Autism and Epilepsy

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Following on from last weeks post about CBD/medical marijuana and autism, this week I’d like to take a closer look at epilepsy, a neurological condition that is often co-morbid with autism. In fact, some reports suggest that as many as half of people with autism also suffer with some form of epilepsy! 😲

So what exactly is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by abnormal electrical activity along the neurons in the cortex of the brain. In the brain, neurons are usually activated in order along the nerve as messages travel from one point to another- in other words, only one nerve cell at a time is activated. Think of nerve cells like a chain of people passing a note along- only one person will hold the note at a given time. During an epileptic seizure however, the nerves fire excessively and abnormally all at the same time. The exact mechanism is unclear, but evidence suggests that changes in the membrane of nerve cells or dysfunction in inhibitory brain cells may cause symptoms.

Here’s a handy video from ‘The Doctors‘ that talks through some of the common types of seizures:

But how is it linked with autism?

Researchers are unclear as of yet if epilepsy is a consequence of autism or a contributory factor in developing it, however, both autism and epilepsy share common genetic roots. Some studies have found that there is a lot of overlap between the genes implicated in both conditions, where mutations in these genes (such as SCN2A and HNRNPU genes) give rise to symptoms.

The main theory behind their overlap is that they stem from similar biological mechanisms wherein both conditions are caused by alterations and imbalances in excitation and inhibition of nerve activity in the brain.

If you want to do some more reading about how epilepsy manifests in autism and how to manage it, here’s a useful link: https://www.epilepsy.ie/content/epilepsy-and-autism

873 Epilepsy Illustrations, Royalty-Free Vector Graphics & Clip Art - iStock

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend,

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Backstreet Dreams

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about the representation of autism in the 1990 drama film ‘Backstreet Dreams‘ starring a young Brookie Shields and Jason O’Malley.

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So what’s the film about?

The story follows a young hoodlum named Dean as he navigates fatherhood. Things become complicated when Dean’s son Shane get’s diagnosed with autism, causing his marriage to fall apart, and making Dean a single father. With the help of Shane’s therapist Stevie, Dean forms a connection with his son, finding the strength to leave his backstreet activities behind him.

You can check out a trailer for the film here:

So how did this film fare in it’s portrayal of autism?

Filmed in 1990, this was one of the earlier film portrayals of autism, and as such is very stereotyped in the autistic traits discussed. There’s a lot of mono-tonal speech, lack of eye contact, repetitive behaviours and stimming so nothing really out of the ordinary in this film. That being said, for a child actor in a role this young, it’s tricky to accurately depict the realities of autism unless the actor is themselves autistic. The story also tended to focus more on the impact of autism for Dean rather than Shane, which further distracted from the issue.

Cineplex.com | Movie

On the other hand, it was heartening to see the impact that appropriate interventions and support were having on Shane’s development, something that wasn’t always highlighted in these early films featuring autism. Most early films focus on accepting autism or how burdensome the condition can be, but this film showed a turning point in how it’s not all doom and gloom, and how proper interventions can really improve symptoms and outcomes for autists.

All in all, it was a fairly poor offering both in terms of autism and cinema, but by all means give it a go if you think you might like it!

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in ‘The Rosie Effect’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

True to my word, this week I’m going to discuss the representation of autism in the sequel to ‘The Rosie Project‘, the 2014 novel ‘The Rosie Effect‘ by Graeme Simsion.

So what’s the sequel about?

The Rosie Effect‘ picks up where we left Rosie and Don, now a year into marital bliss, having moved to New York for Rosie’s studies. Having found love and marriage, Don now faces an impending new edition to his family. The story focuses in on Don on his journey towards fatherhood (lovingly referred to as “The Baby Project”) as he tries to come to terms with this massive change to his life in his own unique way.

You can check out an interview with Graeme talking about the about the sequel here:

So how does the sequel fare in it’s representation of autism?

Similar to it’s predecessor, the book continues to deliver in it’s portrayal of autism, focusing in the minutia of the condition through Don’s everyday life in his quirks, routines, mind blindness and blunt manner. Whilst again, Don does not identify as autistic/is not diagnosed as such in the book, there is a heavier, less subtle inference that Don has Asperger’s Syndrome from those around him.

This book is particularly interesting in that it focuses on the impact of married life and impending fatherhood for Don, aspects of life that are often overlooked when talking about autists. Too often in fictional accounts of autism (not to mention the real world) do we focus on the “disability” and not on the person, and so the world rarely sees that adult autists can live “normal” and happy lives.

What I enjoyed most about the book however, was that through the first person narrative, we really got an insight into the workings of Don’s mind, illustrating how often autists intentions are misconstrued, however noble. You get to see his complete thought process, showing us a character who is kind and compassionate, and watch in horror as those around him pick him up completely wrong. This really resonated with me, as like Don, all too often the world misunderstands my way of thinking, oftentimes with disastrous consequences 😞

Fun Fact– I’ve recently discovered that there’s an official Twitter account (see below) for Don tweeting out amusing Don-isms, so if you’ve read the books I’d highly recommend following him! πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings- I highly recommend this book, it’s a great way to pass those second lockdown hours πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Ageing

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

As I am approaching a new decade in the coming days (eep!), this week I’d like to explore the topic of autism and ageing.

For the most part when talking or reading about autism, children with autism are the focus, but what happens when the child grows up? Autism is a lifelong condition, it doesn’t just magically go away once you’ve turned 18! Sadly, it is around this time that many services are taken away from autists and we “age out” of the system.

So what happens now? What do we know about ageing and autism?

As autism is still a relatively young diagnosis, there is limited data about about the impact ageing has on an autist. The first autists were diagnosed in the 1940’s, so the long term data is only now starting to emerge. So what does it indicate?

The data so far is a little bit mixed about outcomes for autistic adults. Some studies indicate that autism improves over time, but many of these have focused on outcomes for younger autists, all of whom were diagnosed and received interventions during their developing years.

Other studies indicate that autism in fact get’s worse with age where features such as communication, flexible thinking and social awkwardness become more severe over time. This study however focused purely on adults with autism, most of whom received their diagnoses later in life, so it’s hard to predict if their outcomes would have improved with age had they received support and useful interventions at an earlier age.

These studies also fail to take into the account the outcomes of the “lost generation” of autistic adults in the world, walking through life as I did, knowing something wasn’t quite right about me, but unable to put my finger on it.

Speaking from my own experience of autism over the last 30 years, my outcomes have improved dramatically over time. In particular, things have most improved in the years since receiving my diagnosis, as I now finally understand myself, and have been able to adjust my lifestyle accordingly πŸ™‚

On a slightly more morbid note, recent studies have indicated that autists have a shorter life expectancy than neurotypicals (18 years younger!😱 ), as we are at higher risk for accidents, cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and mental health issues!

However, the risk may be indirect correlating to our tendency towards maladaptive behaviours and lifestyles, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it if you’re keeping on top of your health and fitness πŸ™‚

Finally, age has also been implicated as a factor in the risk of developing autism. Multiple studies have shown that there is a correlation between parental age and autistic risk i.e the older you are, the greater the risk that your child may be autistic.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this though- we’re not so bad πŸ˜› πŸ™ƒ

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Temperature

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

With the summer drawing to a close, this week I’d like to talk about thermosensitivity and autism.

As I’ve discussed on multiple occasions, autists’ are very sensitive to sensory stimuli, so it should come as no surprise that autists have different reactions to temperature versus their neurotypical peers.

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In my experience, I have found that I can be sensitive to higher or lower than average temperatures. I’m a bit like Goldilocks- I don’t like to be too hot, don’t like to be too cold, but I do like a nice moderate temperature (which is why Ireland suits me so well I suppose!πŸ˜‚). If the temperature starts to drift in either direction away from my comfort zone, I tend to get quite irritable and my masking abilities are impacted by the distracting temperature change. I may have gotten some weird looks from some girls a few rows in front of me at a Paramore concert once as my voice started to get higher, shout-y and more strangled from the frustration of sitting beneath a freezing vent while waiting on the band 😬

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I’m also more likely to have a meltdown if other buttons are pushed while dealing with temperature fluctuations, particularly where hotter temperatures are concerned-needless to say, I’m not a fan of sun holidays and dread to think what menopause may bring for me in the future! πŸ˜›

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I’m even quite picky when it comes to the temperature of food, being unable to stomach some foods under certain temperatures. For example, I’m a real carnivore, but if the meat is cold I can’t stomach it; similarly, hot drinks are an uncomfortable sensory experience, so even though I like the taste of hot chocolate, I won’t drink it!
Like me, many autists are quite thermosensitive, and find fluctuations in their surrounding temperature to be an overwhelming experience. On the other hand, several autists have also reported temperature insensitivity or an indifference to thermal stimuli.

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So what has the science to say?

The literature is a little contradictory when it comes to thermosensitivity. A 2015 study found that children with autism had a lower perceptual threshold for detection of hot and cold temperatures, indicating decreased temperature sensitivity and perception in certain brain regions. This was thought to be related to cognitive impairments and deficits in attention, so it could be that some autists are more distracted by other stimuli to notice temperature fluctuations. However, a more recent 2019 study found that there appeared to be no differences in temperature perception between autists and neurotypicals, concluding that temperature perception was entirely individual to the autist- which makes a lot of sense given the vastness of the spectrum.

On another scientific note entirely, research suggests that autistic behaviours are positively impacted by elevated body temperature. Multiple studies have noted that when an autist has a fever, many of their negative behaviours (such as irritability, hyperactivity, repetitive behaviours etc.) improve, but return to normal post-recovery. The reason for this remains unclear, however, one such theory cites the impact of temperature on neural circuits where it can either enhance or suppress brain activity in certain regions. This seems quite likely given that autists brains have an excess number of brain connections and increased neurochemical activity compared with neurotypicals, factors which heavily contribute to autistic behaviours. Brain activity might also be impacted by certain chemicals produced by our immune system to fight infection during a fever.

Perhaps it might be worth exploring the severity of autism between autists who live in hotter or colder climates to see if an increase in surrounding temperature could help manage autistic symptoms.

All in all it would seem that temperature response, like autistic traits, is entirely individual to the autist πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in ‘The Rosie Project’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a book that was recommended to me by several people around the time of my diagnosis (most notably by my grandmother, the name pressed into my hand on a folded piece of notepaper as if my diagnosis were a state secret!πŸ˜‚)- Graeme Simsion’s ‘The Rosie Project.’

You reading group: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion | Daily ...

The Rosie Project‘ tells the story of Don Tillman, a genetics professor that struggles with social interaction, who creates a questionnaire to determine the suitability of potential female romantic interests (something that he calls ‘The Wife Project’). In the process, he meets Rosie, a completely “unsuitable” candidate with whom he strikes up a friendship, helping her to track down her biological father (“The Father Project”), and falling in love along the way.

Fun fact about the book- a former colleague of the author did in fact create a “Wife Project” questionnaire just like Don (however, as far as he knows this worker was never diagnosed as autistic)!

You can find a trailer of sorts from the author here where he talks about the book and the challenges of translating it for other countries:

 

It’s an endearing, unconventional love story, but how does it’s depiction of autism fare?

Unlike ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘, the book was never explicitly linked to autism in the blurbs, however, many agree that Don is on the spectrum. His logical thinking, strict routines, social awkwardness, his intellect (here we go again πŸ™„) and struggles with emotions are highly indicative of Asperger’s syndrome, albeit somewhat stereotyped traits. Moreover, Asperger’s and it’s symptoms are directly discussed by Don multiple times throughout the book, but Don never explicitly reveals whether or not he has been diagnosed with it- a clever move by the author as it infers the diagnosis, without accountability for any potential misrepresentation.

Graeme Simsion completes his mega-selling Rosie trilogy

Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β Author Graeme Simsion in 2019

Nevertheless, the book delivers the highly positive message that autists are not just capable of love, but of also being loved in return- and by neurotypicals no less (shock, horror! πŸ˜› ), and I would highly recommend a read of it πŸ™‚ .

In preparation for this post, I recently discovered that this book is part of a trilogy, so I will definitely be checking these out and will write about them in the near future.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Love on the Spectrum

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss an Australian documentary series that I recently watched on Netflix called ‘Love on the Spectrum‘.

Love On The Spectrum - ABC and SBS - Media Spy

So what’s it about?

As the title suggests, the documentary follows several young adults on the autistic spectrum as they look for love, many venturing into the world of dating for the first time. The show also features some recently engaged autistic couples discussing their experiences of love on the spectrum.

You can see a trailer for the series here:

So what did I think of the series?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, the path to love isn’t always the easiest for an autist. The search for love can be difficult enough for neurotypicals, but throw in sensory issues, social awkwardness, mind blindness and difficulty reading social cues however, and dating becomes a lot more complicated. The show-creator’s did a great job of accurately conveying these struggles to the public. Too often we’re told “if you made more of an effort”, “if you did this, said that etc.” you would have no problems finding love, but the reality is far more complicated.

It was heartening to see my fellow autists putting themselves out there, taking a chance on finding love when so many deem us “unlovable”. While some autists are content with the single life, the vast majority of us want to find love, so it was great to see this stereotype blasted by the show.

love on the spectrum northern pictures

On the other hand, I did feel a little ill at ease with the documentary at times. Dating can be extremely stressful, and I often felt that the ever present camera crews may have made the experience more difficult than it had to be. I know if it were me, the combination of first date awkwardness and the knowledge that my every move was being recorded (and judged) would have made me very uncomfortable. There was a lot of hovering during the dates, and I felt that producers weren’t as sensitive as they could have been to the needs of their subjects- it just felt like there was a real lack of emotional intelligence on their part (which is ironic given how many neurotypicals have told me I need to work on mine πŸ˜› ).

I also felt it was a little bit odd that the producers only sought to set up the autists with other autists, or with other people who also had some form of intellectual disability. Many autists find love with neurotypicals, so why not feature them in the dating pool? I understand that for many on the spectrum it can be easier to date a fellow autist, especially given that they might better understand you, but for me the documentary just gave off the vibe that autists should only date “their own kind.” Perhaps if future seasons are planned, it would be useful to set up dates with greater neurodiversity, like in the British TV series ‘The Undateables.

All in all however, this quirky series was a delight to watch for the characters alone- it was so nice to just see these autists bouncing around, completely comfortable just being themselves. We could all learn a lot from them πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Face Masks

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from my recent post about autism and COVID-19, I’d like to focus in on the issue of face coverings and autism.

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With the debate raging in the media as to the true efficacy of face masks, there has been little discussion as to the impact that face coverings may have for autists. Face masks are not fun for anyone (except for maybe playing dress up), but for autists, they can pose a serious sensory challenge. Overheating, irritating materials against sensitive skin, the uncomfortable sensation of elastic bearing down on your ears, and last but not least, the feeling of suffocation from the mask pressing against your nose and mouth.

Thankfully in many countries such as Ireland, guidelines have been issued for people with sensory needs that do not require them to wear a face mask if they are unable to do so, however, if you can, it is recommended that you should. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen viral videos of anxious people berating those who do not wear face coverings, which can further compound anxieties for autists should they be targeted.Β  In these difficult times, whilst I know it can be hard not to judge people when they don’t wear a face mask in public spaces, try to spare a thought for autists. Autism is an invisible disability after all; when you don’t see a mask, consider what else you may not be seeing.

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It is also worth noting that face masks can create further issues for autists as they act as a communication barrier. As autists struggle to read nonverbal cues and facial expressions, wearing a face mask can make communicating all the more difficult- especially given struggles with eye contact. So don’t judge us too harshly if we completely misread social situations with greater frequency than normal πŸ˜‰

Interestingly, in my own experience, I have discovered that face masks have an unexpected advantage in that they have actually helped to suppress meltdowns and have kept me from getting overwhelmed! When you hyperventilate (as I often do during a meltdown), the carbon dioxide levels in your blood drop as you are over-breathing. This can also cause your oxygen levels to drop. The restrictive nature of the mask creates a seal around the face causing you to inhale more carbon dioxide when you hyperventilate which will help to re-balance your blood gas levels and calm you down- just like breathing into a paper bag.

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So ironically whilst the face mask may trigger a meltdown, it can equally help to offset one! πŸ˜‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a nice weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Weather

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week, I’d like to delve into an somewhat unusual subject- how weather impacts people with autism.

I know what you’re thinking, she’s run out of things to say so she’s falling back on Ireland’s favourite topic of conversation πŸ˜›

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Joking aside, while this might seem like a silly topic, weather can have a surprisingly significant effect on autists both psychologically and physiologically. Coping with the sensory impact of extreme weather conditions, the lack of predictability and issues with change, and routine disruptions surrounding seasonal weather transitions can all be overwhelming. Something so simple as an unexpected shower or a really hot day could potentially trigger a meltdown (have certainly come to the brink myself when I’ve been overheated on occasion- although granted this was often coupled with hunger or exhaustion πŸ˜› ).

Thankfully, a life spent living in the highly unpredictable Irish climate where one often experiences all four seasons in a single day has made me immune to most fluctuations, but for many others the weather poses daily challenges.

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Sensory issues aside, many studies have noted some behavioural changes in autists under certain weather conditions. Research has found that autists are particularly susceptible to drops in atmospheric/barometric pressure i.e. the weight of air pressing down on us from the earth’s atmosphere. When pressure is high, we have dry, sunny weather; when pressure is low, rain and dark clouds. This drop in pressure results in a drop in blood oxygen levels. Consequently, the body adjusts heart rate and blood pressure to adapt to these changes which can interfere with brain activity. This often leads to mood swings, increased impulsivity and autists are more likely to indulge in destructive behaviours (especially for those with ADHD).

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In addition to this, if you’re anything like me, drops in barometric pressure may also make you very sleepy and sluggish due to the fluctuations in brain oxygen levels (nice to know why taking naps has become somewhat of a pastime in recent weeks staring up at a perpetually wet and grey sky πŸ˜› ).

There’s no clear reason why low pressure impacts autists more than neurotypicals, but given that our brains are wired differently, pressure related fluctuations in brain activity are bound to have more of an impact. Moreover, given the impact of deep pressure stimulation and it’s calming effect on the autistic nervous system, perhaps this could explain why our brains go a little bit crazy in response to drops in atmospheric pressure.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a book that I’ve been meaning to discuss for quite some time- ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘ by Mark Haddon.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Scholastic Shop

If you haven’t read the book (or seen the stage adaptation), ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time‘ is a mystery novel, centering on a teenager named Christopher as he investigates the murder of his neighbours’ dog Wellington. Christopher describes himself as a “mathematician with some behavioural difficulties”. Whilst Christopher does not discuss a specific diagnosis, the book’s blurb refers to Asperger’s, Autism and savantism and is often considered one of the most popular novels featuring autism. Interestingly, Mark Haddon only did some cursory reading about Asperger’s in preparation for the novel as he did not want to put Christopher in any particular box given the broadness of the spectrum. He has even said in interviews that he now regrets that Asperger’s was mentioned on the cover of the book and subsequent editions as he regularly get’s calls from people who perceive him as an expert and would like him to give talks about Asperger’s.

With this in mind, how close to the mark is the books depiction of autism?Review: The Walnut's engrossing 'Curious Incident' - WHYY

The book hits a lot of the common autistic traits dead on with literal thinking, mind blindness, sensory issues, struggles with social cues, colour sensitivities, and one of my personal favourites, Christopher’s tendency to separate foods on his plate. As I have discussed previously, I vividly recall reading about Christopher arranging his food so that it didn’t touch on his plate, and remarked to myself about how much that sounded like me, but laughed it off as it was the only trait I identified with in this book! Who would have known that 10 years after I first read that story, I would find myself getting an autism diagnosis! πŸ˜›

To this day, there is one thing that has always plagued me about this book (which is saying something given that it’s been about 15 or 16 years since I read it!), and that is the way that Christopher speaks/writes. His tone of writing was very simplistic, which from a literary and character point of view was a useful approach to take, however, Christopher’s use of language didn’t really add up from an Asperger’s perspective.

A line that I have never forgotten (as it irked me soooo much from a grammatical perspective), was Christopher’s reference to people as “doing sex” not “having sex” (and the phrase was used multiple times). This poor use of English wouldn’t generally be accurate for people with Asperger’s as one of the most common traits is an unusual tendency towards more formalized and sophisticated language, often from a really young age. This is why aspies were nicknamed “little professors” in early research. The vast majority of aspies are quite verbacious (you may have noticed my own proclivity towards the use of big words in many of my posts πŸ˜‰ ), so Christopher’s self narrated exploits in the book don’t exactly equate to how a real life aspie might narrate their story.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is returning to ...

I was further irritated by Christopher’s mathematical and savant like traits (so many autists out there just once would like to see someone that’s terrible at maths in a literary/film setting!), however, in light of the fact that Mark Haddon based this character on two people that he knew and had set out to make his character a mathematician without Asperger’s fully in mind, I suppose the book could be forgiven for taking artistic (or should I say “autistic”) licence.

Moreover, several medical professionals that have reviewed the book have praised it highly and deemed it an essential read for anyone with an interest in the autistic spectrum. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me!

All in all, the book is worth a read, and a surprisingly good depiction of autism given that this was not the author’s direct intention! It may not be what I would personally consider to be the most accurate of depictions of Asperger’s, but given that it’s one of the few popular fiction books to feature a main character with autism, it get’s brownie points for that πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend,

Aoife

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