Autism and Trust

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to briefly talk about the issue of trust and autism.

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Trust is something that we all struggle with from time to time. In an increasingly disingenuous world, it can be tough to tell friend from foe. This is even more problematic for the autistic community.

Studies have shown that autists struggle to read facial cues for signs of trustworthiness in others. As an autist is so often transparent in their words and actions with their black and white thinking, it’s a struggle to comprehend that others may not be. For example, if an adult tells an autistic child a lie, they will usually believe them without question- after all, why would a grown up lie to you? Isn’t lying supposed to be bad? This is particularly worrying for an autist coming up against potential bullies and predators.

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I found this to be a problem during my school days. On the surface, my peers seemed nice to me. I thought many were friends, but I was unable to tell from their tones that they were mocking me and my eccentricities. It was only after the damage was done that I saw through the facade, which made it hard to trust my peers for a long time. When you see everything in black and white, it can be hard to discern that a smiling face may be a sarcastic sneer.

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But is there a biological reason for our trust issues?

Studies have shown that changes in the structure of the autistic brain can cause issues with trust. Changes in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the area that assesses social rewards) in people that tended to be more trusting of others, and changes in the amygdala (an area associated with memory and emotional responses) in both those who were more and less trusting of others appear to be linked to trust issues.

Moreover, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to be associated with social behaviour, emotional attachment and trust. Multiple studies suggest that oxytocin levels are dysregulated in autists, which could explain our struggles when it comes to trusting others.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Greta Thunberg and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

So this week I’d like to discuss an inspirational young autist that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time- climate activist Greta Thunberg.

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For those of you who’ve been living under a rock (and I mean, seriously living under a rock, this girl has been all over the news 😛 ), Greta is a Swedish teenager who began striking from school on Fridays outside the houses of parliament in Stockholm for action against climate change in 2018 at just 15 years of age. Greta rationalized that the impending climate crisis means no future for her generation, so why should she go to school to prepare for a future that would not exist?

Since she began striking, Greta’s actions have spawned an international movement known as ‘Fridays For Future‘ where students the world over are striking from school for climate change action. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019.

What a girl!

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In recent months however, attention has focused on the fact that Greta has Asperger’s syndrome (I’m in good company!). In her viral Ted Talk, Greta speaks of how learning about the climate crisis at 8 years old led to her diagnosis. Unable to process the inaction of the world, Greta became withdrawn, depressed and stopped eating, which led her to be diagnosed with OCD, selective mutism and Asperger’s Syndrome. As Greta so eloquently explained in her talk, this means that she only speaks when necessary. Now, in the midst of the climate crisis, is one of those moments.

You can see her viral TEDx Talk here:

 

 

Like me, Greta does not see Asperger’s as a disability, but as a gift, calling it her “superpower”. She recently discussed this on the Ellen DeGeneres show where she talked about how autists are important in a crisis such as global warming as we are different, and we need to think differently to find solutions. Her tenacity, her passion and her black and white, no nonsense speeches (all autistic traits), truly are superpowers in her fight to save the planet.

 

Greta Fun Fact- her mother represented Sweden in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest 😀

However, the media have recently begun to turn on Greta because she is neurodivergent. A guest on Fox News recently described her as “mentally ill” sparking much discussion about the state of her mental health. As is often the case, once people hear the ‘a’ word, they automatically assign you a box…

Just a reminder– autism is NOT a mental illness; it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder. We may be greater disposed to having issues with our mental health due to higher stress levels, but an autism diagnosis is not synonymous with mental illness.

Whilst I would echo some journalists concerns about the strain of her current international exposure (fellow aspie Susan Boyle had to check into rehab for exhaustion after her viral appearance in Britain’s’ Got Talent), ultimately what Greta needs is action. Saving the planet is her specialist interest, and as I’ve discussed previously, we are consumed by our passions. She will stop at nothing or for no one to save the world.

Without a doubt, Greta is an extraordinary girl, and really shows that you should not allow yourself to be limited by your diagnosis. Indeed, there are people out there vehemently trying to write her off, but the rest of the world is listening.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Time Management

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

You may or may not have noticed that I haven’t been posting as frequently lately to the blog as I have been extremely busy offline. As such, this week I’ve been inspired to discuss the topic of time management 🙂

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Time management is something that many people struggle with, however, as with several every day tasks, this can be even more of a challenge for an autist. Many autists have difficulty with information processing, understanding the concept of time and predicting the outcome of actions, which can make it tricky to organize and prioritize tasks.

For me personally, time management is something that I’m really good at (most of the time), but it can often be a source of great stress. Trying to wrap my head around the tasks to be completed, once plans are in place spending ages mentally going over and over the particulars, beating yourself up for not being able to achieve all that you’ve set out to do within a certain time frame- I can be pretty hard on myself for this. I’m capable of juggling so many balls at once I often get frustrated that I’m not juggling as many balls as I could be during my downtime (like spending the weekend napping instead of writing). This has perhaps been one of the hardest time management attitudes to break since joining the workforce 😛

I’m no expert when it comes to time management, but here are some tips that I’ve found helpful:

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Colour coding– colour coding different tasks for importance can be a great way to help you assess and prioritize tasks- with the added plus that this may also help you to remember your “to-do’s” through stimulation of the creative right hemisphere of the brain.

Write things down/get a diary– I don’t do this as often as I should; but it is a great way to organise both your tasks and your thoughts. Life became a whole lot easier when I took the extra few minutes to make a shopping list rather than frantically running round the shop back in college.

Focus on small, easily achievable tasks fist- as with studying, this can be a great way to keep from getting overwhelmed by the volume of tasks that you need/or want to complete and will help you learn to prioritize better. For example, today I need to pick up some groceries and walk the dog; that painting I want to finish off can wait until the weekend.

Set reminders/alarms– if paper’s not a good option for you, setting alarms or calendar reminders on your phone can be a great way to keep on top of things. I’d never make a meeting on time if it wasn’t for my Outlook calendar reminders!

Make time for you– this can often be the toughest part of time management for an autist in my experience. You can get so focused on all that needs to be done, you easily forget that just because something needs to be done, doesn’t mean it has to be done right away. Patience isn’t always an autistic virtue, in spite of the irony of the world needing to be patient with autists!😂 Make sure that in the midst of a heavy schedule, there are always “me moments” scattered throughout.

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Hope you enjoyed my post dear Earthlings! 😀

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Glee

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to talk about autism in the popular multi-award winning, musical comedy-drama show ‘Glee‘.

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In case you’ve been living under a rock or have forgotten all about ‘Glee‘, ‘Glee‘ focused on a high school show-choir comprised of a group of misfits as they strive for fame and acceptance.

As I’ve been binge watching it on Netflix in recent weeks, I’ve discovered something that I missed when I initially watched the show, there was a character with Asperger’s syndrome in the choir room all along- Sugar Motta.

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Sugar Motta was introduced during the third series of the show as a girl with “self-diagnosed Asperger’s syndrome” which she claimed entitled her to say whatever she wanted and gave her carte blanche to be brutally honest with everyone.

Here’s a quick video with some of her moments from the show’s run:

So how does the character’s portrayal of Asperger’s fare?

Looking through the archives, the show received a great deal of backlash at the time for their use of Asperger’s as a punch line. Most people have argued that Sugar is not on the spectrum and is just a spoiled brat who uses Asperger’s as a means to get her own way, but in terms of traits the show wasn’t that far off the mark for a girl on the spectrum, albeit a brief glimpse. The brutal honesty, the inability to accept that she cannot sing (so much so that her rich father set up a rival glee club where she could be the star) or any criticism for that matter, and her high level of social functioning can be true for some female autists.

After a couple of episodes the character’s diagnosis is no longer mentioned, nor are her traits showcased. It’s no wonder really that I never spotted her Asperger’s when I watched the show originally as the character was relegated to the background of the show by the time I received my diagnosis in 2014.

All in all, I’d have to agree with the critics that the character doesn’t really have Asperger’s, or at the very least is a pretty poor depiction of the autistic experience.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Until next time!

Aoife

“You Don’t Look Autistic!”

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

After reading a write in to an advice column in the newspaper this morning, the parent of a recently diagnosed child rationalized that the diagnosis didn’t make sense as their child was doing well in school, popular and “good socially.”

I found this particularly annoying as this type of attitude is something that we high functioning autists encounter all the time.

“You don’t look autistic?!”

“You’re normal!”

“You can’t be autistic!”

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These are some of the most common phrases I hear when I talk to people about my diagnosis, as do many high functioning autists. Whilst this is a great compliment to my upbringing and acting skills, this kind of reaction can be quite damaging for autists.

First things first- no one looks autistic 😛

It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder, how are we supposed to look? Unless you have eyes like an MRI or some type of X-ray vision, you won’t physically see our neurological differences! Roughly 1 in 68 people are autistic- that’s 1 person per double decker bus, 1 person per carriage on the average train, and 3 people on the average international flight. Would you say that you’ve seen someone that “looked” autistic every time you’ve used these transport services? 🤨

We’re everywhere, looking exactly the same as you do.

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^^^ Sorry couldn’t resist giving my favourite musical a shout out- 10 points if you get the song reference 😎

With autism, it’s very much a case of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”.

With the increased generalization of the spectrum, from the outside, our books look alike, each with the same rainbow-coloured ‘autism’ cover on display. The stories inside however are very different. There may be similar themes, experiences and symptoms between books, but ultimately each is unique.

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Contrary to popular belief, just like the child in the advice column, many high functioning autists have an active social life. In college I was at every party going and the last one on the dance floor- had you seen me, would you have said I was autistic? Appearances can be deceptive, you don’t know how hard some of us have to work on our social skills behind closed doors. Eye contact isn’t natural for me, but with practice and forcing myself out of my comfort zone, no one would be any the wiser when chatting to me now. I’m a social butterfly who doesn’t outwardly appear autistic, but I have a piece of paper and an autism spectrum quotient score that say otherwise

No, I do not “look” like the stereotypical image of autism, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not riding that spectrum.

This attitude towards autism’s outward appearance could in fact be quite detrimental. If we don’t recognize that a person is autistic when they don’t fit the preconceived mould; they may languish for years without adequate understanding and supports for their needs. This is especially true for females on the spectrum who have learned the art of social masking, often flying under the radar of male centered diagnostic criteria.

As I have discussed many times before, autism is a spectrum, everyone is different and therefore their traits will be different. Don’t judge us by the ‘autism’ cover adorning our story, delve deeper into the book and you may be surprised at what you’ll learn 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post and have a lovely bank holiday weekend dear Earthlings! 😀

Aoife

The Problem with High Functioning Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss the term “high functioning autism”.

You may be surprised to hear that the term “high functioning” is quite controversial within the autistic community. In fact a recent study strongly supports discarding the term “high functioning autism” completely.

So why is the term controversial?

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Firstly, let’s quickly remind ourselves of what constitutes high functioning autism:

High functioning autism (HFA) is a term used to describe autists with strong language skills and an IQ of over 70 ( i.e they do not have an intellectual disability). 

Herein lies the problem- the term uses IQ as a predictor of functionality and does not take into account the day to day struggles of the average autist. An autist deemed to be low functioning may not encounter challenges in their daily life, but may struggle academically.  Similarly, an autist may excel academically, but something so trivial as writing an email may prove challenging. In many of the films I’ve reviewed, the autistic character is described as high functioning, but yet they are incapable of living an independent life.

Moreover, functioning levels often fluctuate from year to year, improving or dis-improving depending on circumstances and levels of support- there’s even evidence to suggest that, as with many things, autism can get worse with age! Levels can even fluctuate day to day where something as simple as lack of sleep can impact upon functioning. As a result of this, many autists deemed “high functioning” do not get adequate support for their needs.

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Researchers have found in a recent study that there is a serious gap between an autists cognitive functioning (IQ) and their adaptive behaviours (i.e. their ability to adapt to their environment). The average results show that autists with higher IQs scored 28 points lower than their IQ in adaptive behaviour scales, suggesting that IQ is a weak predictor of daily functioning.

You can read more about the study here:

Large study supports discarding the term ‘high-functioning autism’

Technically speaking, within the medical community the term “high functioning” is considered an informal term and is not in itself a definitive diagnosis, further fueling efforts to banish it.

However, I personally feel that removing the term could be problematic. In my case, both my IQ and functional abilities are high- I breezed through college, have an active social life, hold a job and live independently. To say that I am simply autistic to a person who doesn’t know me very well can skew their expectations and perceptions of me- especially in the workforce. Granted, public understanding of the spectrum is improving, but still the ‘a’ word can place you into a predefined box in people’s minds.

I worry that our move towards a more generalized view of the spectrum may effectively disable the truly high functioning. Recall how autism is divided into levels. Asperger’s syndrome has been swallowed up by level 1 autism, where autists have noticeable issues with socializing and communication skills. This level is characterized by:

  • decreased interest in social interactions or activities
  • capable of social engagement but may struggle with conversational give-and-take
  • difficulty with planning and organizing
  • struggles with initiating social interactions, such as talking to a person
  • obvious signs of communication difficulty
  • trouble adapting to changes in routine or behavior

where autists are vaguely classed as “requiring support”.

On paper, I fall under this definition, but it does not describe me as well as Asperger’s syndrome or the term ‘high functioning’. This definition paints an entirely different picture for people to that of my reality (for starters the only support I require consists mainly of a good bra, sugar, a hug and a box of tissues for unexpected meltdowns 😂). Were I to have been diagnosed earlier in life, this definition may well have held me back.

For many autists, indeed the term high functioning can be tricky, but I do not believe it should be abandoned completely. Yes, it is time to reevaluate our classification of autism to better define functionality levels across the entire spectrum, but perhaps there’s a better way to go about it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Eating Disorders

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to talk about a very common issue, particularly for women with autism- eating disorders.

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As discussed previously, mental health issues are quite prevalent among the autistic population. Because of this, many autists can go un-diagnosed as co-morbid mental health issues often mask the root autism diagnosis. This is particularly true of eating disorders for female autists where doctors will diagnose an eating disorder, but due to social masking tendencies will often overlook their autistic traits.

In fact this should really be one of the first things that doctors should assess when patients present with eating disorders as numerous studies have shown that there is a higher prevalence rate of autism in patients diagnosed with eating disorders (up to 20%). Evidence indicates that patients presenting with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED) have greater numbers of autistic traits than the general population.

Autists will often not benefit from conventional treatment for disordered eating so it is critical that it is identified early.

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So why are eating disorders so prevalent for those on the spectrum?

The reasons are varied, but tend to be either psychological or sensory related:

Psychological:

Some people on the spectrum develop eating disorders as a means to fit in, to attain the kind of figures that they see in magazines and perceive to be “perfect” or “normal”. Others develop eating disorders as a means of control, where the routine and rigidity can be a source of comfort to an anxious mind running on overdrive (interestingly this may have a scientific basis as starvation decreases levels of serotonin, which is heavily involved in anxiety and is often elevated in autism). Moreover, if exercise or particular foods become specialist interests, an autist may obsess and inadvertently develop a disorder as a result.

In some cases an eating disorder may be a simple matter of mind blindness where an autist simply does not understand that their eating behaviours are abnormal or dangerous.

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Sensory:

Sensory issues are commonplace for autists both with and without an eating disorder. An autist may be sensitive to different tastes, textures and smells which can make for a very restrictive diet depending on the severity. In some cases, eating may be so stressful that they may not eat very much at all to avoid an unpleasant sensory event.

For further information about autism and eating disorders you can check out the link below for advice and support:

https://www.bodywhys.ie/understanding-eating-disorders/key-issues/autism-eating-disorders/

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss the portrayal of autism in the 1993 comedy-drama film ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ starring Johnny Depp, a young Leonardo Dicaprio and Juliette Lewis (who ironically portrayed an autistic character in ‘The Other Sister‘ a few years later).

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The story follows Gilbert Grape (Depp) a young man living in a rural town in Iowa as he takes care of his obese mother and autistic brother Arnie (Dicaprio). The film explores Gilbert’s life and struggles to take care of his family whilst trying to forge a life of his own.

If you haven’t seen this classic, here’s the trailer:

So how does the film fare in it’s depiction of autism?

Autism is not explicitly mentioned as such in this film, but most experts agree that Arnie’s traits align with those of autism. His repetitive movements, echolalia, self injurious behaviours, use of atypical speech, preference for routine, his childlike nature, mind-blindness and lack of danger perception (he has a fondness for climbing the town water tower) all indicate that Arnie is on the spectrum. This is also one of the few films where the autist is not portrayed as a savant so that’s a refreshing change!

Leonardo Dicaprio’s acting is, as always, sublime- he even received his first ever Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Arnie in this role. In particular I felt that the depiction of meltdowns was quite good, however, the most striking aspect of the film, as in Atypical, was how it highlights the struggles that the wider family often experiences with autism, particularly where siblings are concerned. Gilbert loves Arnie dearly, but taking care of him and his entire family takes it’s toll.

The film also takes a more lighthearted approach at times to Arnie’s eccentricities. Arnie’s lack of filter delivers some of the more humorous moments in the film, which like Atypical, allows us to see the funnier side of autism- yes autism can be challenging, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

All in all ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ gives a fairly decent representation of autism, but either way- the film is worth a watch just for Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance. This film really was a sign of things to come for him! 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism- Breaking the Mould

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In the last couple of days an audition video from America’s Got Talent has gone viral featuring Kodi Lee- a blind, 22 year old autist with an amazing gift for music. If you haven’t seen the clip yet, check it out below (such an amazing voice!):

After watching this video, it’s got me thinking about our tendency to put people on the spectrum into boxes. We’re constantly talking about tolerance, acceptance and equality in the world today, but still we can be quite quick to write people off.

“You’re autistic”- this is you label, this your box, this is what we expect of you.

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Having Asperger’s is just one aspect of me. It influences quite a lot of my quirks, but it is still only one piece of my jigsaw. This one word will not tell you about my talents, my interests, my active social life. It reveals a part of me, but not the whole.

My entire life I’ve never been one to conform, and autism is no exception. I refuse to fit into any particular mould- I’d much rather be an abstract painting, entirely unique.

Moulds are for bread and fondant 😛

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Something that really saddens me is that when a parent hear’s the word autism, there is a tendency to let go of the mental picture that they have for their child’s life. They mourn the loss of a “normal” life (whatever that is!). They worry that their child won’t make friends, will struggle in school, that they won’t achieve their dreams.

Life does not always run smoothly, and rarely fits the picture we first imagine. I never thought I would still be single in my late twenties, but that’s life. Some might think that I would scrap that picture of finding love from my mind after I got my diagnosis (as so often autists struggle romantically), but why would I? Sure it can make it difficult to read romantic situations, but it doesn’t mean I won’t find love one day. There’s no real reason that I can’t break the mould.

And sometimes in life, the picture has to completely change to give birth to something greater. For example, there is some evidence that there may be a hidden portrait underneath the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci had to let go of this original picture in order to create a masterpiece (one which he spent years editing I might add).

Our lives are like the creation of the Mona Lisa- the picture is always changing. An autism diagnosis may alter the projected picture, but it doesn’t mean that one day it won’t become a masterpiece.

The pictures we have in our heads for our lives/our children’s lives are not finite. We don’t have to let go of our dreams for the sake of one word. Look at how Kodi is breaking the mould- with one look you might think you know his story, but when he opens his mouth he paints you a brand new portrait. And let’s not forget Susan Boyle (a fellow aspie), one audition changed her life forever. Everyone laughed when she came on stage, but now she’s living her dream! (Side note- can’t believe this was 10 years ago…feeling old!👴).

And let’s not forget how non-verbal Carly Fleischmann has become a talk show host!

The world is full of stories of incredible autists breaking the mould, challenging our preconceptions of what we think autism is. As I am repeatedly saying, no two are the same, so why do we insist on these moulds?

Give us the freedom to be who we are, lend us a blank canvas and we’ll paint you a picture you could never have imagined 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a wonderful weekend! 🙂

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Aoife

 

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