Autism and Sensory Socks

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss a rather unusual item that can be used for management of autism- the sensory sock! Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

So what exactly is it?

The sensory sock (also known as the body sock) is a stretchy Lycra suit of sorts that is designed to provide a unique, fun and intense sensory experience for autists. Once inside, the suit provides tactile and deep pressure stimulation to the wearer while increasing spatial awareness and improving balance. These sensory inputs can be quite calming for autists which can help us to regulate sensory issues. This can also be used for neurotypical kids to explore their environment and encourage creative movement.

But how exactly does it work?

The stretchy Lycra provides resistance to the wearer as they move around applying deep pressure to the joints which, as previously explained in my post about weighted blankets, causes the release of calming neurotransmitters in the brain, reducing the levels of excitatory neurotransmitters which are elevated in the autistic brain. The enclosed space can help the wearer feel calm and safe, allowing them to regulate their emotions- many autists find enclosed spaces to be particularly therapeutic, so having a portable space like this can be really handy!

I came across the video below of someone trying out a sensory sock online, so naturally I had to get one to try it out!

So how did I get on?

Well…it was…an experience! πŸ˜› While I won’t terrify you with the images of me waddling around my kitchen like a deformed bright green T-Rex, the sock was certainly worth the laugh! My first impressions however, were not the most positive from a sensory perspective. I didn’t really like the smell or the feeling of my arms being so constricted, and found the velcro opening at the front quite distracting as it was reluctant to stay shut (sensory socks don’t seem to be designed for adult women of a certain chest size πŸ™ˆ). I did try the sock again a week later, but this time I chose to lie down while wearing it which proved to be a much more positive experience. This time I felt the relaxing deep pressure around my limbs that was reminiscent of my weighted blanket. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to bring myself to spend more than a couple of seconds with my head inside the suit. It either wouldn’t stay closed or the smell and claustrophobia got to me so I wasn’t really able to assess that feature.

All in all, I can certainly see the benefits this sensory sock might have for younger autists, but personally I think I’ll stick with my weighted blanket for now.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Gene Mutation

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss the influence of gene mutations in the development of autism.

So what exactly are gene mutations?

Gene mutations occur when the usual, expected gene structure changes to form a new gene variant that can be passed on to future generations. Mutations may include deletions (where part of the gene sequence is removed), insertions (where new information is added to the gene sequence), and rearrangements (where the gene sequence is reordered).

Autism is heavily influenced by our genes, with estimates suggesting that genetic factors contribute to as much as 40-80% of the risk of developing an ASD. Mutations in over 1000 genes have been linked to autism, but as of yet no single “autism gene” has been identified. To date, only 30% of autism cases can be explained by known gene mutations. Research has thus far explored a mere 2% of the genome for candidate genes, so there may yet be a common gene somewhere in the remaining 98%. The current thinking is that multiple small gene mutations interact to cause autism.

The following are some examples of candidate genes that have been linked to autism development:

  • ACTL6B– this gene is involved in the expression and control of many other genes in brain cells, where mutations to ACTL6B can alter these other genes to trigger autistic traits
  • Shank 3- is a leading autism candidate gene where mutations in this gene are found in 1-2% of autists. This gene expresses a protein that is essential to the proper functioning of the synapse (the junction) between neurons- a region where many autistic traits are linked to
  • PAX5- this gene encodes a factor that is important to the development of the brain during the embryonic phase of pregnancy, where mutations in the gene can lead to alterations in the brain that can contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism

As interesting as genetic mutation is, it is largely considered to be a negative thing. Gene mutations are viewed as aberrant, something that many would seek to edit or correct- the entire premise of gene therapy. But while most are familiar with the concept of negative gene mutations, there are many gene mutations out there that are neutral or beneficial. For example, some people have a rare gene mutation called CCR5-delta 32 that makes you resistant to HIV infection, carriers for the gene mutation that causes sickle cell disease are resistant to malaria, and even rare mutations in the LRP5 gene can increase bone density to make your bones more resistant to breakage and age related degeneration.

In my own experience, I have a rare gene mutation that causes sectoral heterochromia- i.e. a section of my right eye is a different colour to my left eye. This mutation occurs in less than 1% of the population- made even rarer by the fact that my eyes are green (only 2% of people have green eyes). This is a neutral mutation- it’s a mutation, but not one that has any impact other than my friends find it really cool 😎

Genetic mutation is central to evolution, it’s how we grow and adapt; without it the human race would not exist. With this in mind, perhaps we need to refocus our perception of autism. We see autism genes as aberrant, but don’t consider the possibility that some of these mutations may be positive. Mutations that allow us to see the world differently, can make us think faster, have increased memory retention, give us unique creative and academic abilities etc. Perhaps a meltdown isn’t the product of a gene gone bad, but an evolved method of emotional processing (there really is great relief after a good meltdown cry- even if it isn’t the most fun in the middle of it all πŸ˜› ).

Maybe the genes aren’t aberrant, perhaps it’s just our perception of them that we need to change.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Dyscalculia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from my previous post on dyslexia, this week I’d like to discuss another lesser known learning disability that can be co-morbid with autism- dyscalculia.

So what exactly is dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia is a specific type of learning disability characterized by a difficulty with numbers and arithmetic i.e, understanding how to do maths and manipulate numbers (that’s right- not all autists are good with numbers Hollywood πŸ˜› ) . There are varying levels of dyscalculia but signs may include difficulties with numbers and mathematical symbols, pattern recognition, sequence issues, handling money, managing and telling time, visual processing, and memory issues.

So what causes dyscalculia?

Again as with most aspects of the spectrum, the exact mechanism is unclear. Thought to be related to ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia, dyscalculia seems to result from dysfunction in the intraparietal sulcus (an area thought to be involved in processing symbolic and numerical information) and the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe in particular contains most of the dopamine neurons of the brain which are involved in attention, planning and short term memory- all of which are important functions in comprehending numbers. As discussed in many previous posts, dopamine levels are dysregulated in the autistic brain which could explain why autists may be more prone to these types of learning disabilities.

Is there anything that can be done to help manage it?

As with most disabilities, early detection and intervention are key to helping those with dyscalculia cope with their struggles. There have been very few targeted programs specific to dyscalculia but in recent years a number of digital programs have been created to help improve basic numerical abilities. The gold standard one to one tutoring is also a useful option to help improve these skills through repetition and targeting areas of particular difficulty. Interestingly, there was a study conducted in 2014 where electrical stimulation of the left side of the posterior parietal lobe of the brain (an area involved in spatial reasoning and planned movements) improved numerical abilities in patients. As many as 43% of autists may have abnormalities in their parietal lobe, so further research into this region could provide us with new ways to manage dyscalculia in the future.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism in Heartbreak High

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from my previous post about Netflix’s film ‘I Used to be Famous‘, this week I’d like to talk about another new Netflix series that has an autistic character- the reboot of the Australian comedy-drama series ‘Heartbreak High’.

So what’s the show about?

The show centres on a group of teenagers in the fictional Hartley High School in Australia after a graffitied “sex map” has been discovered on a wall detailing all of the sordid details of the students sex-capades. Following its discovery, the principal puts the students in a mandatory sex education class called ‘Sexual Literacy Tutorials – or β€œSLTs” (which inadvertently sounds like ‘sluts’) in an attempt to guide the students and calm the PR storm brewing outside.

You can see a trailer for the show here:

Now one of the great things about this show is that it prominently features an autistic character called Quinni, played by autistic actor and activist Chloe Hayden. Quinni is an emotionally intelligent, vivacious and bubbly teenager with ADHD, who loves bright colours, art, stickers, crocs and fantasy novels (one of her specialist interests). Quinni is also a lesbian, which marks one of the first times I’ve seen an LGBT autist in a fictional show, which is quite surprising given that many on the spectrum identify as LGBT+. It was refreshing to not have the classic asexual wallflower that is often depicted on screen. The real twist is that there is actually an asexual character in the show but he wasn’t autistic!

The writers worked very closely with Chloe to create a genuine picture of autism for the audience (she pretty much got to write all of her character). To the untrained eye it is not immediately obvious that Quinni is on the spectrum, she just seems like a chatty, quirky teenage girl. We don’t find out she is autistic until she blurts it out to her annoyed date after seemingly ignoring her attempts at conversation all evening as she was struggling to concentrate due to noise sensitivity in the crowded restaurant. The response she gets is one that all high functioning autists can relate to- questioning, doubtful, comparing us to stereotypes/media portrayals from neurotypical actors etc. This scene was added as the writer’s asked Chloe what happens when she tells people about her diagnosis which you can see below:

As the series progresses we get to see her navigate the rollercoaster of her first relationship. While it starts out sweet with Sasha being considerate of her needs, a typical selfish teenager, Sasha starts coddling her and feeling responsible for Quinni rather than understanding her needs:

The relationship ends in tears when Sasha becomes dismissive of her need for routine and ruins a much planned and anticipated meeting with Quinni’s favourite author for her, triggering a meltdown and shutdown, with Quinni retreating into herself, not speaking for days on end- a sad reality that autists may face.

Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the show (in my opinion it was a little bit too “woke” and the broad diversity of the characters seemed a bit forced), but it is a genuine portrayal of the reality that teenage autistic women face every day and is one of the first times that I’ve seen something of myself in an autistic character on screen in a long time. We need to see more Quinni’s on our screen to properly educate people about the realities of living with autism, and to give the next generation of autists someone to relate to, something that so many of us were lacking in our developmental years.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism in ‘I Used To Be Famous’

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about Netflix’s latest drama film ‘I Used To Be Famous‘ and an autistic character that appears in the film.

So what is the film about?

The film follows Vince (played by Ed Skrein), a former member of a famous boy band who has been struggling to make headway with his own electronic music since the dissolution of the band several years previously. One day while busking in the city, he happens upon a teenage boy who starts drumming a beat on a nearby bench in sync with his electronic stylings. The resulting music captures the attention of everyone around and a video of the incident goes viral online. As it turns out, Stevie is on the autistic spectrum and a passionate drummer. Vince tracks him down in a music therapy group for people with disabilities and proposes that they start a band together in his desperation to make it back on top, a move which changes both of their lives forever.

You can see a trailer of the film below:

So how was this films depiction of autism?

The writers have kept things simple in the film, choosing to make Stevie’s drumming abilities the main focus rather than his autism, showing us all that autism should never be a blocker to achieving your dreams. Now one of the great things about this film is that building on from Atypical, Netflix has cast an autistic actor, Leo Long, to play Stevie. Leo is a talented drummer with the London Youth Folk Ensemble and National Open Youth Orchestra, and a passionate advocate for making the music and film industries more accessible for individuals with disabilities.

It’s a heartwarming film with some great tunes to boot- perfect for a quiet evening in πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism & the Rose of Tralee

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Last week in Ireland saw the return of the annual international Rose of Tralee festival, and with it one of the first openly autistic Rose contestants- the Toronto Rose Maysen Tinkler.

But first things first, what is the Rose of Tralee?

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Rose of Tralee is a festival celebrated every year in the town of Tralee in Co. Kerry in Ireland. First held in 1959, the festival was conceived to increase tourism in Tralee and to encourage expats to return home. The festival serves as a pageant of sorts to select the Rose of Tralee- a young woman of Irish heritage who embodies the virtues of Mary the title character in the eponymous song which the festival derives it’s name from. The chosen Rose should be “lovely and fair”, chosen for her personality to serve as role model and ambassador to Ireland for the duration of her reign. The festival is billed as a celebration of the “aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage” of modern young women.

Current Rose of Tralee Rachel Duffy from Westmeath

This years festival introduced us to the first autistic rose Maysen Tinkler from Toronto. Maysen, like me, was diagnosed with autism as an adult, finding the diagnosis a relief after years of feeling like an outsider. Refusing to be limited by autism, she decided to enter the competition to challenge stereotypes, providing visibility for autistic women everywhere. If you’re in Ireland (or have a really good VPN blocker) you can see her interview here round the 28 minute mark available until the 23rd of September.

Interestingly, she was not the only potential autistic candidate this year as there were two candidates, one in the Kerry selection and one in the Dublin selection who both discussed their diagnosis to raise awareness about the condition. Jennifer O’ Conner who competed in the Kerry Rose selection even recited a spoken piece she wrote called ‘Autistic Joy‘ about her experiences of autism and the festival over the years and the joy that is often overlooked:

As autism is so poorly understood in women, it’s amazing to have this representation in this international platform for young autistic girls to look up to.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Irlen Syndrome

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about a condition that impacts approximately half of autists- Irlen syndrome.

So what exactly is Irlen syndrome?

First defined in the 1980’s, Irlen syndrome (also known as scotopic sensitivity syndromeΒ (SSS) orΒ Meares–Irlen syndrome) is described as a difficulty in the brain’s ability to process images/visual information. It is not exclusive to autists as it also impacts roughly 15% of the neurotypical population. As 70% of the information we process is visual, the inability to process this information can have a serious knock on effect on our brains ability to function effectively, causing issues with reading, coordination, sensory processing, spatial awareness, and ADHD– all co-morbid issues associated with autism.

But what causes it?

Irlen syndrome is caused by hypersensitivity to certain wave lengths of light which can cause the brain to process visual information incorrectly. The exact mechanism is poorly understood, but the brain seemingly becomes overactive in response to light causing dysfunction. Interestingly, Irlen syndrome is classified as a pseudo-medical diagnosis as there is skepticism over it’s existence as a stand alone condition with a distinct pathology. Experts are skeptical of Irlen syndrome as there is a lot of overlap in symptoms from other conditions and they may be lumped in under one convenient heading.

But is there anything we can do to manage symptoms?

The Irlen method is the main treatment approach for the condition. Pioneered by Helen Irlen, the Irlen method is a non-invasive approach using coloured lenses to filter light and to improve the brains ability to process visual information. The lenses can be either worn as glasses or in contact form.

You can see the impact that Irlen lenses have on the brain here:

However, the efficacy of this method has been difficult to prove. In particular there seems to be little evidence to support their use to improve reading issues and dyslexia. That being said, many people have found great relief from using Irlen lenses, such as actor Paddy Considine who has both Asperger’s syndrome and Irlen syndrome.

As with all pseudoscience/pseudomedicine, take everything with a pinch of salt, but if you think Irlen lenses may help your issues with light sensitivity it’s worth a try!

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Hyperlexia

Greetings Earthlings!

Leading on from previous post about dyslexia, this week I’d like to discuss the phenomenon of hyperlexia and autism.

So first things first, what is hyperlexia?

Hyperlexia is a phenomenon where a child begins to read at a surprisingly early age beyond their expected ability compared with their peers. Onset is usually before 5 years of age, and the child tends to develop the skill without any training or prompting. It’s often described as a “splinter skill”- unique, but not very useful. It’s estimated that approximately 84% of those diagnosed with hyperlexia are on the autistic spectrum equating to between 6-14% of the overall autistic community.

There are 3 different types of hyperlexia:

  • Hyperlexia I– occurs in the neurotypical population where children learn to read at a very early age. This is usually considered temporary as their peers will eventually learn to read and catch up to hyperlexic children
  • Hyperlexia II– this is the form of hyperlexia that is most associated with autists. Beginning in infancy, hyperlexic autists are often obsessed with letters and numbers, tending to show a preference for books instead of other toys. Autistic hyperlexics also tend to have excellent recall for important numbers like phone numbers, dates and licence plates
  • Hyperlexia III– is quite similar to hyperlexia II, but the symptoms tend to decrease with time and disappear. Type III hyperlexics may have delays in verbal language and development like autists, but they tend to have remarkable skills for reading comprehension and excellent memory recall. However, unlike autists, these children generally have no issues with social interaction and anxiety

In my own experience, I’d say I probably had some mild hyperlexic tendencies as a child. I loved books- my mother couldn’t buy me enough to keep me entertained! As I’m sure I’ve told you in previous posts, my reading skills were so advanced at 6 years old in senior infants, my teacher from the previous year invited me to come and read to her junior infant class (4/5 year olds)!πŸ˜‚ I’ve always had an excellent memory and am pretty good at remembering dates, but as the experts say this skill isn’t the most exciting or useful- no point in donning a cape and calling myself a superhero πŸ˜›

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Sherlock

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to take a look at autism in the popular BBC mystery/crime drama series ‘Sherlock‘ starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (I know, I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I only recently binged it during the pandemic πŸ˜› ).

So what’s Sherlock about?

The premise of Sherlock is fairly self explanatory- it’s a series based on the infamous Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set in modern day London. Holmes, a consulting detective, works closely with his friend Dr. Watson to solve mysteries and crimes across London by using Sherlock’s keen powers of observation and deduction in tandem with modern sleuthing technologies, giving Holmes’s story a contemporary edge.

Here’s a trailer of the series for those of you who have never seen it:

So how does autism tie into all of this?

There has been much debate as to whether or not the character of Sherlock has Asperger’s Syndrome. Many experts have theorized that he original character of Sherlock Holmes in the 19th century stories may have been displaying signs of autism decades before the condition was first characterized. Sherlock indeed displays many traits of Asperger’s- his powers of observation, his intellect and memory, obsession with his work, issues with sleep and drug addiction, mind blindness to social cues, his struggles with empathy, and moments of perceived sociopathy (some autists have been misdiagnosed as sociopaths) all tend to paint the picture of an autist. Moreover, the chief of police and Dr. Watson have even theorized that Sherlock may have Asperger’s.

You can find a video of some of Sherlock’s best bits in the show at the link below:

https://fb.watch/eIYlHsMlKw/

However, this depiction has not been without it’s critiques. It has been argued that this depiction of Sherlock as a superhuman intellect with sociopathic tendencies is damaging for the autistic community as this is a negative, somewhat romanticized and simplistic portrayal of the condition that can mislead the public in their perceptions of the condition (although let’s face it- 90% of autistic characters recycle the same traits and rarely give us an insight into the variety and complexity of the neurodivergent population πŸ˜› ). The autistic community on the whole however, has mainly been supportive in claiming Sherlock as one of our own as many relate to Sherlock and feel seen in Cumberbatch’s portrayal.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a lovely weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Dyslexia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to take a look at another neurological condition that can be co-morbid with autism- dyslexia.

First things first, what is dyslexia?

Dyslexia can be described as a specific type of learning disability that impacts a persons reading, writing and spelling abilities. Impacting approximately 10% of the population, dyslexia ranges from mild to severe characterized by cognitive difficulties with processing phonetics, working memory and speed of long term memory retrieval. Like autism, the exact neurological causes and mechanisms are unclear, but as dyslexia can run in families, genetic factors are largely thought to contribute.

So how is it linked to autism?

The link between autism and dyslexia has not been scientifically established, but there are some commonalities. Interestingly, dyslexia overlaps with many autistic co-morbidities such as ADHD, dysgraphia, dyspraxia (an estimated 52-53% of dyslexics are also dyspraxic), and auditory processing disorders, which would suggest that these conditions likely operate through similar neurological mechanisms and pathways.

Scientists have found it difficult to establish a direct genetic link between the two conditions, however, recent research may implicate gene deletions in CNTNAP5 (a gene involved in connecting neurons)  and DOCK4 (a gene that regulates junctions between cells) in both dyslexia and autism. In addition to this, a 2015 study found that declarative memory (the type of memory that can be “declared” like names, facts, figures etc.) can be used to develop coping mechanisms for both autism and dyslexia, suggesting that perhaps there may be overlap in the brain regions associated with this type of memory formation. Other studies exploring the neural mechanisms of dyslexia indicate structural changes in such regions as the frontal lobe (memory and problem solving), cerebellum (the motor centre) and corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves that splits and connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain)- all areas that have also shown structural changes in studies of the autistic brain.

Most recently, a 2021 study exploring the co-occurrence of dyslexia and other neurodevelopmental disorders reported that many dyslexic patients in their dataset also had issues with sensory processing and other ASD traits, but concluded that the links between the two conditions are complex and hard to underpin, especially given that some autists are hyperlexic (guilty!) rather than dyslexic.

Whilst there is no definitive scientific link, the overlap cannot be denied.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

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