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 Unable to process the inaction of the world, Greta became withdrawn, depressed and stopped eating, which led her to be diagnosed with OCD, selective mutism and Asperger’s Syndrome.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

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’d just like to write a quick post about studying and autism.

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Knuckling down and studying can be hard at the best of times, but even more so for an autist. There are often learning challenges such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and concentration issues with ADHD which can make studying quite tricky. Frustrated meltdowns when things aren’t clicking can also be tough to navigate (can’t tell you how many times I chucked my maths book at the wall trying to study!😂).

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So here are some of my top tips for studying on the spectrum:

Stimming-Self stimulatory behaviours can be a useful way of channeling excess brain activity. By having a stress ball, a pen to chew or something to fidget with can help to free up your mind and allow you to better concentrate on the topic you’re studying.

Make it Visual- Autists are often very visual and highly creative, many operating between both the logical left and creative right hemispheres of the brain at the same time (due to the absence of a connecting bundle of nerves that splits the brain in two). Making things visual using graphs, videos and images can help to improve concentration by stimulating the creative right hemisphere of the brain instead of the usual logical left.

  • Aoife’s top tip: Use coloured pens for note taking. This was one of the best pieces of advice that my art teacher gave me as it really helped my concentration and retention levels by manipulating neuroscience! However, be careful with the colour choices as some autists can be hypersensitive to certain colours like yellow. Find the colours your child likes and buy lots of pens in those colours for them to write out their notes. My friends in college often told them how happy my notes made them as a rainbow of colour waved back at them every time I opened my notebook 😂

Bribery– I know this is one of my more common tips for managing numerous autistic traits, buuuut bribery is one of the best motivators! Concentration wasn’t always an issue for me when studying, but motivation was. When it came to boring subjects I just tuned out, so my mother traded me gaming hours for hours spent studying- 2 hours study meant 2 hours on the Playstation! It proved highly effective! 😂

Set small goals and take frequent breaks– This can be tricky for the all or nothing autistic mind, as once you get going, you tend to want to get it all done at once, which can often lead to frustration when you’ve pushed your brain past it’s limits. Setting small goals and taking regular breaks can be one of the best ways to study, especially where concentration levels can be an issue. Focusing on one small task at a time can build up a sense of achievement and encourage you to keep going without getting overwhelmed and frustrated. To this day I still do this at home or in work when I get overwhelmed by the volume of tasks that need to be completed.

Focus on what you can do before tackling more challenging subjects– One of the most commonly advised exam strategies is to complete the questions you do know first before going back to the harder ones to avoid getting overwhelmed and to build up your confidence. The same goes for studying- I’ve used this mantra several times of late when I’m writing to get me started on a task and keep from getting overwhelmed and it never fails! It’s not the easiest habit to form for an autist (as logic dictates everything should be done in exact order), but once you get in on it everything becomes so much easier 🙂

Take advantage of all available aids– when it comes to exam time, accept the help of a scribe or a reader (if you’ve dysgraphia or dyslexia) and take any extra time offered to you. Educational departments understand that autists often need a little extra time and help during exams, so if you need it take it- there’s no shame in asking for it. I was past my schooling by the time I got my diagnosis, but it would have been nice to have had a little extra time for exams when awkward questions threw me, or at least the comfort of knowing it was there if needed.

If you follow these tips you’ll be studying like a pro before long!

And always remember- it’s just temporary! We all have to study at some point (unless you’re one of the lucky few with an eidetic memory) to get to where we need to go, but it’s not forever, just keep focusing on the finish line and you won’t go wrong 🙂

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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

 

Autism and Climate Change

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

I know what you’re all thinking, she’s lost it- what on earth has autism got to do with climate change?!

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Well, nothing really, but what I’m referring to is the impact of the recent Lancet report about the need to change our eating habits to stave off climate change and it’s potential impacts for the autistic community. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the report you can check out the paper here:

https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673618331799

or alternatively here’s a handy little summary news report:

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/agribusiness-and-food/meat-consumption-must-drop-by-90-to-avert-climate-crisis-report-warns-1.3760363

The bottom line of the report- we need to reduce our meat consumption by 90% and significantly increase our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans to achieve our daily recommended caloric intake (18 times as much dry beans, soy and nuts in fact! 😲)

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As a scientist, I’m all for finding ways to reverse the impact of climate change,  however, I have found this report quite infuriating!

I haven’t really talked about food too much as an issue on this blog (mainly because it’s a subject that’s going to take some time to write about!), but food issues are perhaps my biggest struggle. Troubles with textures, tastes, smells- it can be a nightmare sometimes; but if the Lancet report is to be taken seriously, my nightmare has only just begun!

I’m a real meat lover, and vegetables for me mainly consists of baked beans and the old Irish favourite potatoes (some stereotypes are based in fact after all! 😛 😉 ). If this report is to be seriously considered, this would restrict my daily intake of chicken (my staple) to 29g or the equivalent of one and a half chicken nuggets. Worse still for my beloved potato the Lancet recommends 50g or 39 calories of potatoes per day- roughly a quarter of a medium-sized potato!

So basically if we start to crack down on these foodstuffs, I’ll be living on fresh air and sugar- I’ll have a killer figure for sure, albeit with a side of diabetes 😛

What I am most concerned about is the larger autistic community. My food issues are mild in comparison to other autists-what about the poor struggling parents who’s child will only eat the same meal day in day out, or will only eat McDonalds or foods of a particular colour? Has no one stopped to consider the struggles that these recommendations will bring?

Don’t even get me started on the implications for those with food and nut allergies, of which a high percentage of the autistic community suffer from!

The agricultural industry in Europe is responsible for a mere 10% of our carbon footprint whereas our energy consumption stands over a whopping 80%! Why must our food habits change when our energy consumption is so staggeringly high?

It beggars belief that the medical community would think that such a radical overhaul of our eating habits is our best option in the fight against climate change.

What we really need are cleaner fuel alternatives, better range of and services for hybrid cars, and better public transport systems for rural communities (a huge issue here in Ireland- if you don’t have a car, rural life is extremely isolating. Where I live one would have to walk for 45 minutes to get a bus to the nearest town!) to cut down our carbon footprint. Or if someone could invent apparition from Harry Potter that would also work pretty nicely too 😛 😉

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend!

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 Assistance/Service Dogs

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re taking a cuteness break to take a look at autism assistance dogs!

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Just look at him!!! 😍

Sooo cute- but, they also provide a very important service to children, and adults, with autism (some days I wish I could justify getting one to have an official reason to always have a dog around! 😂).

To state the obvious, an autism assistance dog is a service dog that has been trained to help autists to navigate the world and allow them to gain some independence. Some service dogs have been trained to keep their human from leaving the house unattended,  alert children/adults with autism of dangerous situations, prevent self injurious behaviours and even induce calm by applying pressure to the foot or lap of their charge!

So smart!! 😍

Ever since the first autism assistance dog was trained 21 years ago back in 1997, these cuddly canines have made a world of difference to the lives of their owners.

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But what does the research have to say about these benefits?

There is limited research data to show the specific/scientific impact of service dogs as of yet, however the glowing reports from assistance dog owners speaks for itself.

As I discussed in a previous post, some studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet as they act as “social lubricants”. Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a noticeable biological calming effect on people with autism as stroking animals has demonstrated a measurable drop in anxiety levels! So just by being there, autism assistance dogs are having a huge impact to the mental and social wellbeing of their human.

These dogs do however cost around €15,000 to raise over two years, so if you’re thinking about applying for one, really consider yours/your childs needs first as there are many out there who could really benefit from their assistance.

Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! 😀 I do love it when I get an opportunity to chat about dogs! ❤

Okay- maybe just one more cute pic 😉 😍

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Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen-Little Man Tate

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

This week I’d like to focus in on the 1991 film Little Man Tate and it’s depiction of Asperger’s Syndrome.

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Directed by and starring Jodie Foster, Little Man Tate tells the story of Fred, a young genius (sigh) with Asperger’s syndrome and his relationship with his loving mother Dede. Fred struggles to relate to his peers due to his high intellect in school whilst his mother wonders why he can’t just be a “normal, happy little kid”. Life begins to change for the better for Fred however when his intellect is discovered by a child psychologist who wants to enroll Fred in a school for gifted children.

You can check out the trailer for the film below:

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

Aside from the obvious genius/savant conundrum (I’m sick of giving out about it’s over-portrayal in film at this stage! 😛 ), the Asperger’s traits portrayed here were highly stereotypical in my opinion. Granted, the film never explicitly mentions autism, however many experts consider the character as having Asperger’s.

The film is very dated in it’s portrayal, however, this would have been one of the earlier film portrayals of autism when knowledge was limited in contrast to newer more accurate representations such as in Mozart and the Whale, My Name is Khan and most recently in the Netflix orignal TV series Atypical.

However I have to give props to casting-  Adam Hann-Byrd could easily pass for Jodie Foster’s real son in looks and accent! 😂

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In addition to this, Foster’s character has to be commended for her determination to make Fred’s life as “normal” as possible, despite him being delightfully unique (as I always say normal is overrated!). Far too often autism is used as an excuse these days which will ultimately impede autists from reaching their true potential.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely 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

Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to discuss a type of autism that lies just outside the spectrum- the broad or broader autism phenotype (BAP).

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What on earth is that when it’s at home?!

BAP is a term used to describe a wider range of individuals just beyond the spectrum who have difficulties with language, personality, and exhibit a number of social and behavioural traits at a higher level than the average neurotypical, but not so high as to be diagnosed with autism.

In other words, this means that you have “a touch of autism” or “not quite autism (NQA)”. The individual has a high number of mild traits, but not enough to interfere with daily life.

So what do we know about BAP?

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Relatively little- it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!

This intermediate description is most commonly associated with family members (parents, siblings, and other extended family members) of those with ASD diagnoses (14–23%), but it can also be found in the general population as well (5–9%).

Interestingly, evidence of an intermediate autism phenotype has existed since the late 1970’s (the term itself was coined in 1994), but it is only in recent years, with the expansion of the spectrum, that it has become a source of research interest for scientists seeking to understand the range of ASD’s that lie beneath the spectrum rainbow.

Broader autism phenotype

Much of the research in this area involves using the BAP to better understand autism- in particular it’s severity and genetics. By analyzing autism traits in families through the prism of BAP for example, researchers may be better able to identify the specific genes which underpin ASDs, paving the way for better therapies for autists.

Apologies for the shortness of this post dear Earthlings, but there is sadly very little information out there about BAP. Perhaps in the future there may be new research that will shed greater light on this subject 🙂

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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