Autism and Alexithymia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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

So what exactly is alexithymia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Accepting your Autism Diagnosis

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

To kick off the new year I’m going to expand a little bit on something I’ve touched on briefly in the past- coming to terms with your autism diagnosis.

As I’ve stated many times, getting my Asperger’s diagnosis was one of the best things that could have happened to me. Two little words clarified a lifetime of questioning, confusion and misunderstanding.

My entire life finally began to make sense.

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Whilst this diagnosis was indeed a welcome one (in spite of the way my diagnosis was sprung on me 😛 ), I struggled to come to terms with it for some time afterwards. As an adult, the diagnosis shouldn’t have changed anything- Asperger’s syndrome explains me, but it does not define me.

However, just because the shoe fits does not mean that you will break it in overnight.

Logically, there was no issue in being diagnosed; the emotional aspect on the other hand was much tougher.

Getting my diagnosis was like seeing myself for the first time in a mirror. It felt like I had made a revolutionary discovery, and yet  somehow, I was ill at ease. The more I read about Asperger’s, the more self conscious I became of my mannerisms and behaviours. I was hyper-aware of everything that I did.

I knew and accepted that Asperger’s didn’t define me, however, I felt compelled to define it. I talked about Asperger’s incessantly possessed by the niggling urge to explain every single thing I did for fear of being misunderstood. As a friend recently told me, she barely knew my name before I had filled her in about my diagnosis! 😂

There were times when I felt as though I were beginning to disappear behind the smokescreen of the diagnosis, constantly questioning what was me and what was just Asperger’s.

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It took me over two years to learn to fully relax and embrace my diagnosis- somewhere along the way it just clicked. I no longer feel this need to go on about it. Indeed, there are times when I want to talk about it (for example in this blog), but I am also perfectly content to keep people guessing 😉

Asperger’s is a big part of my life, but it’s not the whole picture 🙂

Here’s just a couple of things that helped me on my journey towards acceptance:

  • Talk about it– Real original- I know, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!
  • Try CBT– Now I know that I’ve said CBT wasn’t particularly useful for me from a management perspective, buuuuuut cognitive behavioural therapy did help to increase my knowledge of autism and better understand who and why I am 🙂
  • Write it out– I know I’ve said it before, but writing can be so cathartic. It really helps to verbalize what you can’t describe, especially if you have alexithymia. My laptop is full of mini essays from deflating my overly full skull at 3am! 😛
  • Read – Whilst this may have partially fueled my hyper-analysis, it also allowed me to better understand and accept myself. The more I learned, the easier it was to accept and embrace my quirks. Just maybe steer away from some of the novelizations of autism- these don’t always paint the most realistic of pictures 😛

Learning to accept an autism diagnosis (as cheesy as it sounds) is a journey. There may be twists and turns and many a speed bump along the way, but you will one day reach your destination 🙂

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Aoife

 

Aoife’s Top Songs for Emotional Processing

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to do something a little bit different and discuss with you some of the songs that I often find helpful for emotional processing.

Many autists struggle with alexithymia, (or an inability to identify emotions), which can make emotional processing challenging at times. How can you process anger for example, if you don’t even realize that you’re angry?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts (Autism and MusicAutism 101- Meltdowns), in my experience, music can play a very important role in helping  me to navigate and process my emotions. I may not be able to identify the emotion, but the right song can unlock and free my mind.

Now, I have amassed quite a large collection of go-to songs, albums and artists in times of need, all of which I can’t include in a single blog post, but for the purposes of this post I’ll tell you about some of my favourites 🙂

Jimmy Eat World- Futures (2004)

Futures‘, one of my top 3 favourite albums (which was interestingly given to me by a friend who was also diagnosed with AS as an adult!), is rife with lyrical inspiration. In times of muddled emotions I often find myself reaching for this album to verbalize and unlock my feelings so that I can find my way through the fog.

You can listen to (most of) the full album in the playlist below:

^^^copyright laws are making it much harder to track down albums on YouTube! 🙇

Their song ‘The Middle’ on their previous album ‘Bleed American (2001)‘ is also a great one for those days when you’re feeling lost and a little outcast from your neurotypical peers 🙂

Linkin Park- Meteora (2003)

RIP Chester Bennington! 😥

Taken too young, but your music shall endure.

During some dark and difficult times as a teenager, your lyrics were there for me in a very powerful way. I must have listened to ‘Meteora’ every day after school when I was 16. The lyrics expressed in this album verbalized the storm of emotions I was experiencing better than I could ever convey. Struggles with identity, bullying, feelings of depression- this album beautifully expressed in words the emotions that I could not make sense of and helped me through the darkness.

I also found the music of Nirvana to be quite effective in unlocking some of my more complex emotions.

The Gift- Seether (Karma and Effect, 2005)

Seether are my all time favourite band. I could write an entire post on the music of Seether alone- who knows maybe I will one day! 🙂 The music is heavy, but their lyrics are powerful! The 2011 album ‘Holding onto Strings Better Left to Fray’ got me through the grief of losing my dog to cancer (rather ironic given the title! 😛 ). Seether are often my first port of call when I’m struggling to process my feelings. ‘The Gift‘ in particular has always held a special place in my heart.

Other songs I find useful by Seether include Here and Now (try find the deconstructed version- just beautiful!), Breakdown, Rise Above This, Sympathetic and Tongue.

Foo Figthers- Walk (Wasting Light, 2011)

Man I love this song! 😀 One of my favorite memories is headbanging to this song in the rain at Slane Castle 2 years ago, just letting go of all my problems without a care in world! 🙂

Learning to walk again!

That’s exactly how it felt in the wake of my diagnosis.

The Foo Fighter’s have some great songs like this for emotional processing in their discography 🙂

The Kill (Bury Me)- 30 Seconds to Mars (A Beautiful Lie, 2005)

Don’t let the title fool you! As Jared Leto once said, “don’t be scared! It’s a nice song- about losing your mind.” Perfectly poignant for those days when you’re melting down! If you need something a little calmer, look up the acoustic version of this song- it’s amazing!

A Beautiful Lie‘ is a great album in general for emotional processing in my experience 🙂

Second Chance- Shinedown (Sound of Madness, 2008)

Again, like Seether, Shinedown have a lot to offer in their lyrics. I’ve been turning a lot to their music these past 3 years as I’ve been processing my diagnosis and found it to be quite therapeutic 🙂

I realize that many of these songs come from the alternative side of the musical spectrum, however, I do occasionally listen to music that falls outside of this genre 😛

A Window to the Past- John Williams (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Soundtrack, 2004)

Oh no- she’s off on the Harry Potter wagon again! 😛

OK! I know- buutttt, you cannot deny the genius that is renowned score composer John Williams! Without him we would not have the Star Wars theme, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurrasic Park and everyone’s favourite Jaws!

Dun- dun…dun- dun.... 😉

On the third Harry Potter soundtrack there exists a song of pure magic (see what I did there 🙂 😉 ). Whilst the song is entirely instrumental, this beautiful piece is filled with emotion and has helped to calm many a storm within my mind 🙂

I’d tell you about a few more of the songs I find soothing outside of rock and roll, buuuttt as much as I like to tell you about my life in this blog, I don’t think I’m comfortable revealing some of my guilty pleasures quite so publicly (Yep, they are that bad! 😛 😉 )

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There we have it Earthlings! A brief insight into the contents of my ipod. I could go on for ages, but it’s better if I give you the highlights for now. So many bands, so little time!

If I have time I’ll circle back to this subject at a later stage with more music recommendations for autism management 🙂

Have a good weekend everyone!

Aoife

Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to be exploring the benefits of music for people with autism.

We all know that feeling we get when we listen to our favourite songs- the rush, the rippling chills, the feeling that the music is physically running up and down your spine.

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But what if I told you that music can do so much more than just entertain us?

Research has shown that music therapy can greatly benefit people with autism by helping to improve social behaviours and interactions, focus and attention, coordination and spatial awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Music therapists aim to improve the wellbeing of their patients through music by encouraging singing, listening to, moving to and discussing music among other actions.

So how does music benefit the brain in this way?

The simple act of learning to play an instrument can greatly improve brain processing, fine motor skills and non-verbal reasoning skills. Interestingly, physical changes are taking place in your brain when you learn to play an instrument. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) can grow thinner in certain regions which can lead to such issues as anxiety, depression and attention difficulties. Evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument however thickens the cortex in areas associated with emotional processing, executive functioning, and impulse control– functions that are affected in many people on the spectrum.

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Studies have also shown that the vibration of music can help to stimulate and improve brain and muscle function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a role in the brains response to music. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, dopamine regulates emotions and mood. Researchers have found that music encourages dopamine release and positive mood changes, whereas noise exposure negatively impacts mood. As dopamine levels are out of sync in people with autism, music could really help our brains to better control mood swings and improve emotional processing.

In my own life, music has been highly beneficial to help process my emotions.

I have had a lifelong passion for music. The riffs, the vocals, the lyrics- there’s nothing quite like it! Music has always held a special place in my heart, but especially the lyrics from my favourite songs.

As I’ve discussed previously, many autists struggle to identify and/or describe what they are feeling, a condition known as alexithymia (from the Greek meaning “no words for mood“). Many years ago, long before my diagnosis, in times of strife I found myself intensely drawn to music. The lyrics soothed my soul and calmed my mind allowing me to process the storm of emotion passing through. Whenever I could not make sense of my emotions, I could always find a song that would verbalize my struggles, and after a time, everything became a little clearer 🙂

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There we have it Earthlings! We’ve all felt the power of music, and the science shows it’s potential.

So grab your ipod and dust off your guitar this bank holiday weekend- your brain will thank you! 😉

Aoife

Discussion: Love and Romance

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from my previous post, today I’m going to expand a little bit more on the social problems autists experience in romantic situations.

We’ve already explored some science on the subject, so now I’m going to try and clue you in a little bit on what it’s like inside my head 🙂

As a person with autism, my life is often governed by rules- don’t tell lies, never go over the speed limit, don’t put raisins in a scone (a serious crime against cake! 😛 )!

Hence when it comes to socializing, things start to get tricky. Even trickier in matters of the heart. Rules exist when it comes to love, but these rules are in a constant state of flux- and I just can’t seem to keep up! 😛

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Social rules are a cornucopia of contradictions- a source of constant frustration for the black and white autistic mind.

Opposite’s attract, but birds of a feather flock together. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is also out of mind. Treat them mean to keep them keen,  but do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It’s enough to make your brain explode!

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The majority of autistic people want to love and be loved as much as anyone else, however, when the goalposts keep moving and the game keeps changing, it can be extremely difficult to navigate the battlefield of love.

Growing up, love always seemed so easy on screen. Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out on a date- both know where they stand and so relationships blossom.

Easy peasy right?

Wrong! 😛

Boy was I in for a shock when I got smacked with the reality stick! I was in no way prepared for the games that teenage boys play with your mind and heart.

Wide eyed and innocent, I believed the boys who said they fancied me, I believed the so called friends who encouraged me- but all along I was being set up for a fall. It was all just a game to mess with the weirdo who’d never been kissed, and I never saw it coming.

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In hindsight when I see pictures of my atrocious hair cut at the time, I really should have seen through them! 😛

I was in for an even bigger reality check when it came to night’s out.

People grabbing you on the dance floor, stinking of booze and cigarettes, expecting you to just fall into their arms! Whatever happened to chat up lines, buying someone a drink, or even just learning their name? I struggle with things as innocent as hugs, how was I meant to cope with this invasion of space, not to mention the sensory fallout?!

This wasn’t the path to romance, this was carnage! 😛

If you are one of the lucky few who can get past this awkward stage to forge a real connection, communicating one’s feelings can be a real struggle for an autist. Saying the words ‘I love you’, even to family members, does not come naturally for me. I can tell my dogs I love them a thousand times a day, but ask me to say it to my parents and I freeze. It’s not that I don’t love them, I just can’t seem to get the words out…

Advice for family and significant others (SO): Don’t take this struggle personally. Your child/SO does really care about you, they just struggle to show it 🙂

Psychologists are of the opinion that we don’t see a need to repeatedly tell people that we love them, and hence we don’t say the words. Personally, I’m not sure that I’d agree with this explanation. I do want to say the words, they just won’t come out. In their absence, I’ve learned to do what I can through action to show people I care- a cake or a knitted present say more than I ever could 🙂

When it comes to romantic situations, this struggle for words is multiplied tenfold! With so many conflicting rules about showing affection or revealing your feelings, as with empathy, sometimes it’s easier to stay silent. I weigh up all the options, assess every social rule, turn myself upside down and inside out over my feelings- and then do absolutely NOTHING about it by default! 😛 Painful as it is, sometimes it just feels like the easiest option. There’s no drama, no outright rejections, no awkward moments…but also no requited love! As a result, I’ve landed myself in the friend-zone more times than I can count! 😛

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Over the years I’ve become a little more assertive in this regard. I eventually work up some bit of courage to communicate my emotions, but it’s still a real struggle to get there. I frequently undergo these periods of hyper-analysis prior to opening my mouth!

Advice for SO’s/potential SO’s: Be direct and let us know how you feel. We can’t read between the lines, we struggle to comprehend the rules of love and fathom the games- the direct approach is the way to go. The object of your affections may seem aloof, but they might simply not know how to act on their emotions. Just ask them out- their answer may surprise you 🙂

If my future husband happens to be reading this- when you meet me, no games please! 😛 😉

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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! 🙂

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Aoife

Discussion-Emotions and Empathy

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most prominent stereotypes for people with autism- that we don’t feel emotion.

We struggle to empathize, and as such, we are often perceived to be emotionless robots.

Nothing could be further from the tru-

Kill….Aoife must KILL…!’

So sorry about that… I don’t know what just happened! Now where was I?

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Ah yes- murder…I mean emotions! 😉

The notion that autists are incapable of experiencing or showing emotion is entirely false.

In reality we feel too much, so much in fact that we have difficulty processing what we are feeling.

When I’m feeling something, I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by the emotion. Where a normal person may demonstrate no physical response to their feelings, I will likely dissolve into tears.

This may sound normal enough in certain emotional situations…but not for all!

Exhausted? Tears!

Frustrated by maths homework? Tears!

Holding a puppy? Tears!

Just hearing the Disney overture? Tears!!!

The smallest of emotions can completely trigger the waterworks because I simply feel the emotion on a much greater scale. Going to musicals can be a real problem- from the moment I hear the first note I have to catch my breath and swallow hard to keep the floods at bay! 😛

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As you can imagine, I’ve spent much of my life as a blubbering mess, but you gradually learn to get a better grip on your emotions 🙂

This past year in particular must be a new record for ‘least amount of time spent crying for no good reason in public‘! 😛 😉

Advice for friends and family: While this behavior is normal, try not to be too dismissive of it. With this emotional hypersensitivity can come a lot of mental anguish. I was branded a drama queen so often that when I was genuinely suffering, very few noticed.

In addition to emotional processing, autists can often struggle to identify and/or describe the emotion that they are feeling.

This is known as alexithymia.

You find yourself gripped by emotion, knowing that you feel something but haven’t the slightest clue what that something is! It can take days, months, sometimes even years to pinpoint what the emotion is in my experience.

Alexithymia makes it difficult for us to not only identify or describe our own emotions, but also to distinguish and appreciate the emotions of others. This is why we often struggle to show empathy. We are not incapable of empathy (scientists have found our emphatic response to equal that of normal peers in areas of moral dilemma, showing even greater responses at the thought of harming others), but we find it hard to correlate your emotions with our own.

For me personally, I often find that in order for me to effectively empathize, I must have firsthand experience of the emotion.

Certainly this has been my experience with grief.

Growing up, I was quite fortunate in that I didn’t lose anyone close to me. As a result, I never really understood how to show empathy or relate to someone going through this experience. Sure I had been to my fair share of funerals, but I never had to interact with mourners.

This caused a lot of problems as a teenager at school…

Tragedy struck, and I did not respond appropriately. I didn’t know the parties involved and as such I carried on as normal with my schoolwork, much to the chagrin of my peers. I knew that the situation was sad yes, but I felt no impact. To my mind I saw no reason to stop the world.

I was branded heartless and widely criticized by teachers and pupils alike, all because I simply couldn’t understand what I had never felt.

It took the death of my dog Oscar to help me appreciate how others felt. For much of my teenage years, I felt as though he were my only real friend, so naturally I was devastated when he died.

Okay, I know he wasn’t human, but that didn’t diminish my experience of grief.

Now when I see other’s grieving, I struggle not to cry to seeing them in pain. Even watching old films from my childhood that never made me cry in the past now leave me in floods of emphatic tears!!

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But even with this newfound understanding, I still struggle to convey empathy.

I can see that you’re upset, but I’m never sure of what the appropriate response should be. Do I hug you, hold your hand, touch your arm etc.? One person may want me to hold their hand, another could shove me if I try to comfort them in the same way.

It’s extremely confusing!

I want nothing more than to take your pain away, but I just never know how to show you that.

Sometimes it’s just easier to do nothing rather than the wrong thing.

We may appear cold and aloof, but it’s a very different story on the inside (like a reverse baked Alaska! 😛 ).

Proof if ever there was that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover! 😉

Aoife

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