Autism and Handwriting

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about something that you may not be aware is an issue for autists- handwriting.

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Experts have noted that a large number of autists have difficulties with handwriting skills and in particular tend to have worse quality in forming letters than their age matched neurotypical peers.

Seems a trivial issue I know, but the affliction of “doctor’s scrawl” can be incredibly frustrating, and particularly challenging for written examinations.

In my childhood I picked up handwriting itself fairly easily (I was so proud that I was one of the few who could write their name before they started school! 😎), however, when it came to learning joined writing- that was an entirely different kettle of fish!

I was ABYSMAL (still am to be fair, unless I try hard! πŸ˜› ). Everyone else in my class had no issue with handwriting, but just as with knitting, skipping, cycling and tying my shoelaces, I fell way behind. My mother even bought me loads of special inky/gel pens to try to encourage and improve my technique. Granted, I got there in the end (well sort of…it’s still an untidy scrawl, but it is joined up!), however, it was extremely frustrating to develop this skill.

So why is handwriting such a struggle?

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Based on the research it seems that the difficulties autists experience with handwriting are related to hand muscle strength and poor control of finger movements. Moreover, many of the regions of the brain associated with handwriting such as the superior frontal sulcus and the cerebellum, are altered in the autistic brain.

Some autists may also suffer from a co-morbid condition known as dysgraphia- a neurological condition that impacts handwriting and coherence (I’ll write a separate post on this at a later stage) which would explain why some autists struggle with handwriting tasks more than others.

So is there anyway to improve handwriting issues?

Time, practice and patience are key when it comes to handwriting difficulties, however encouraging an autist to use their hands more for such activities as colouring or working with play doh will help to improve finer motor skills, which will in turn help to improve issues with handwriting.

I also found in my experience, as simple as it was, that the pens my mother bought were quite useful in helping me to develop my joined writing skills. Although the inkier pens can be a little messy, there was far less resistance as they moved across the paper, allowing me to develop and better control my handwriting.

If however handwriting is proving particularly challenging, from an academic perspective it may be helpful to look into getting a scribe for exams or to ask your teacher if they will accept typed homework (I’ve strangely never had the same coordination issues with typing as I’ve had with handwriting!🀷)

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Atypical (Season 2)

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Following on from last years discussion of the Netflix smash ‘Atypical‘, I wanted to see how the second season fared in it’s portrayal of autism πŸ™‚

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In case you need a reminder, ‘Atypical‘ focuses on autistic teenager Sam as he navigates his senior year of high school. The show also focuses on Sam’s wider family and friends so that we are not given a mere one dimensional look at the reality of living with autism.

Picking up where the last season left off, ‘Atypical‘ follows Sam through the latter half of his senior year in high school, charting his girl trouble, struggles with change, and his fears and ambitions for life after school. The season in particular focuses a great deal on the difficulties Sam experiences with change as he comes to terms with the consequences of his mother’s affair, needing to find a new therapist, his sisters transfer to a private school along with an assortment of other changes associated with the end of his school days.

You can check out the trailer for season 2 here:

Just like last season, I highly enjoyed this refreshing and endearingly comedic portrayal of autism. The acting was again excellent and I believe that the show gave a well rounded view of the autistic experience.

What I liked in particular about this season was Sam’s support group. In order to prepare himself for “the abyss” or his future after graduation, Sam joins a group for high-school seniors with ASD’s. The good thing about this group meant that it allowed for other autistic characters and their traits to shine through in the series.

In addition to this, many of these group members were themselves on the spectrum (as the first series was criticized for not making greater use of spectrum actors) which meant that we actually saw a realistic portrayal of several spectrum characters! πŸ˜€ This was great for showcasing autistic women, especially as one of the characters was shown to have “super empathy” after stealing Sam’s art portfolio to keep him from going to college as he was afraid of becoming a starving artist! πŸ˜‚ Additionally the struggles to regulate tone were also evident in this group- a common trait with limited awareness.

Furthermore the season highlighted a growing area of importance- first responder autism training. Sam get’s overwhelmed when he attempts to sleep over at his friend Zahid’s house and leaves for home in his PJs. He is subsequently arrested for his odd behaviour in his attempts to “stim” and calm down, even after Zahid tells the officer that he is autistic. Here in Ireland, autism charity AsIAm are particularly dedicated to offering training to a number of services in the public sector for encounters such as this one:

https://asiam.ie/our-work/asiam-public-sector-training/

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However, there was one major issue in this season, which we Irish found highly irksome- the mispronunciation (or absolute butchering) of Kilkea, Athy, Co. Kildare (https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/banter/trending/irish-netflix-viewers-bemused-by-atypical-characters-pronunciation-of-kildare-athy-and-kilkea-37308271.html). This town was pronounced as kill-kay-ah, ath-ee, county kill-daahr. For the record- it’s pronounced kill-key, a-thigh, county kill-dare (literally no reason to mispronounce the last one! πŸ˜› ).

I didn’t even realize where they were talking about until they said Ireland at the end! Perhaps the scriptwriters would do well to double check their place names in future πŸ˜›

All in all I highly enjoyed the sophomore season of ‘Atypical‘ and would highly recommend this quirky comedy for a weekend binge watch πŸ™‚

Aoife

Ask an Aspie

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have you ever had any burning questions about autism that you’d like answered?

Is there any aspect of autism that you’d like to know more about?

For the past 18 months, you’ve listened to my ramblings about life on the spectrum, but now I’d like to turn it over to you guys! πŸ™‚

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For some time now I’ve been meaning to start a series called “Ask an Aspie” to allow you the opportunity to ask me questions/address the spectrum topics that you want to know more about πŸ™‚

So write me a comment or send me an email and let me know what YOU want to know most about! πŸ˜€

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Sheldon Cooper- A Case Study

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’d like to take a quick look at one of the most famous TV characters in recent years- ‘The Big Bang Theory’s‘ Sheldon Cooper.

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Strictly speaking, the show’s creators have said that Sheldon is not specifically autistic (and have been frequently criticized for stereotyping autistic behaviour), however, the evidence is overwhelming that he is a cornucopia of autistic traits. In fact, having seen every episode (and many episodes dozens of times thanks to the constant replays on E4!), I believe that he has demonstrated practically every single common autistic trait, and also many rarer traits which the average viewer may miss.

In case you haven’t seen him in action, here’s a video of some of his best “sheldonisms:”

So let’s take a closer look at who exactly is Dr. Sheldon Cooper?

Sheldon is a socially awkward, routine obsessed, theoretical particle physicist of genius intellect (*cough stereotype*!) who’s array of outrageous quirks have been the cornerstone of ‘The Big Bang Theory’s‘ enduring success. Much of the show’s humour hinges on Sheldon’s OCD, specialist interests (such as trains, physics, comic books and sci-fi), mind blindness and bluntness, with particular attention to his struggles to perceive sarcasm. Sheldon constantly has to be coached on appropriate social behaviour, including one particularly memorable episode where he had to practice smiling to feign support when his friend Raj was being obscenely obnoxious.

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It may surprise you to hear that many autists have struggles with smiling, particularly in forced situations such as in front of the camera (or in Sheldon’s case in an attempt to endear himself). I certainly went through a phase of not knowing what to do with my face in pictures as a child- there’s some pretty awful photos of me from one particular holiday until I copped how creepy it looked 😬!

Sheldon has also shown signs of synaesthesia (a phenomenon where one sense is perceived in terms of another i.e. hearing colours, smelling sounds etc- which I will talk about in a later post), a common, but not widely known autistic trait in the following scene:

Immortalized by the line “I’m not crazy; my mother had me tested!” (a line which I have jovially used since my own diagnosis πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ ), Sheldon can be a lot to handle. His narcissism, OCD, TMI and childish tendencies whilst comedic, often alienate him from friends, family and the world in general.

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As annoying as Sheldon can be however, we have seen huge improvement in his character over the course of the last 11 seasons- he has become more socially aware of others, more in sync with the ins and outs of humour, more comfortable with touch and has even bagged himself a girlfriend who will soon become his wife in the current season finale πŸ™‚ This character development is particularly poignant as it shows how in spite of the difficulties associated with autism, with time, effort and a LOT of patience, autists can overcome so much! πŸ˜€

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All in all whilst Sheldon’s character is highly exaggerated with many stereotypical autistic behaviours, I think it’s really important that a character like Sheldon features so prominently in a prime time TV show to help normalize the autistic experience, and more importantly to see the lighter side of things. So often we fail to see the funny side of autism- what can you do but laugh when Disney films trigger a happiness meltdown (wouldn’t know anything about that happening…πŸ˜¬πŸ˜‚)?!

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Travel

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Following a recent trip to Amsterdam a very wise friend suggested that I discuss the subject of autism and travel in this weeks blog πŸ™‚

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We all love nothing more than a nice trip away for a new adventure or some much needed R and R. For autists however, travelling overseas, (like life in general πŸ˜› ), can be very stressful.

The crowds, the smells, lack of sleep, ear popping, travel sickness, the stress of beeping going through airport security knowing that random people may invade your personal space- it’s a lot to process!

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So how might one navigate some of these difficulties?

  • Pack plenty of snacks– one of the trickiest aspects of travel I find is to find “Aoife friendly” food. If you’re travelling long hours without something decent in your stomach, it can be very difficult to stay sane. Eating healthier snacks may also help you avoid some travel sickness.Β Aoife’s Top Tip– the discovery of Belvita Breakfast Biscuits has made my life sooooo much easier!
  • Sleep/Caffeine– I know it’s not the easiest of tasks, but try to get as much sleep as possible before/during a flight. Nothing frays my temper quicker than sleep deprivation. Caffeine is also useful to help get you through the slumps- or Diet Coke if you like me have sensory issues with hot drinks πŸ™‚
  • Vigilance with metal– To avoid any unexpected pat downs, be sure to double check your pockets before security (you wouldn’t believe the things security have found in my granddad’s pockets- drill-bits to name but one memorable example! πŸ˜› ). Be sure to also double check your hair clips and jewelry- real metals such as silver and gold won’t set the alarm off πŸ™‚
  • Neck pillows- there’s a lot to be said for a good neck pillow on a flight! These can really help to make an autist more comfortable in the cramped confinings of a plane
  • Noise Cancelling Headphones/earplugs– These can be quite useful to help decrease the volume of your surroundings, and can also help to decrease the pressure round your ears in my experience. However, on my flight this week I learned that the use of large headphones is now forbidden for take off and landing- so you may need to check this out with your airline

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In addition to this, airports are beginning to realize the importance of creating an autism friendly environment. Shannon Airport here in Ireland for example has established Europe’s first airport sensory room in the departures lounge. You can check it out here:Β http://www.shannonairport.ie/gns/passengers/prepare/autismandspecialneeds.aspx

Shannon airport have also implemented a customer care program for autists where special caps and wristbands are assigned so that airport staff can readily recognize and help an autist appropriately.

It’s only a matter of time before other international airports begin to follow suit πŸ™‚

Happy travelling Earthlings! πŸ˜€

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Aoife

Autism on Screen- Please Stand By

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

In this weeks edition of ‘autism on screen’, we’re going to take a look at a brand new film about autism- the 2018 film ‘Please Stand By.

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What’s that I see in the poster? A young woman with autism?! 😲

FINALLY!

Nice to see Hollywood change things up a bit!

So what’s the story about?

Starring Dakota Fanning (was wondering what she was up to these days after Twlight!), ‘Please Stand By‘ tells the story of Wendy, a girl with Asperger’s syndrome living in a home for people with disabilities. When the opportunity arises to enter a screenwriting contest for ‘Star Trek‘ fan-fiction, Wendy must step outside her comfort zone and boldly cross the country alone (she ran away- a common trait in autistic women) in order to get her script to the studio on time.

You can check out the trailer for the film here:

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

Well…as excited as I was to see this film…the reality did not live up to my expectations.

Indeed, Wendy showed the classic signs of autism- meltdowns, lack of eye contact, preference for routine, social awkwardness, literal thinking etc., but she did not stand out as a unique character. She was quirky, but there was nothing unique about her quirks, unlike Sigourney Weaver and her fondness for snow in ‘Snow Cake.

Surprisingly, Wendy didn’t appear to be a savant as in other films, however, she did have superb recall of the minutia of her specialist interestStar Trek‘!

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I am a little shocked seeing as her character was so derivative in other respects! πŸ˜›

What really bugs me about this film however were the missed opportunities. As Wendy spends much of this film by herself, ‘Please Stand By‘ had the perfect opportunity to focus in on the challenges of a high functioning female autist. To the outside world, most autistic women appear fine; we employ learned/observed techniques to blend in- known as ‘masking’. However, behind closed doors it’s a very different story.

Case in point-check out this clip from last week’s Channel 4 documentary ‘Are You Autistic‘:

You would never know that these women are on the spectrum, but you could pick Wendy out of a lineup!

The film uses a lot of narrative introspection to give us some insight (albeit minor) into the autistic psyche, but alas the full potential here was not harnessed. Wendy mainly spoke in ‘Star Trek‘ quotes which while poignant, this narrative could have been put to better use to give us true insight into the speed/and or disordered array of thought within the autistic mind. I often compare my thoughts to that of Marisa Tomei’s character in ‘What Women Want‘ (which by the way is just as funny 18 years on as it was when it was released… Man I feel old!😬).

To be quite frank, the film is kind of forgettable (I even had to look up Wendy’s name she left that little of an impression on me!)- it just didn’t draw me in and I found it incredibly tedious.

But as I say with all these films- if you think it’s your thing, why not check it out? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure after all! πŸ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Autism and the Dentist

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’m going to discuss an important issue for many people on the spectrum- going to the dentist.

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I know- no one ever really enjoys going to the dentist (except maybe Bill Murray in ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘! πŸ˜› ), but for autists in particular, visits to the dentist can be quite traumatic. For many, the invasion of space can be an issue, for others, a trip to the dentist can aggravate sensory sensitivities (the sensation of brushing, the taste of toothpaste, the smell of latex gloves etc).

Thankfully I have never had any major issues with going to the dentist (aside from one unpleasant incident where the anesthetic didn’t take and I felt the drill hit a nerve…), nevertheless it wouldn’t be one of my favourite activities. The high pitched squeal of the tools, the scraping sensation against my teeth, the needles (shudder!)- it’s not the most pleasant of experiences inside my head! There’s a lot of fist clenching! πŸ˜›

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So how might we navigate an autists difficulties at the dentist?

Here are just a few tips and tricks that might benefit parents, dentists and autists alike:

  • Inquire if your dentist is autism friendly– Have they had autistic patients before? Do they have any special tools or techniques to make the visit more comfortable? Do they take any sensory interventions such as dimming the lights, providing sunglasses or minimizing any loud noises that may startle the child?
  • Prepare for a dental visit– Help to desensitize an autist to the experience by story-boarding a trip to the dentist with them so that they know what to expect. When it comes to anxiety, the fear of the unknown is often greater than the reality of the experience. Why not inquire if your dentist will allow you to visit the surgery/send pictures to desensitize your child to the environment and meet the staff before coming in for the real thing? πŸ™‚
  • Wear noise cancelling headphones– whilst this may not be as effective as in other situations given that the tools are operating so close to the ears, nevertheless this may help to take the edge off any noise related issues.
  • Weighted blanket– A weighted blanket sitting on your lap could be quite beneficial in calming an autist. As I’ve discussed previously, the deep pressure stimulation can calm the mind and put the autist at ease. X-ray jackets can also be used to substitute for a weighted blanket. Comforters such as soft toys or other sensory items that autists use to ‘stim‘ can also be useful to help put them at ease.
  • Communication is key– as I’ve said above, the unknown is often one of the more unsettling aspects of a dental visit for an autist. Talk them through each step, show them what you are planning to do to their teeth, allow them to see and feel the tools- testing a motion on the hand can be useful to desensitize an autist prior to the oral exam.
  • Rewards and Bribery– what child doesn’t love a good bribe to motivate them to get through their dental appointment?! There’s a lot to be said for the power and promise of a treat (I may have even bribed myself with a trip to the cinema to motivate me to get this post finished on time! πŸ˜‚)
  • Sedation– though not the best of options, this can sometimes be the only way for particularly anxious autists or those with gagging issues to get through a visit to the dentist.

I’ve also found this useful video about visiting the dentist if you want to check it out:

You can also find more information in the following link:

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/dentalguide.pdf

So there we have it Earthlings! I hope you’ve found this post useful πŸ™‚

Dental care isn’t always the easiest for an autist, but remember, prevention is always best- so get try to find a toothpaste that you like, pick the right toothbrush (soft bristles can be helpful) and take care of those pearly whites! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

Autism and Smell

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

As I mentioned in last weeks post on taste sensitivity, this week we’re going to discuss sensitivity to smell in autism.

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As with other senses we have discussed, autists can be eitherΒ hyposensitive or hypersensitive to odours. One autist may enter a malodorous environment without noticing anything amiss, another autist may wretch, or worse!

As a child, my nose was particularly sensitive to my environment (although judging by how I could taste the beer my friends were drinking yesterday evening from the fumes alone, this may still be the case on occasion πŸ˜› ). Bad smells were especially trying- the smell of salads, fish, cigarette smoke, incense, even something so simple as a bag of popcorn could easily turn my stomach.

But it wasn’t all bad- this sensitivity comes with a heightened appreciation for pleasant smells too πŸ™‚

Baking, chocolate, nice perfumes, the outdoors, the smell of metal (don’t ask me why I love this one so much- must be something to do with my taste in music! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ )- in fact, such smells are not only a sensory sensation, but can also be used to help calm an autist.

As easily as an unpleasant smell could unsettle me, the right smell could calm me back down again as a child.Β  I always kept a teddy or a blanket near at hand that I could smell to help soothe and calm me and to lull me off to sleep- I couldn’t sleep without one particular teddy until I was 16!

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^^^^My teddy was a lot more raggedy than this…😬

So why does smell affect autists so much?

Interestingly, some studies indicate that there are no differences in sensitivity to smell between autists and their neurotypical peers, however, much research points to the cortex of the brain. This region is heavily involved in smell processing, and yep, you guessed it- the autistic brain shows signs of dysfunction in this region. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex shows signs of overgrowth and excessive linkage in the neurons (just like an overloaded plug), so no wonder sensory perception is altered in autists! This region is also associated with the formation and retrieval of long term memories, whichΒ could also explain why smells are often tied to memory recall in autists (which I will explore in more detail at a later stage πŸ™‚ ).

One study also shows that autists may not inhale smells in the same way to their neurotypical peers. Evidence suggests that autists inhale deeply and intensely for both pleasant and unpleasant smells, whereas neurotypicals will tentatively sniff in the presence of an offending odour, which could further explain differences in scent processing.

In addition to this, research suggests that alterations in smell can influence social behaviours. A recent study in fact suggest that autists cannot smell fear and that there is a reversal in their response to fear. In this study, a group of autists were calm when presented with a sample of sweat from a skydiver, whereas their neurotypical peers exhibited classic signs of fear. In contrast, their fear levels increased when presented with the sweat sample from a calm individual!

In other words, an autists social behaviour may be affected by an inability to interpret social cues carried in odours- the mind boggles!

So there we have it dear Earthlings- hope this post didn’t ‘stink’ too badly πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Does Autism Make Me A Bad Person?

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to share with you something that I’ve been musing on a lot lately:

Does autism make me a bad person?

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When it comes to autism, there is a very fine line between bad behaviour and autistic behaviour.

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. Inappropriate statements and behaviours seem to hint at a naughty child.

It can be very hard to discern the difference.

As a child, I spent much of my time being branded as naughty. Growing up in an Irish household, I was no stranger to the dreaded wooden spoon…

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I was notorious for my “temper tantrums”, I always seemed to say and do the wrong things, and I consistently found myself fighting with those around me. In short, I was a nightmare!

Worse still was the nightmare I lived on the inside.

I never could understand why I said or did bad things back then. My sisters never seemed to find themselves in the trouble that I always did. Something simple would just set me off like a rocket and there would be no turning back. After the smoke had cleared, sitting in a pool of tears surrounded by the wreckage of a meltdown, I felt like the worst person in the world.

“Why did I say that?”

“Why did I throw lego at my parents?”

“Why was I so violent?”

I was always left shocked and appalled my behaviour, crying for hours afterwards at the consequences I faced.

Oftentimes I felt as though I were little more than a criminal. My parents even threatened my bad behaviour with the police on a number of occasions- once going so far as to put my PJs in a plastic bag after telling me that they were coming to take me away! πŸ˜›

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I tried so hard to behave, but I never could seem to keep it up for more than a few weeks. As I’ve told you before, I even tried running away because I couldn’t be good and felt obliged to leave.

But none of this behaviour was ever intentional.

Autists have no control over meltdowns; the brain is completely overwhelmed. In this state, literally anything can happen. Like Elvis, any trace of rationality has left the building. I’ll explore meltdowns next week in greater detail.

My tendency towards mimicry and myΒ twisted sense of logic also impacted my bad behaviour.

I graffiti-ed a desk in school after perceiving previous samples around me to be the norm, I practiced swearing like a sailor and flipping the bird (I struggled with the dexterity of it) before secondary school to blend in – I even forced the habit of chewing pens as I thought that I needed a “bad” or “cool” habit when I went there!!!! Don’t ask me how I rationalized that one! πŸ˜›

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Not good for your teeth kids!

Over the years I’ve better learned to control and prevent public meltdowns and restrict my social faux pas’, but on occasion I will wind up in a spot of bother just like everybody else.

Autism has huge influence over my behaviour, but do my actions make me a bad person?

This is a tricky one.

I’m not perfect. I often say or do things that can rub people up the wrong way, but for the most part, I don’t intend to do people wrong. Having been wronged many times in my own life, the thought of hurting another person greatly upsets me. When I unintentionally put my foot in it, I’ll torture myself for hours, weeks, even years afterwards for my missteps.

But I’ll always try my hardest to make amends and be better.

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Even before I received my diagnosis I made serious efforts to try to modify my negative social behaviours. I oftentimes find that I overcompensate with my friends for fear of being perceived as bad like my childhood all over again. I’ll proofread your project at 2 in the morning, I’m always baking and making gifts, I even overcompensate with emojis for fear of the wrong sentiments coming across. I forever spend my days worrying how others may take me up wrong.

I’m constantly in a state of high alert that I’ll do something bad. In many ways I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to be the sort of person that I couldn’t seem to be as a child, as if by being good now somehow undoes the wrongs, or acts as a safety net in case I meltdown or lodge my foot in my mouth.

Yes, there are times in my life when I can be bad, say or do the wrong things or lose control; but that doesn’t make me bad. Autism can make me act badly sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that the person is bad.

I’m by no means Mother Teresa, but I’d like to think that I’m a good person πŸ™‚

That being said, just because a person is autistic, does not mean that they are entirely blameless if they act badly. Indeed, much of my poor behaviour as a child can be attributed to autism, but there were also times where I knowingly chose to be bad, just like any other child.

Autism can’t always be used as an excuse for my actions.

Some psychologists for example, have theorized that Hitler likely had Asperger’s syndrome, but we couldn’t give him a free pass now could we?

Autism is a spectrum– there are both good and bad among us. We are human, we make mistakes- we just tend to make a few more of them than others πŸ˜‰

Having autism doesn’t make a person bad, it merely makes us human πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

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