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 Unable to process the inaction of the world, Greta became withdrawn, depressed and stopped eating, which led her to be diagnosed with OCD, selective mutism and Asperger’s Syndrome.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

“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

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 and Gait

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’d like to discuss another lesser known aspect of the spectrum- autism and gait.

As I’ve discussed previously, coordination issues are part and parcel with autism, however, what you may not know is that these coordination issues tie in with an autists gait- particularly for those with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact one of the lesser known diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V is that of an odd or unusual gait.

New technologies are even using gait analysis as an early means of detecting autism:

I know it seems an unusual trait, (let’s face it, we rarely notice a person’s walk) but researchers have observed that autists can have greater or even reduced step and stride length, increased step width, have unusual posturing, tend to walk on their toes, and are lacking in “motor smoothness” when compared with their neurotypical peers.

So why is an autists gait so unusual? What does the science have to say?

Thus far only a few studies have investigated the underpinnings of gait and autism (although the association has been known for decades), but as usual, the evidence points back to the brain. There has been a lot of debate as to which region is responsible for gait differences, however there is evidence to suggest that neurological alterations in the cerebellum (regulates motor movement) and the basal ganglia (a group of nerves involved in voluntary control of motor movements) in autists are the likely culprits.

Furthermore, those autists who tend to toe walk can develop a leg length discrepancy which can also contribute to their odd gait. Gait issues such as this can have a negative impact on the body as this can shorten your Achilles tendon.  Research shows that children with ASD’s tend to have a reduced range of motion in the knee and ankle when walking which may imply weakness around these joints.

It’s not all bad news however, as special orthotics can be used to help improve some of these issues.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? 😲

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health 😲

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength of synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Early Signs of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Happy New Year! 😀

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Still can’t quite believe I’ve been blogging now for over 2 years, it’s madness! 🙂

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the early signs of autism to look out for. ASDs are usually detectable before a child’s third birthday, with some signs appearing even earlier (a recent study detected signs as early as 6 months). A definitive diagnosis can only be obtained after the age of two, however, here are some of the early signs to look out for:

Diminished Visual Attention/Eye Contact– if a baby shows more interest in objects/toys than the people interacting with it, this could be an early indicator of autism. This behaviour may be noticeable as early as 6 months. Similarly a tendency to avoid eye contact may also be an indicator

Aversion to Cuddling– a lack of response to cuddling or a lack of interest in initiating a cuddle may too suggest that your child might have an ASD

Colic- There is some evidence to suggest that colic may be a very early sign of autism (yours truly for example was a colicky baby). Colic is defined as “episodes of crying for more than 3 hours a day in an otherwise healthy baby”. The cause is unknown, however many believe it may be linked to GI discomfort- and GI issues are often co-morbid in cases of autism. Colic rates do not appear to be elevated in the ASD population, however excessive crying may still be an early indicator of autism

 

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Fecal smearing– As discussed previously, fecal smearing (or scatolia) can be one of the earliest signs of autism, most likely thought to be a sensory response to periods of under-stimulation in autists.

Other early signs of autism may include a lack of physical gestures for communication, lack of interest in playing with others, a (perceived) lack of empathy or if your child fails to imitate movements and facial expressions.

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When it comes to autism, early diagnosis can be critical to getting your child the best possible interventions to allow them to thrive in later life, so it’s useful to know the early indicators to watch out for.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism Profiles: Anne Hegerty

 

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss a celebrity with autism that has been featuring in the news a lot lately- Anne Hegerty, better known as the Governess on the ITV quiz show ‘The Chase‘ in the UK. Anne is an elite quizzer, one of six, whom challengers head off against to win large sums of cash for their team.

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As an avid fan of quiz shows I’ve  been fascinated by Anne and her brain for some time, and even more so after I read about her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the age of  45. Before her diagnosis, Anne was on the brink of homelessness and struggling to “keep it all together”. However, following her diagnosis, she was introduced to the world of elite quizzing by her social worker and the rest is history! 🙂

Most recently, Anne has been appearing in the news due to her participation in the ITV reality show ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a group of celebrities (although the term is often used loosely these days due to the decreasing calibre of celebs willing to participate 😛 ) are deployed into the Australian jungle for a few weeks and the public votes to subject their chosen celeb to ‘bush-tucker trials’ to win their campsite meals and luxuries. These trials are torturous ordeals where the celeb is often exposed to creepy crawlies, may have to wade through slime/crocodile infested waters, could be buried alive (with unknown nasties) and may even have to eat a range of unpleasant jungle critters- meals often including some “unsavory” parts of the kangaroo/crocodile anatomy…😬

As you can imagine, this is not exactly the most hospitable of environments for the average autist!

In fact, Anne broke down in tears on the first night in the jungle as she struggled to adjust to life outside her comfort zone, and was very close to saying she couldn’t do it.

But Anne has persevered, and even powered through some disgusting bush-tucker trials which you can see in the links below (I know I wouldn’t be able for them!):

She has been widely praised during the shows’ run for talking openly about her diagnosis with her camp mates and raising awareness about the every day challenges of living with Asperger’s.

Here she is opening up about her struggles in the jungle:

You can see her chat a little bit more about her life with Asperger’s here on the ITV chat show ‘Loose Women‘.

I’d just like to finish this post by wishing Anne the best of luck in her remaining time in the jungle (she’s one of the favourites to win) and to conclude with a fantastic quote from her about having Asperger’s syndrome:

“People say to me, ‘I understand you suffer from Asperger’s’ or ‘you suffer from autism’, and I’m like, ‘no, I have Asperger’s, I suffer from idiots!” 😂

Love this woman! 😀

It’s such a pleasure to witness to a real aspergirl showing the world that one should not be defined by a diagnosis, but by the strength of your actions 🙂

Have a great weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Levels of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous posts about the different forms of autism (lesser known ASDs; Asperger’s Syndrome (AS); Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP) etc.), I’d like to talk about some changes in the classification of autism that have taken place since the introduction of the all encompassing ASD in 2013.

To recap- an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term to describe a range of neurodevelopmental disorders (such as AS, classic autism, PDD-NOS etc.).

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In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 as it is more commonly known, changed the previous diagnostic criteria to effectively subsume all previous separate diagnoses under the one term- ASD. As such, these separate diagnoses no longer exist in the eyes of psychologists.

However, in using the umbrella term without these separate diagnoses, it is difficult to determine levels of functionality among autists.

So how do we break it down?

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Autism is now classified using 3 different levels:

  • Level 1 Autism: Requiring Support- These 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
  • Level 2 Autism: Requiring Substantial Support- Symptoms for these autists are similar to level 1, but more severe as they often lack both verbal and nonverbal communication skills which can make daily activities difficult. These autists may also exhibit a number of behavioural problems
  • Level 3 Autism: Requiring Very Substantial Support- This level is where you will find the most severe cases of autism. These autists experience extreme difficulties with communication and also exhibit more signs of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than may be observed in the other levels.

The behaviours at each level can be broken down a little further than this, but these are the nuts and bolts of how autism is classified under this system.

Until recently, these updates have mainly applied to the American classification system, however in the last few weeks the global updated version of the “International Classification of Diseases” (ICD-11) now mirrors it’s US counterpart, dissolving all separate diagnoses of autism in favour of the all encompassing ASD.

So how do I feel about the dissolution of my own diagnosis?

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In many ways, this new classification system is a good thing as it will greatly benefit autists who experience greater challenges. It also allows clinicians more flexibility in that the clinician determines if a patient is on the spectrum using their best judgement rather than the patient fitting a specific combination of traits/reaching a set number of traits, which may benefit borderline/masking autists who are highly functioning enough to pass just under the diagnostic radar.

However, I am concerned for higher functioning autists. I would classify as Autism 1 under the new system, however, whilst I fit some of the bill for this level in my childhood, it does not describe me as well as my original diagnosis. In fact instead of benefiting an aspie, to my mind, it could in fact disable them further as the very word ‘autism’ infers a greater level of need than Asperger’s Syndrome.

Yes AS is a form of autism, but it is worlds apart from many of the lower functioning forms. If an employer for example were to hear the word’s ‘autism level 1’ or ‘high functioning autism’ rather than Asperger’s, this could have a serious disabling effect in their perception of the autist before them. Indeed, in recent years we have become a more inclusive society and are better educated about the spectrum, but for many the ‘A word’ still rings trouble.

On the other hand, the vagueness as to what classifies as support is concerning for autists at each level. Sure, this generalized approach widens the spectrum net, but we also cannot ignore the finer details and traits that ultimately determine the needs of the autist- every case is unique after all.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings- enjoy the weekend! 😀

Aoife

Talking to your Child about Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Continuing on from my post discussing if you should tell your child that they have autism, this week I’m going to discuss how to talk to your child about their diagnosis.

When should I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with autism, the answer to this question is entirely individual. Some higher functioning autists may be ready for this information at a younger age than others, or may even be so high functioning as to not need this information during their formative years (as in my case- though in hindsight it would have helped a lot!). Timing can also vary with the age of diagnosis. Girls for example are often diagnosed much later in life than boys with autism.

In general, many experts recommend telling your child around the time they start to become self aware of their differences to their peers- roughly around 6 years old, but this awareness will vary among autists. I, for example, always felt that I was different to my peers, but I never openly questioned it until after I had received my diagnosis in my 20’s.

How do I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with when, there is no right or wrong way as to how you talk to your child about autism (just maybe don’t spring it on them out of nowhere the way my parents did 😛 ), but here are some tips and tricks that may help you:

  • Pick your moment– be very careful with you timing. Make sure that your child is content and calm in a familiar place, things will be much harder if they are anxious
  • Don’t rush– Ensure that there is plenty of time to talk things through with your child. They will have questions and may need extra time to process what you are saying
  • Keep it simple– There will be plenty of time to introduce them to the world of neurodiversity as they grow. Just introduce them to autism one toe in the water at a time. Top Tip– There are a lot of useful kids TV shows (such as Sesame street and Arthur)  and books explaining autism in an age appropriate way which could help this conversation 🙂
  • Emphasize that this is a good thing– Whilst an autism diagnosis can be difficult to process initially, ultimately it is a good thing. Your child will get the help and supports they need to thrive, they will better understand themselves and be understood. However, the black and white autistic mind deals in good and bad. Sometimes an autist cannot perceive the difference between a little bit bad and plain bad which can cause great distress (à la 6 year old Aoife who thought she had to leave home as she could not be good! 😛 ). Highlight the importance of difference and make it clear that this is not a bad thing for them- different, but not bad 🙂

How do I explain autism to my child’s siblings?

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In much the same way as you would tell a child they are autistic, sit them down and have a casual chat about their sibling (or even friend- awareness in the community is crucial to changing societies attitudes for future generations of autists 🙂 ). Depending on the age of the child, what you tell them can vary to suit. Show them videos, give them a book, tell them a helpful analogy (I do love my Supergirl one!) etc to help them understand. Explain that their friend/sibling works a little bit differently and that they don’t always mean to say or do certain things, but we must love and accept them as they are 🙂

Hope you found this post useful Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

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