named “infantile autism”, garnering much attention and praise within the medical community.

But was it coincidence that these men happened to work in tandem on such similar projects 4000 miles apart?

In his lifetime, Kanner claimed that he had never heard of Asperger’s work, however, it would appear that this was not the truth.

Author Steve Silberman has since discovered that Kanner likely heard of Asperger’s work through George Frankl- a work colleague from Vienna, and former chief diagnostician at Asperger’s clinic in 1938. Driven by an ambition to make his mark on medical history, it would appear that Kanner sought to recreate Asperger’s work in America, repacked it and claimed it as his own!!

Image result for fainting gifPoor Asperger- but at least his name lives on in Asperger’s syndrome! 🙂

 

So what did these early researchers believe to be the root of autism?

Difficult as it may be to imagine, Kanner firmly believed in something called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis“- a since (rightly) discarded theory which claimed that autism is caused by a lack of maternal warmth or love!!!

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I know!!!!!

Madness!

In addition to this, Kanner’s reuse of Bleuler’s term autism resulted in decades of confused terminology where autism and schizophrenia were one and the same.

Thankfully, the research caught up to give us a clearer insight into the physiological roots of autism (although it took about 20 years for the experts to catch on! 😛 ), leading to the establishment of autism (and later Aspergers syndrome in 1994) as a separate diagnosis in it’s own right in 1980.

And that is the history of autism dear Earthlings, I hope you enjoyed your bedtime story! 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

Autism Through The Ages

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In this week’s post I’m going to briefly explore the history of autism.

So gather round for storytime! 😀

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As autism rates increase, many people have come to believe that the condition is relatively new. Whilst the clinical term may be in it’s infancy, autism can in fact trace it’s genetic lineage back through millennia!

Genetic research has shown that some of the key genes involved in the development of autism came from our shared heritage with the apes, predating the evolution from monkey to man (somewhere in the region of 7 million years ago).

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Other related autism genes are slightly more “recent” than this, having come into existence over 100,000-years ago.

Whilst a third of autistic genes may come about through spontaneous genetic mutation, from this evidence we can see that autistic genes were inserted into the genetic code of our ancestors for a reason.

Interestingly in ancient times, people that displayed autistic traits were in fact highly revered. Such autistic traits as exceptional memory skills, creative thinking, observational skills, heightened senses and extensive knowledge in important areas such as plants and animals (i.e specialist interests), would all have been greatly valued in an ancient community. The incorporation of these skills within the group would have been essential to their survival.

Experts also believe that autistic skills such as memory and attention to detail may have contributed to the creation of ancient cave paintings such as this one:

How often we focus on the negatives of autism that we fail to stop and consider the reasons these genes exist. If they were a hindrance to the human race, why have they not been eradicated through millennia of evolution?

I think Temple Grandin sums it up pretty well here:

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And she would be right! 😉 Experts believe that autistic genes have been conserved to advance our intelligence. Variants of autistic genes have been linked to improved cognitive performance and the formation of new brain cells.

Such talented historical figures as Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven and of course, Albert Einstein, are all believed to have shown signs of autism- but history remembers them for their esteemed achievements, not their genetic quirks.

Something that we would all do well to think of when we commit autistic people to the annals of history in future.

So there we have it Earthlings, I hope you find this information as interesting as I found it 🙂 I could go on further buuuuttt I think I’ll spare you the clinical history of autism for another day 😉

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Can animals have autism?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to explore something I’ve been wondering about a lot recently: can animals be autistic?

We’ve often been told how closely related human and animal genomes are, but what about our brains?

I often look at my German Shepherd and see a lot of autistic traits in him- he has ADHD and anxiety, behaves inappropriately, thinks creatively (he once buried a bone in a mattress) and never really grew out of his puppy brain despite recently turning 6!

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^^^Not my dog, but similarly bonkers! 😛 😉

Naturally, I could be imagining it (as a scientist it’s hard not to over analyse), but what does the evidence have to say?

In clinical research, there are a number of animal models which have been genetically bred to exhibit autistic traits including rats, fruit flys, monkeys and most commonly mice. These animals will have mutations in genes that have been linked to autism which causes them to exhibit some common autistic traits. In the mouse model for example, mice show signs of repetitive behaviours, deficits in social interaction and reciprocation, memory deficits and increased aggression.

But what about in nature?

There is very little evidence to suggest that animals can be autistic, however, a recent study by veterinary behaviorists in the USA has indicated that there is evidence of canine autism! 

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I know!

Maybe I should get my dog diagnosed… 😉

In fact, vets have considered the possibility of autism like symptoms in dogs since 1966!!

The 2015 study examined tail chasing behaviours in bull terriers in addition to running DNA analysis.  These researchers found that tail chasing was associated with trance-like behaviour and random outbursts of aggression in these dogs. In addition to this, tail chasing was more common in males than females- just like human ASD’s. This group also suggested that the physical features of these bull terriers (long face, high-arched palate, and large ears) could be indicative of Fragile X Syndrome-  a genetic condition where 15-60% of this population are additionally diagnosed with autism.

This study is not definitive, but it does open us up to the possibility that autism may naturally exist in the animal kingdom.

As autism can be difficult enough to diagnose in humans, you never know- other animals could quite possibly have autism, we’ve just never considered it! 🙂

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Aoife

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

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I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

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I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

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….I wake up feeling like death in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! 😛

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! 😛

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, where higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day!                                                   sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! 🙂
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets 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 (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! 🙂

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! 😉

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow 🙂

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on 😉

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Autism and Phones

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So a little bit different today- I know the title is unusual! 😛

But the prospect of talking on the phone is something that fills many an autist with dread!

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But why does this seemingly innocuous device strike fear into our hearts?

My relationship with phones is complicated.

On the one hand, I enjoy chatting to my family and friends on the phone; on the other, talking on the phone feels soooo AWKWARD to me!

As if reading a person isn’t hard enough, but when you can’t see them? It really adds to your social anxiety. You can’t tell if they’re bored or if  you’re cutting across them, not to mention dealing with heavy accents, bad signal and awkward silences- the stress is a killer!

Worse still when someone asks you to answer their phone!

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I don’t mind answering too much if it’s someone I already know, but when it’s a stranger….

What do I say?

What if the person on the other end thinks I’m them?

How long will I have to talk until they can take the phone away from me??

AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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It makes me feel beyond awkward answering someone elses phone!

Not to mention the awkwardness of dealing with telemarketers and scammers…I try to brush them off and don’t want to be rude… but then when they keep pushing their product on you, I feel too awkward not to listen! I just sit there burning up, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to tell them ‘no’ and run! 😛

Sometimes I just want nothing more than to throw my phone at the wall! 😛

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I will do everything that I can to avoid calling someone, if at all possible. I will email, text, Whats App, Facebook etc. before I will ever go near my phone. If the phone rings in the house and I’m closest to it, I have been known to get up and leave the room for the bathroom to force someone else to pick up the receiver! 😛

This meme is a pretty accurate transcription of actual conversations I’ve had with my mother 😛

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Over the years however, I have gotten more comfortable with the phone. When I was younger, I never really knew how to act appropriately on the phone. When someone asked to speak to another member of the house, I would freeze up and throw the phone at that person while the caller was still talking! 😛

Since then, I’ve gradually developed my phone etiquette and learned to relax a little more when answering the phone. Practice makes perfect I suppose 🙂

Making calls can still be a little tricky.

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A lot of it is tied up in the anxiety of not being able to see the person on the other end. When you initiate a conversation in real life, you know if the person is amenable to talking. If I call them however, my brain starts worrying about disturbing them if they’re busy or whether they really want to talk to me or not.

And then there’s the added stress of “I’ll call you back,” and the panic that ensues when they don’t.

“Did they forget?

Did they not want to talk to me?

Oh God, do I need to call them back???!!”

But as you grow older, these worries begin to fade. You just have to take a deep breath, press call and go for it! 🙂

An email is not going to fix your internet (for obvious reasons 😛 ) or secure your hair cut! 😉

Top Tip: It helps to remind yourself when calling strangers that they can’t see you, they don’t know you so they can’t judge you if you say something stupid 😉

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Soooo….driving…

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Wouldn’t be high on my list of favourite activities I’ll admit! 😛 Stressful roundabouts, merging onto busy roads, idiot drivers, getting lost, the noise of hitting a pothole- it can be a lot for an aspie to handle!

My coordination issues did not make it the easiest of tasks to get the hang of, that’s for sure!

Coordinating pedal movements and gear changes, difficulties with spatial awareness, not to mention the stress and anxiety of learning to drive on country roads (Irish country roads tend to be narrow, winding, and full of potholes! 😛 ) made this a highly frustrating experience!

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I never could understand why I found it so hard to get the hang of driving when my sisters took to it so easily, but after I got my diagnosis, my struggles began to make a world of sense!

Driving would not be the first thing to come to mind when someone pictures the struggles an autist faces. In fact it’s a requirement in some countries that your ASD diagnosis be listed on your drivers licence if it impacts your ability to drive safely– you can even be fined in the event of an accident if it’s not stated on your licence!

Studies among autists actually report more traffic violations than in neurotypical groups, however, this may relate to our tendency to be more honest than our neurotypical peers 😛 😉

This doesn’t mean that autists shouldn’t drive, but it’s something to be aware of.

So how exactly does autism impact our driving?

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  • Impulsivity Autist’s are naturally more impulsive than neurotypicals. This can impact our driving by causing us to make poor driving decisions on impulse. It has also been reported that this impulsivity may influence speeding behaviours
  • Sensory integration/processing issues– Driving involves a huge amount of sensory input. Listening to the engine, watching the road, spatial awareness, not to mention unexpected road noises and unpleasant smells from the outside- it can be a lot for the autistic brain to process when moving a vehicle
  • ADD & ADHD- Autists can get distracted quite easily…on busy roads where lot’s of things are happening, your focus can sometimes waver. If there’s a cute dog nearby, I have been known to take my eyes off the road…raw (2)
  • Spatial Awareness & Coordination Autists often have issues with these which can make it difficult in positioning the car on the road, parking and navigating gear changes. Spatial awareness was one of my greatest obstacles when first learning to drive. I always seemed to be veering towards the nearest hedge…When I first got my car, I was practicing driving around the house with no problems, aaannd then I decided to change direction- BIG mistake! My poor spatial judgement caused me to nicely scratch the car on the edge of the dog house…before getting it stuck on some cement blocks at the oil tank! Caused a mini shutdown which made my sister think I had run the dog over I was so incoherent!! 😛                                                                           fghd.png

Top tip for parents and instructors: PATIENCE!!!! Learning to drive is much more difficult for autists so don’t be too hard on us for when we don’t get it straight away. We’re already beating ourselves up for our slow progression; getting frustrated or annoyed with us will only make it worse.

Here’s a useful little leaflet about driving tips for those with Asperger’s syndrome:

https://www.nasherts.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Driving1.pdf

Aoife’s Top Tip- Get a Sat Nav. They really help to take the edge off when stressed about driving to new and unfamiliar locations. If you mess up, it will recalculate and send you right in the end 🙂

Having autism may initially make learning to drive difficult, however, you will get there in the end 🙂 After two years of stressful practice, I passed my test first time and drive everywhere now.

The freedom you gain from this skill is worth the fight 🙂

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Aoife

Autism “Cures”?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Many of you may have come across articles or ads online claiming to have “cured” or found a “cure” for autism.

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Notice my use of air quotes? 😏

According to both the medical and scientific community- there is no cure for autism; fact

Autism can be managed; but it cannot be cured

In truth, these purported “cures” are unproven, and in some cases, quite dangerous. Here are the facts about some of these products/techniques:

  • Raw Camel Milk (whhhhyyyy!!!) & Essential Oils are just some of the many products retailed as a “cure” for autism. Neither have been proven safe or effective by the FDA
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: Remember those stories about Michael Jackson sleeping in an oxygen tent? Some have claimed that breathing oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber can “cure” autism, but this is completely unprovenImage result for michael jackson sleeps in chamber
  • Detoxifying clay baths: These are mixed in with bathwater to supposedly draw out toxins, pollutants and heavy metals in order to “dramatically” improve autism; but again, these are entirely false claims
  • Diet Change: Some articles report that following a specific diet can “cure” autism. As  I’ve previously discussed, many people report improvements in autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat), casein (a protein found in dairy) and sugar free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this. Many doctors have recently spoken out against these fad diets as they can be very bad for your health if you unnecessarily remove these foodstuffs. Gluten free diets for example can increase your risk of cardiac problems through decreased intake of essential wholegrains
  • Chelation therapies: This is a medical procedure where chelating agents are administered to bind and remove heavy metals and toxins from the body, such as in the case of mercury and lead poisoning. These are often marketed as “cures” for autism, coming in the form of suppositories, sprays, drops, capsules, and clay baths. These are NOT approved for the treatment of autism, and should only be used under medical supervision, as they can remove important minerals from the body which can cause serious life-threatening issues such as deadly kidney damage!
  • Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS): This is perhaps one of the most dangerous “cures” for autism. A solution that claims to cure HIV, cancer and malaria in addition to autism, MMS contains 28% sodium chlorite solution- equivalent to industrial strength bleach! People have reported vomiting, diarrhea and symptoms of severe dehydration after taking this, but the labels claim that this means that the product is working!! This can also cause life threatening low blood pressure and death in severe cases. Naturally, this has not been proven to cure autism.

The bottom line, these so called “cures” are nothing but

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For those struggling parents out there, I know it’s difficult. I wreaked havoc as a child and did not make life easy for my family; but seeking a cure is not the answer. Love and acceptance are the best way forward 🙂

This stuff is dangerous and can make your child very sick indeed.

Always be wary of what you read/buy on the internet dear Earthlings!

Aoife

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