Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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? ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

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 ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

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 ofย 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! ๐Ÿ™‚

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism and “Stimming”

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’d like to touch on one of the most commonly observed autistic behaviours- “stimming”.

So what exactly is “stimming?”

Self-stimulatory behaviour, (also known as stereotypy or “stimming”), refers to many of the repetitive behaviours often exhibited by autists. Examples of these behaviours include scratching or rubbing the skin, noise making, smelling objects and the classic examples of rocking andย  hand flapping, although in my experience it’s a lot more like ‘Jazz hands’ than flapping!

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There are two psychological theories as to why autists stim:

  • As a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli
  • As a means of relieving stress and anxiety

From a physiological perspective, there are a number of possible biological reasons.

Some researchers believe that stimming provides the autist with sensory stimulation. Contrary to common belief, many people with autism have a reduced sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. Dysfunctions in the circuitry of the brain mean that the body craves sensory stimulation, and so we adapt repetitive behaviours in order to stimulate and excite our nervous system.

Deficits in dopamine levels in the brain can also interfere with our reward pathways, leading autists to engage in behaviours, such as stimming, which will provide the extra hit of dopamine that the brain needs.

So that’s why I’m drawn to fluffy things! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Aside from being drawn to stimulatory texures, I have a particular tendency to fidget with the silver chain around my neck. I just find something oddly soothing about the rough sensation of the metal against my skin! ๐Ÿ˜›

In my experience, I also find that stimming isn’t always a response to stress, but born from a need to keepย my hands busy.

As I’ve discussed previously, research shows that autists have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate, and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, we are often hyper-stimulated. Stimulation of the brain’s reward system, i.e.ย  dopamine release through “stimming” behaviour, causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain!

This would explain why I’ve often found that stimming sometimes helps me to concentrate and clear my mind by channeling any excess energy into a physical action. I find this particularly helpful when I’m studying, or writing, and for some strange reason while I’m waiting for the microwave to ping! ๐Ÿ˜› #excitedforfood

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Stimming can also be considered a form of self injurious behaviour, but I’ll write a separate post on this topic at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

So is there anything that can be done to control this type of behaviour?

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  • Try replacement behaviours– if the stim is not socially acceptable or harmful, as in the case of biting behaviours, attempt to replace the stim with another one such as a fidget toy or chewing rubber
  • Exercise– there is evidence to suggest that exercising can decrease the frequency of stimming behaviours, although the research is unclear why
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)– is thought to be useful as self stimulatory behaviour operates in a similar way to OCD tendencies which are often managed through CBT techniques
  • Medication– Seems there’s a pill for everything these days! Medications can be used to help modify compulsive behaviours such as stimming, but I personally would not advocate this route

So there we have it Earthlings, a brief insight into stimming behaviours in autism! ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Can animals have autism?

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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 ofย canine autism!ย 

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I know!

Maybe I should get my dog diagnosed… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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. ย 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 featuresย of these bull terriers (long face, high-arched palate, and large ears)ย could be indicative of Fragile X Syndrome- ย 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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

Autism Management- Fidget Spinners

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to take a look at the latest craze- Fidget Spinners. I couldn’t take more than 50 steps in Dublin the other day without someone trying to sell me one! ๐Ÿ˜›

So what exactly are they?

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In case you’ve been living under a rock, Fidget Spinners are a handheld device where the centre is held between your fingers and you spin the device. They come in all shapes and sizes and are designed to relieve stress.

Here’s a video discussing them and some of the crazy things that people have been using them for:

But what have Fidget Spinners got to do with autism?

Whilst they may have only surged in popularity in recent months, Fidget Spinners were actually invented in the 1990’s to help people who have trouble focusing, such as those with ADHD, anxiety and autism, to channel excess nervous energy and stress into the spinning device. The thinking is that by diverting the excess energy into a physical action, this frees up certain areas of the brain from distraction, allowing you to better pay attention. It is also thought that fidgeting can relieve the brain of negative and obsessive thoughts.

But do they really work?

Opinions are polarizing as to whether or not they actually help. There is very little scientific evidence to support these claims. Of the studies that are out there, most focus on general fidgeting such as foot tapping, where it has been shown that movement can help to maintain alertness and improve working memory, but there are no studies specific to the Fidget Spinner itself.

Some experts warn that these toys may actually prove to be even more of a distraction for people with attention disorders.ย In theory, the toys occupy the hands so that you can focus your mind on the lesson (like stress balls), however, experts believe that the visually pleasing spin of the blades could add a further element of distraction.

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For teachers, they are proving to be a distracting nightmare in the classroom with many banning the device.

As opinions are divided, I decided to get one for myself and, pardon the pun, give it a whirl ๐Ÿ˜‰

There is definitely something oddly satisfying about holding the device between your fingers as it whirs into life, and there have been several moments where I’veย felt the addictive urge to spin it throughout the day.

However, I did not find it soothing from an anxiety perspective. In fact it actually really annoyed me when it would stop spinning and I would have to get the rotors spinning again! ๐Ÿ˜› I also found that it didn’t substitute as a calming “stim” and that I still reached to fidget with my necklace whilst I was using the Fidget Spinner!

That being said, autism is a spectrum where no two are alike. The Fidget Spinner may not work for me, but it could still be a nifty little tool to help manage ADHD and anxiety in another autist ๐Ÿ™‚

So by all means, go on! Give it a spin!! ๐Ÿ˜‰

(I have got to stop with these terrible puns… ๐Ÿ˜› )

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Aoife

Autism 101- ADHD

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to be talking a little bit about-

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Haha! Sorry about that! ๐Ÿ˜› Although fun story- genuinely stopped mid conversation to cry “SQUIRREL” when out with a friend recently! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Yes that’s right, today we’ll be talking about ADHD in autism- also known asย attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

ADHD is commonly diagnosed in autists (in the region of 29-83%), causing such difficulties as impulsiveness, over-activity and poor attention.

There are 3 main types of ADHD:

  • Inattentive ADHD (formerly known as ADD (attention deficit disorder))-ย This can manifest in a number of ways such as aย lack of attention to detail, losing things, organizational problems, making careless mistakes, having trouble completing tasks and struggling to sustain attention.
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD-ย Signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity include restlessness, excessive talking (Guilty!) fidgeting, interupting others, impulsive descisions and activities etc.
  • Combined Inattentive and Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD

Personally, I would have really mild combined ADHD tendencies. In addition to my sometimesย impulsive nature, I have a habit of zoning out of lessons and conversations, sometimes even films, books and TV shows for brief moments, completely lost in my own thoughts.

I can be pretty easily bored and distracted!

Half the time I’m not even aware of it happening. I could be reading a page in a book one minute, and suddenly find myself halfway down the next page, without any idea of what I was supposed to have taken in! Other times I find myself in a room in the house unsure as to why I came in as I hopped onto another train of thought mid action! I often have to repeat tasks over and over in my mind to ensure I don’t forget them.

My mind just completely wanders off…

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But somehow I’ve always managed to hide my inattention. It never really posed a problem at school. Teachers knew I was away with the fairies, but could never seem to catch me out when pressed! ๐Ÿ˜› I suppose my deductive skills must have learned to compensate for my temporary lapses in concentration! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Top Tip: Studies have suggested that playing video games may be beneficial to improving concentration in ADHD.

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Just because concentration can be a struggle however, does not mean that you can’t concentrate.

Interestingly, there occurs a concentration paradox in ADHD and autism known as hyperfocus- an intense form of concentration where you are completely absorbed by a task, something that I like to call “The Zone”. I’ll write a separate post on hyperfocus at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife’s Top Tip: Applying specialist interests to tasks can encourage concentration. Last year I was struggling to write an essay for college, I found an angle that allowed me to write about Eurovision and suddenly I couldn’t stop writing! ๐Ÿ™‚

In addition to my lapses in focus, I can also be a little bit hyperactive. Now, hyperactive doesn’t necessarily mean bouncing off the walls like a child high on sweets, it can also mean abnormally active.

I am quite a restless individual. On the outside, I may look like I’m staring at a wall, in my mind I could be designing a cake, a knitting project, writing a story or drafting a hypothesis. I once spent a train ride visualizing, staging and arranging a musical based on the music of My Chemical Romance!๐Ÿ˜‚

I always have this need to be productive, even if it’s as simple as building my trophy collection on the Playstation or binge watching a TV series.

My brain never turns off!

If I’m excited enough, I do bounce around the place on occasion too ๐Ÿ˜‰

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But what’s going on in the brain that interrupts our concentration?

It is not clear what exactly causes ADHD in the brain, but remember neurotransmitters? (Inside the Autistic Brain,ย Autism 101-Sensory Processing,ย Autism 101- Digestive Problems)

Most current models point to low levels of the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Noradrenaline. Pathways involving these chemical messengers project to the striatum and prefontal cortex of the brain- areas which are responsible for executive functionย (i.e. memory, planning, organization, behaviour control etc.). If these neurotransmitters are out of sync, this will have an effect on these functions. As neurotransmitters are also dysregulated in the autistic brain, this would explain why ADHD so commonly occurs in autism.

ADHD, like autism, can’t be cured, but it can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication in severe cases, however, the side effects of medical treatment for ADHD have been controversial, and long term usage studies have yet to be completed.

However, like autism, ADHD need not hold you back in life. Some of the most successful people in the world have ADHD, such as Sir Richard Branson, Justin Timberlake, Simone Biles, will.i.am, Russell Brand, Ryan Higa, Jamie Oliver, Jim Carrey and Solange Knowles ๐Ÿ™‚

So to conclude Earthlings-

Wait! What was I saying again?! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Have a good weekend guys!! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Soooo….driving…

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Wouldn’t be high on my list of favourite activities I’ll admit! ๐Ÿ˜› 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! ๐Ÿ˜› ) 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 ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.ย 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 shutdownย which made my sister think I had run the dog over I was so incoherent!! ๐Ÿ˜› ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย ย 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.ย 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

Having autism may initially make learning to drive difficult, however, you will get there in the end ๐Ÿ™‚ 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

Impulsivity and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In continuation from the previous post exploring curiosity and autism, today we’re going to take a look at impulse control in autists.

Many people with autism report issues with impulsivity.

All my life I’ve struggled with this issue. Too often I’ve felt like Didi in ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, dying to know what the button will do and being unable to keep myself from pushing it! ๐Ÿ˜›

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As a child I was highly impulsive. I never knew when to stop eating, would impulsively give up on a book halfway through in favour of another (at one point I had 9 books on the go!) ย and when overwhelmed I would often try to run away.

During one particularly interesting meltdown I began to impulsively throw all items that my mother had given me out of my bedroom window (which is a storey high I might add), whilst my sisters in the room below gleefully retrieved them, each determined to claim ownership…Clear example of black logic at work! ๐Ÿ˜›

So why do we struggle with impulsiveness?

Impulsivity in autism can be explained by deficits in what is known as executive functioning.

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Don’t worry- it’s not as complicated as it sounds! ๐Ÿ˜›

Executive functioning is simply a broad umbrella term referring to the mental processes involved in cognitive, physical and emotional self control. Examples of executive functions include planning, memory, cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt thinking to new and unexpected situations) and most importantly response inhibition– aka the ability to suppress unnecessary or inappropriate actions.

But what causes these deficits in executive functioning?

Many autists also suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), both of which have an effect on executive functioning and impulsivity. I’ll explore these disorders at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Experts believe that ASD’s share a common genetic basis with ADD and ADHD, indicating that genetic mutation may be at the heart of these deficits in executive functioning.

Impulse control can be quite challenging at times (it’s a real struggle not to run squealing to every single puppy I encounter for a cuddle! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) but as I always say, it is by no means a cause for despair.ย You will eventually learn control with time ๐Ÿ™‚

Granted I can still be quite impulsive at times- feeling the urge to curl up asleep on the floor like a dog in company (an urge I feel quite a lot! ๐Ÿ˜› ), wondering what it would feel like to step on hot ash/coals or wanting to draw designs all over my face with makeup; the difference being that now I am able to choose whether to ignore or act upon an impulse ๐Ÿ™‚

Well…for the most part! Still haven’t fully cracked compulsive eating…or maybe I just don’t want to! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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