Curiosity & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to explore an aspect of autism that’s not widely discussed- curiosity ๐Ÿ™‚

Many people find that curiosity is in fact diminished among members of the autistic community because of our preference for routine. In my experience, the opposite is true.

To quoteย Albert Einstein, who is widely believed to have been on the autistic spectrum:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Passionately curious.

That’s how I would describe my insatiable sense of curiosity about the world.

Image result for magnifying glass gif

 

Throughout my entire life I have been driven by my desire to acquire knowledge. The words who, what, when, where, why and how are rarely ever far from my lips. For me, it’s more than just a desire, it’s a need.

I need to know how the world works, I need an encyclopedic knowledge of those I care about, I need to know why did the chicken really cross the road??!!

If I had had Google as a child I would have been a nightmare! ๐Ÿ˜›

If I don’t get the answers I crave, it drives me insane, getting under my skin like an itch I can’t scratch. A friend recently told me she had news for me right at the exact moment I lost my WiFi signal! I nearly screamed with frustration over the next two hours trying to reconnect long enough to find out what her news was!!

Curiosity does have its uses though when it comes to the likes of science, motivating you to stick with the building blocks that will one day lead you to understand entire systems.

Buuuuuttt…as we all learned from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, curiosity can sometimes get us into a spot of bother…

Image result for curiosity gif

Many autists have issues with impulse control (which I will explore in detail on Friday ๐Ÿ™‚ ) ย and as such, in my experience, curiosity can be impulsive.

For instance, I scorched the kitchen door as a child when I set fire to a drawing with a candle out of curiosity…

Another such incident (which I have no memory of but have been assured happened ๐Ÿ˜› ), saw my younger cousin and I trap my kitten between two buckets until my horrified mother caught us in the act!

The only explanation that I can offer for my behaviour based on similar experiences is that I was interested to know what would happen! ๐Ÿ˜›

Thankfully in this instance, curiosity did not kill the cat! ๐Ÿ˜‰

bitmoji343820677.png

Curiosity can also be an issue in social situations. Countless times I’ve landed myself in hot water for asking inappropriate questions, often unintentionally coming across as nosy. As with all things autism however, with time, you learn to reign in your curiosity and channel it towards something more positive, like keeping up with the latest research ๐Ÿ™‚ (even if the unasked questions do irritatingly press on the brain ๐Ÿ˜› )

But why am I so curious?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer in the line of concrete scientific explanation I’m afraid. There doesn’t appear to be much research in this aspect of the autistic experience.

However, in terms of the general science of curiosity, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role. Curiosity activates brain regions associated with pleasure and reward through the activity of dopamine, giving us that pleasurable feeling of satisfaction when our curiosity is quenched. Many addictive drugs operate through this pathway, so you could say that I’m addicted to learning! ๐Ÿ˜‰

 school big bang theory sheldon cooper mind expanding drug GIF

 

In autism, dopamine levels are dysregulated, which may influence curiosity as a result. Moreover, increased activity in the midbrain is associated with curiosity. Brain analyses of autistic individuals reveal structural changes in this region, suggesting that perhaps these changes contribute to and account for differences in curiosity levels among autists.

Stay tuned for Friday’s post where we’ll be putting impulsivity under the microscope! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Textures

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk about something that you may not be aware of in relation to autism- the issue of texture sensitivity.

During my assessment, I was asked by the psychologist if I had any issues with textures. Caught off guard (as I was unwittingly hoodwinked into attending the assessmentย ๐Ÿ˜› ), I quickly answered no, only to realize hours later that in actual fact, textures influence my life hugely!

In all previous conversations about autism, I had never heard anything about textures, but these are in actual fact a common source of sensitivity for autists.

Rough seat belts, itchy labels and materials, even bras can be extremely irritating to the hypersensitive autist.

There was absolute war between my mother and I when I would refuse to wear a bra as a child! The sensation of the garment against my skin weirded me out and I found it extremely uncomfortable. I would even try wearing it over my thermal vest to place a barrier between me and it, buuuut it didn’t very work well…I was constantly fidgeting! ๐Ÿ˜›

Image result for adjusting bra gif

Weird textures completely freak me out- cornflour (a particular pet peeve), some fruits and veg, yogurts (or most foods) with lumps in them and nail files to name but a few.

Encounters with such textures can lead toย reactions like these…:

(Fun fact about me- I genuinely shake my head like a dog when I shudder! ๐Ÿ˜› )

It’s not all negative though-ย you can learn to adapt and condition yourself to stimuli ๐Ÿ™‚ I never drank a glass of water until I was 11 years old as it felt really weird to me compared with other more flavorful drinks. I gradually conditioned myself to it by taking one gulp water followed by one gulp juice (my family found this hilarious ๐Ÿ˜› ) until the glass was empty- I now drink pints of water daily without issue! ๐Ÿ™‚

Pleasant textures on the other hand pose an entirely different sensory experience, lighting up my brain like a Christmas tree! ๐Ÿ™‚

The creamy texture of ice cream or chocolate melting in my mouth, the strangely irresistible and soothing feel of metal against my skin or the drug-like euphoria that comes from stroking a fluffy puppy-sheer bliss! ๐Ÿ™‚

dfdsfhsae.PNG

As my sister remarked as I was writing this piece, it’s easier to list the textures that I do like than those I don’t! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what’s the scientific reason for this sensitivity?

As we have discussed in previous posts (Autism 101-Sensory Processing;Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality), people with autism are hypersensitive to the sensation of touch. Dysfunctions in brain areas involved in sensory integration, in addition to hyper-connected and hyper-excitable neurons within the autistic brain, can greatly influence our responses to texture.

MRI studies of autistic brains also suggest that there is an exaggerated response to unpleasant stimuli in particular within the limbic system- a set of structures involved in such processes as emotions, behaviours and motivation.

It may seem like we’re consciously overreacting to certain textures, but our response is entirely neurological- so try to keep that in mind next time you see us pull a weird face after encountering an unpleasant texture! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Image result for nasty taste gif

Have a good week everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Snow Cake

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In continuation from the previous post, today I’m going to have a look at a female character with autism in the 2006 indie romantic-comedy drama (that’s a LOT of genres! ๐Ÿ˜› ) ย ‘Snow Cake‘.

Snowcake.jpg

As discussed in my last post, gender bias is often an issue when it comes to women on the spectrum. Autism is viewed as a predominantly male condition, and as such this is reflected in Hollywood portrayals of autism.

Weโ€™ve all heard of โ€˜Rain Manโ€™, but โ€œRain Womanโ€ is rarely seen.

Snow Cake‘ is a really interesting example of this seemingly rare portrayal of autistic women on screen.

Starring Sigourney Weaver and the late Alan Rickman, ‘Snow Cake‘ explores the unusual relationship between Linda (a woman with high functioning autism) and Alex- a man who comes to visit Linda after her daughter Vivienne is killed in a car accident in which he was involved. Feeling guilty that he survived the accident, Alex set’s out to meet Linda and bring her some gifts that Vivienne had bought prior to her death, finding himself reluctantly drawn into her world.

You can view a trailer for this film below:

Before I get into the discussion of this, there is one line in the film (that can be seen in this trailer) that stands out for me:

I know all about autism- I’ve seen that film!”

bitmoji891163261.png

Granted, this line was likely included as a slight from the screenwriter, (a parent to an autistic child), towards public perceptions of autism, buuuutttt it does reinforce the importance of not believing everything Hollywood tells you of autism- something that one need bear in mind as to the portrayal of autistic women in this film in particular.

In terms of scientific portrayal of autism, the film gives a fairly accurate depiction of the symptoms.

BUT!

There is one major flaw…

Linda displays mostly male characteristics of autism!!

This is a common problem in on screen portrayals of autistic women as much of the information available to actors refers to male experiences of autism. For example, Diane Kruger was advised by a man with autism for her portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome in the series ‘The Bridge‘. When AS was featured in an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ many years ago, a behind the scenes featurette revealed that the actress based her performance on a boy she knew with autism!

For her role in ‘Snow Cake‘, Sigourney Weaver conducted a lot of research into the role and was actually coached by a woman with autism- Ros Blackburn. Aside from her endearing eccentricities however, the character of Linda does not differ greatly from other films featuring male characters.

The problem here may lie in the script for the film, as screenwriter Angela Pell is mother to a boy with autism, and her writing would have been heavily influenced by her experiences.

However, the film does provide a good reflection of the reality of autism in that Linda is not a savant or overtly intelligent as is often over-represented.

In addition to this, Alan Rickman interestingly chose not to research autism ahead of filming in order to accurately reflect the reactions and frustrations that an outsider would experience in an encounter with an autistic individual, adding a further dimension of realism to the film.

Image result for snow cake

All in all, gender issues aside, ‘Snow Cake‘, while not the most riveting of films (wasn’t my cup of tea) does paint quite a realistic picture of life with autism.

Happy Friday everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Discussion:Women & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today, I’m going to discuss a very important issue within the autistic community- gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women with autism.

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a person with autism, the majority of you will have pictured a man (most likely Dustin Hoffman! ๐Ÿ˜› ).

Image result for rain man gif

The current ratio for male to female diagnosis of autism is estimated at 4:1 as the condition is thought to be rarer in women; however, many experts now believe that this figure may be as low as 2:1.

So why the discrepancy?

Did you know: Women with autism present differently to males on the spectrum?!

bitmoji169946342.png

Yep- as neurotypical men are from Mars and women from Venus, so too are autistic men and women from entirely different planets (maybe Krypton and Daxam for the DC nerds out there ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!

So how do women with autism differ from men?

For starters, several neurobiological studies have shown distinct anatomical differences between the male and female autistic brain (which I will explore in a separate post at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Girls with autism are thought to have more active imaginations than boys and participate more in pretend play, often creating elaborate fantasy worlds (I had a particular penchant for this. My sister and I created an elaborate world for our teddies each night, so elaborate that our star couple had their own imaginary portable mansion when we went on holidays!! ๐Ÿ˜€ ). Reports also indicate that women have lower levels of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than men.

Evidence has also shown that women are better at recognizing emotions than males, almost as well as their neurotypical peers in fact, and demonstrate signs of better attentiveness in social situations.

As a gender, women are more socially inclined than men, and so female autists feel a greater need to make an effort socially. It is expected that women should be more social than men when it comes to communication, and as a result, we are often held to greater social standards. I can’t count how many times a teacher/my mother pulled me aside to advise or chastise me for my social ineptitude! ๐Ÿ˜› It was thought that I struggled, not because something was wrong, but that I simply didn’t try hard enough socially. Had I been a boy this would not have been the case.

One of the biggest differences between men and women with autism is the tendency among women towards social mimicry. Girls are particularly adept in masking their symptoms through observation of their peers, obscuring them from the view of parents, teachers and medical professionals.

I’m particularly guilty of doing this. For example, when someone asks ‘How are you?’, I honestly don’t know how to respond! Should I just say fine? Should I reciprocate the sentiment? Should I detail the many ways my life sucks at present?! Three of the simplest words in the English language and I struggle to respond! I eventually developed a mental phrase card in my head for common questions like these so that I would have a standard answer when called for, and 90% of the time you pass for a functioning human being! Other times you get caught off guard and situations like this happen ๐Ÿ˜› :

15978097_10209539652072238_4508618477815437814_n.jpg

My life is full of these little social coping mechanisms, which I’ll expand on separately at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Finally, as previouslyย discussed, when it comes to specialist interests, female autists tend to have interests resembling those of their neurotypical peers (horses, Harry Potter, soap operas, Justin Bieber etc.), which can additionally hide them from view. Psychologists have also noted a ‘mothering’ tendency among peers of autistic girls, taking autists under their wing and adopting them into a social group. This further creates an illusion of social functioning for teachers, allowing these women to further slip beneath the radar.

As a result of all these differences, women are diagnosed much later than men, (men on average are diagnosed in childhood (~7 years); women as teenagers or adults) ย if at all.

But why it it only now that these gender differences are emerging?

Gender bias in autism can trace it’s lineage to the original observations of both Leo Kanner (described autism) and Hans Asperger (described Asperger’s syndrome) in the 1940’s. In Kanner’s work,ย โ€˜Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contactโ€™ (1943), Kanner observed a group of 8 boys, but only 3 girls with autism. Hans Asperger on the other hand, exclusively observed groups of boys, believing that AS was uniquely male! As a result, AS was not described in women until the 1990’s!!

whatgif_zps8269bc70.gif

I know!

Consequently, the diagnostic criteria for autism has been largely based on the male model of the condition, and as such, many women like me have slipped under the diagnostic radar.

Due to our inherent talent for social mimicry, women with autism unknowingly find themselves hidden from view. The warning signs that are obvious in males are not always visible, and as a result thousands of women go un-diagnosed, or worse still are misdiagnosed.

Mental health issues such as OCD, eating disorders, ADD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression are frequently linked with ASDโ€™s and are particularly prevalent among women.
Experts believe that women with autism tend to internalize their autistic symptoms, leading them to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and experience higher levels of anxiety than male autists.

Women are frequently mis-diagnosed with mental health issues, whilst the underlying root ASD goes unnoticed.

The internet is filled with stories of these women who spent years in mental anguish without receiving the one diagnosis they needed. I recently came across an article where it tookย “10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses” before a 21 year old girl got her autism diagnosis! You can read the article here: (https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/).

Researchers and clinicians have in recent years begun to adapt the diagnostic criteria to better serve autistic women, but there is much work still that needs to be done.

Rain Man‘ has dominated for too long- we need now to focus on “Rain Woman”.

bitmoji-1475045929.png

Aoife

 

Autism on Screen- My Name Is Khan

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In the next part of my autism on screen series, I’m going to explore the portrayal of autism in the Indian drama film ‘My Name Is Khan‘ (2010).

My Name Is Khan film poster.jpg

A dual Hindi and English language film, ‘My Name Is Khan‘ follows Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome, who set’s out on a journey across America to tell the president that he is not a terrorist following a sectarian attack on his family in the wake of the events of 9/11.

Check out the trailer below! ๐Ÿ™‚

So how does this film measure up in it’s portrayal of the realities of AS?

The film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film makers have endeavored to depict AS as authentically and sensitively as possible, however, as this is a work of fiction, they acknowledge that certain creative liberties were taken in the portrayal of autism- so as with ‘Rain Man‘, take the film with a grain of salt!

That being said, I found this film to be generally quite accurate from a symptomatic perspective. Granted, Khan appears slightly weirder than the average person with AS and many of his symptoms are exaggerated, but overall I felt that this was a solid onscreen portrayal of autism.

In particular I felt that this film gave a good representation of repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivity.

Throughout the film, Khan can be seen fiddling with some stones in a repetitive manner.

autism stones my name is khan aspergers syndrome repetitive behvaiour

I may not carry stones around with me, but I am constantly fiddling with my jewelry in a similar manner. It’s a compulsive action- I have this constant need to reach out and feel my chain between my fingers. There’s something incredibly soothing about the motion, especially when you’re particularly stressed. Actions such as these are referred to as stimming or self stimulation. I’ll dedicate a post to stimming at another stage ๐Ÿ™‚

As regards sensory sensitivity, I thought that the film presented more of a normalized and subtle reaction to sensory stimuli than most films featuring autism, particularly in relation to Khan’s sensitivity to the colour yellow (there’s a particularly funny moment where he changes direction on the street to avoid looking at someone wearing a yellow top!).

yellow my name is khan

When I first watched this film, I thought that this had to be an exaggeration, but in actual fact, as I mentioned in the last post, boys with autism really struggle to process the colour yellow! Scientists think that this may result from a sensitivity to luminance in autists. Alternatively this may occur as yellow is one of the most heavily sensory loaded colours, as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye.

Comparing this film to ‘Rain Man‘, there is quite a difference in how autism is portrayed. There was a far greater focus on everything that is good about Khan rather than areas of disability in his life, which can often be exploited in film for dramatic effect. Unlike ‘Rain Man‘, modern films about autism, such as this, haveย the added benefit of over twenty years of research and observation of the autistic condition, leading to more accurate depictions/attitudes to difference on screen.

Unfortunately however, Khan is depicted as quite intelligent (even called a genius), with superb memory and a savant-like ability to fix any mechanical item known to man, further promoting the stereotype of the autistic savant. These traits however, are somewhat muted in comparison to ‘Rain Man‘, giving a slightly more realistic portrayal of autism.

So there we are- hope you all enjoyed this piece ๐Ÿ™‚ I would highly encourage you all to watch this film at some stage. Autism aside, this is an amazing film- one of the best I’ve seen in a long time! In the latter half of the film, you start to forget that Khan is in any way different, finding yourself swept up in this powerful story of love, loss and acceptance.ย Having watched only the trailer to re-jog my memory, I really want to see this film again myself! ๐Ÿ˜€

Weekend plans sorted! ๐Ÿ˜‰

bitmoji-1592672837.png

Aoife

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to briefly introduce you to the issue of sensory processing for people on the spectrum. This is a very broad topic, but I’ll expand on the issues in more detail at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Many individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle to process every day sensory information. Sounds, textures, smells, lights, even colours (boys in particular struggle to process the colour yellow) can overload the nervous system and greatly upset us, effect our behavior or even trigger a meltdown.

But why?

In autism, our senses can be either hyper or hypo sensitive (sometimes even both) to stimuli at different times. Our senses are heightened- smells are stronger, sounds are louder. As a result of this, stimuli reverberate all the more intensely in our brains.

Think of the brain as a computer server at exam time where everyone is logging in at once. Too much information has been entered into the system, but the server can only cope with so much. The entire system becomes overwhelmed and the server crashes.

giphy (24).gif

Here’s just a quick video simulation of sensory overload.

Warning for those on the spectrumthis video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises

For me personally, I have many (mild) issues with sensory processing. Smells, tastes and textures are a daily struggle. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a salad as the smell alone makes me want to throw up- I’m dreading what pregnancy may one day bring! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Loud or irritating ย noises, (especially repetitive ones), too can be a challenge. Don’t get me started on the shock I get when a passing bus makes that giant hiss/woosh sound or a car honks the horn unexpectedly!! ๐Ÿ˜›

schauble.gif

Most days, you’re lucky and the offending stimulus passes quickly, but other times it can get the better of you. I recently had a near meltdown on holiday from a cocktail of excessive heat, hunger, exhaustion and social frustration.

Top Tip– Keep on top of your hunger/thirst. I’ve discovered this past year that an excess of either will make me act really loopy! ๐Ÿ˜›

When you’re hit by sensory overload, it feels as though your head is caught in a vice grip. Your mind is screaming, unable to focus on anything else but the source of discomfort.

bitmoji-943797920.png

The worst part of it I find is coming across as a complete basket case when overloaded. You don’t get the most sympathetic of looks when you complain about a persistent noise- few can understand how it’s making your brain hurt.

giphy (23).gif

So what does science have to say about sensory processing?

Sensory integration involves three basic sensory systems:

  • The tactile system (touch)- comprises a series of nerves passing information from the skin to the brain
  • The vestibular system (sound)- comprises a series of structures in the inner ear involved in movement detection
  • The proprioceptive system-a series of receptors in the muscle (proprioreceptors) which feed information to the brain about the body’s position

These three systems share a close but complicated relationship which allow us to experience, process and respond to different stimuli. Dysfunction in this network can cause hyper/hypo sensitivity, in addition to problems with coordination, behavior and academic issues.

Evidence from brain imaging studies has also shown that autists experience stronger responses in the brain to sensory stimuli in areas that process sensory information and the amygdala- an area that is involved in attention, emotional reactions and threat response.

But why is this?

Several studies have found evidence of hyper-excitability and hyper-connectivity in the autistic brain.

Evidence shows that in many cases of autism, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain are more sensitive and excitable than others. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

The autistic brain has also shown signs of hyper-connectivity, where regions of the brain are excessively connected- like an overloaded plug!

giphy (22).gif

This amplifies memory formation, sensory processing and causes an autist to be hyper-emotional, which can make the world painfully intense. Scientists have theorized that autists prefer safe, controlled and predictable environments as a coping mechanism to actively avoid this pain.

Finally, studies have indicated that sensory issues, in addition to a number of other autistic behaviors, may be linked to neurotransmitter (chemical messengers between body and brain) levels in the body. As previously discussed, some neurotransmittersย are dysregulated in autism. Evidence suggests that in cases of autism, there are higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, and lower levels of inhibitory (i.e. calming) neurotransmitters. These high levels of excitatory neurotransmitters cause neurons to fire excessively, which can influence sensory perception and processing.

I’ll expand a little bit more on the individual sensory issues at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy your week everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Rain Man

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

I’m going to change things up a little today with a new series examining the portrayal of autism on screen.

Film scholars have remarked that the portrayal of autism on film is generally inaccurate and highly stereotyped, so I’ve decided to take a closer look at things from a personal and scientific perspective ๐Ÿ™‚

So let’s start at the very beginning with perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism in cinema- 1988’s ‘Rain Man‘.

Rain_Man_poster.jpg

For those of you who have not seen the film, ‘Rain Man’ย focuses on the relationship between brothers Charlie and Raymond ‘Rain Man‘ Babbitt as they embark on a cross country road trip to Los Angeles (Raymond refuses to fly unless it’s with Qantas- the safest airline in the world!). Charlie grew up without any knowledge of Raymond, only discovering his existence upon learning that his father’s multi-million dollar fortune had been bequeathed to the mental institution in which he resides. And so Charlie sets out to be Raymond’s carer in order to access the fortune, but *SPOILER ALERT*- ultimately has a change of heart. Classic Hollywood ending.

Here’s a trailer for anyone who’s thinking of watching it ๐Ÿ™‚

โ€˜Rain Manโ€™ is often considered to be the main reference point for autism on film, as it prompted the breakthrough of autism into the wider conscious of the public. Prior to this, characters displayed autistic like traits in film, but autism itself was not discussed- likely due to the fact that the diagnostic criteria for autism was only just emerging in the late 1980’s. The term ‘Rain Man‘ has also become synonymous with autism and other mental disabilities in popular culture, as seen in this example from the film ‘Miss Congeniality‘ (2000):

jttgfdurgiphy

As a “female rain man”, I find this highly insulting, so try not to brand autistic people using the term ๐Ÿ˜›

Winner of ย 4 Oscar’s, ‘Rain Man’ has been highly critically acclaimed- but does the film match up to the reality?

Rain Man‘ is generally thought to be an accurate portrayal of the autistic condition in scholarly papers. Indeed, there are many areas in the film in which Raymond perfectly demonstrates some of the classical signs of autism- sensitivity to touch, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, specialist interests, coordination issues, deficits in social communication, autistic meltdowns etc.

Interestingly while I thought that I would not be able to relate to Raymond from previous viewings, I found that his literal thinking had me written all over it. There’s a scene in the film (which you can see in the trailer) where Raymond stops in the middle of the road on a pedestrian crossing after the light flashes “DON’T WALK”! I have a terrible habit of dawdling at pedestrian crossings. Oftentimes I can see that the road is clear, but still I’ll wait for the green man (although this may be related to getting clipped on the ankle by a car crossing the road in Dublin as a teenager! ๐Ÿ˜› ). However, I’m not as bad as I used to be since learning to drive; hesitation gets you nowhere on a roundabout after all! ๐Ÿ˜‰

The story where Raymond inadvertently burned Charlie in the bathtub as a child (which led him to be institutionalized), also brings back many memories from my childhood. There have been many cases where I have inadvertently harmed my siblings- why just yesterday I threw a foam roller at my sister in an attempt to help her stretch out her legs, only for it to whack her in the throat…oops!

Bad Aoife! ๐Ÿ˜›

Lindsay-facepalm.gif

But my intentions were good!!

Acting without thinking is something that I tend to do an awful lot of (probably why I overthink and don’t act when it comes to love ๐Ÿ˜› ). My mother had to keep a really close eye on me growing up after she found me attempting to push hair-clips down my sisters throat…I have no real answer for why I did that, but based on similar experiences, I’d say scientific curiosity probably had a role to play! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ We’ll explore curiosity and impulsivity a little bit more in the coming weeks.

On the other hand however, this film has largely perpetuated the stereotype that autists typically have superb memories and savant skills. As I’ve stated previously, these traits are rare, and the vast majority of autists do not possess them. The same goes for card counting- a family friend actually inferred that I should be able to do it once! ๐Ÿ˜›

In addition to this, Raymond is also described as ‘high functioning’ in the film, BUT Raymond is incapable of living independently. Whilst the definition of what constitutes high functioning autism varies, for many, Raymond does not fit the high functioning category and therefore does not come across as a true reflection of autism.

One of the biggest issues here I believe, is the fact that the character of Raymond is based on Kim Peek- a “megasavant” who did not in fact have autism, but FG syndrome (a rare genetic syndrome characterized by intellectual disabilities, low muscle tone and an abnormally large head).

Kim_Peek_on_Jan_16,_2007.png

Bit hard to write a film about autism when the inspiration doesn’t actually have autism if you ask me! ๐Ÿ˜›

On top of this, Dustin Hoffman famously prepared for the role by observing autistic adults for months in psychiatric institutions. However, Hoffman by his own admission describes Raymondโ€™s character as an unrealistic grouped composite of high functioning autists he encountered during his research.

With this in mind,ย don’t believe everything you see in the movies folks! ๐Ÿ˜‰

When I first got my diagnosis, this film naturally came to mind, however, I really struggled to relate what was presented on screen to my reality. Indeed, ‘Rain Man‘ reflects some of the realities of autism, but not all. ‘Rain Man‘ is an excellent film with superb acting from Dustin Hoffman, but it comes from a time before the ‘spectrum‘ when knowledge of autism was limited.

So when it comes to films about autism remember-ย autism is a spectrum; one size does not fit all ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism 101- Digestive Problems

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss the issue of digestive problems for people on the spectrum- but don’t worry, I’ll stick to the science! I won’t regale you with any personal tales on this occasion ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are among the most commonly associated conditions with autism.

giphy (18).gif

Evidence suggests that autists may be over 3.5 times more likely to suffer from issues such as diarrhea, constipation, food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux diseaseย (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).

I know- not the most pleasant of subjects, but we can all be adults right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

giphy (19).gif

Joking aside- these are serious issues for people with autism, especially for children. Autists are already sensitive to such stimuli as sound and touch. Adding GI discomfort to the mix can make things so much more difficult. The associated pain from these conditions can worsen behaviors, and in some cases, trigger regressions.

So what does science have to say about all of this?

As with autism, it’s another game of Cluedo- research is ongoing to determine ‘who-dunnit’. There are many suspects, but the culprit remains unclear.

Bacterial Abnormalities & Carbohydrate Digestion-The gut is home to trillions of bacteria naturally living in harmony with us. ย Our gut provides them with food and shelter, and in return they digest certain dietary substances and produce vitamins B and K for us to absorb. This forms what is known as the gut microbiome. Ordinarily bacteria and hostย exist in harmony, however, if there is an overabundance of certain bacterial strains, this can lead to a number of GI problems. Studies have shown that such overabundance exists in children with autism.

0417591d1cedbd58bc9721cfb9932f0e.jpg

Abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion have also been reported in cases of autism. The cells of the intestines appear to have difficulty in breaking down and transporting carbohydrates in the gut causing malabsorption of these vital nutrients.

It’s been suggested that these issues with carbohydrates may be connected to the high level of bacteria present in the autistic gut as digestive alterations may influence nutrient availability within the microbiome, but further investigation is needed.

Furthermore, in recent years, evidence is emerging that gut microbes can influence brain development and behavior!

Wuttttttt???!!!

jaw-drop-gifs.gif

I know!!!

In particular, there is evidence to suggest that people with autism are missing one specific bacterium- Lactobacillus reuteri.

One study in mice showed that following the addition of this bacterial strain to their diet, ย the natural microbiome of the was gut restored AND further restored some behaviors associated with ASD’s! Interestingly,ย L. reuteri promotes the production ofย oxytocin, which as previously discussed, is essential for human bonding and social behavior.

Who knew that bacteria could control our brains this way?!

gut-bacteria-controlling-brain.png

Brain-Gut Communication and the Role of Serotonin-As in the picture below, the brain and the gut share a very close relationship in the human body.

unnamed.jpg

The gut in actual fact has it’s own complex nervous system (the enteric nervous system) which regulates the activity of the gut- kind of like a second brain. Together, the gut and the brain form what is known as the brain-gut axis, a two way street where each can influence the other. For example, signals travelling from gut to brain can influence satiety, whereas stress/anxiety signals from the brain to the gut affect gut sensitivity.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate) within this axis. For example, serotonin plays an important role in the control of intestinal motility. As such, alterations in serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of GI problems.

But how does this relate to autism?

Yep- you guessed it, serotonin levels, like oxytocin, are dysregulated in autism, and therefore likely contribute to associated GI issues.

Further to this, there is also evidence to suggest that certain gut bacteria are involved in the production of serotonin in the body by interacting with serotonin producing cells (enterochromaffin cells). So perhaps alterations in these serotonin producing bacterial colonies may also contribute to these GI issues.

Diet-As people with autism often have restrictive eating habits, it was proposed that perhaps diet may contribute to GI issues. However, studies have shown that although autistic diets may differ, overall nutritional intake does not. On the other hand, many people report improvements in both GI and autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy) free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

Genetics-ย Finally, scientists believe that as with autism, genetic abnormalities likely contribute to these GI issues. Moreover, as autism and GI problems are so frequently linked, researchers have suggested that perhaps they both share the same underlying genetic mutation or may be caused by some other unknown biological mechanism.

So there we have it! ๐Ÿ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this ‘alimentary’ introduction to digestive issues and the spectrum! ๐Ÿ˜‰

bitmoji2091429958

Aoife

Discussion-Neurodiversity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss the movement of neurodiversity within the autistic community.

Originating in the late 1990’s, neurodiversity is a concept which suggests that neurological conditions such as autism, are simply a variation in thinking or wiring, rather than a disease that needs to be cured.

Think of iPhones and Windows Phones- both perform similar functions, but each have different circuitry.

Neurodiversity advocates that neurological differences should be considered a separate social category (such as sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity) and respected as such.

The movement is represented by this symbol:

Autism_spectrum_infinity_awareness_symbol.svg.png

 

^^^ These colours make my brain happy ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

Further to this, neurodiveristy classifies people as being either ‘neurotypcial’ (exhibit “normal” cognitive functioning) or ‘neurodiverse’ (autistic).

In a nutshell- neurodiverse people are wired differently, so we think differently; BUT, this difference is the same as any other genetic variation- like having blue eyes or brown.

You follow? ๐Ÿ™‚

raw (9).gif

However, this movement is seen as controversial and problematic in some circles as this broad term covers both low and high functioning forms of autism. It is thought that the concept of neurodiversity is skewed in favour of higher functioning and milder forms of autism.

This is a tricky one, but not necessarily relevant.

Let’s look at the case of Iris Grace, an autistic child artist.

Iris at 7 years old, is world-renowned for her astonishing and mesmerizing paintings, however, Iris has severe autism. Indeed, she struggles greatly with speech and communication, but her paintings are truly the product of a gifted and neurodiverse mind.

You can see Iris in action below:

Neurodiversity is central to one of the biggest discussions in the autistic community- the search for a cure.

Now if we consider neurodiversity to be a regular genetic variation, this begs an important question- should we be seeking a cure for autism?

Think of the Windows Phone again. Sure it’s not as slick as the iPhone and doesn’t have the same range of apps, but you wouldn’t try to change it very much would you? Updates can be installed to improve the model, but ultimately we accept that a Windows Phone will never be an iPhone. We see them as a separate smart phone category- individual in their own right.

Ironically, I’m a Windows Phone girl in real life! ๐Ÿ˜›

(^^^Update- Withdrawal of apps has since forced me to go Android ๐Ÿ˜ฆ )

If we can accept diversity in the world of electronics, why then do we seek to expunge it from the human race?

The autistic mind is wonderful and unique in its own right. With it comes new insights, quirks and ideas, unique gifts and talents. If we endeavor to cure the autistic community, do we risk the destruction of this uniqueness?

Personally, I would not wish a cure for myself. Don’t get me wrong, there are indeed times when life would be much easier if I could be just like everyone else, but I wouldn’t have my brain any other way.

If I had to pop a camouflage pill everyday to pass for “normal”, how could I still be me? If you took away my autism, would I still see the world as a source of infinite curiosity?ย Wouldย I still have the same talents and interests- would I still love Harry Potter?! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

A family member asked me shortly after my diagnosis, what was I going to do now? What was my plan- as if I had some terrible disease! ๐Ÿ˜›

Neurodiversity challenges us to rethink our perceptions of autism. It should not be seen as something to be cured, but managed with love and support.

Leading autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen once said that:

“having autism [is] like being a fresh water fish in salt water. In that environment, [we] are disabled. In the right environment, the disability reduces and [we] not only blossom but can fulfill [our] potential.โ€

It is not autism that needs to be cured, but our attitudes towards it.

And yes for those of you wondering- he is the first cousin of this guy ๐Ÿ˜‰ :

a7a2de36832ad4261de3c440afb8b3fe74f217f77188d61818274587cbc8e23d

Freshwater and saltwater fish, Windows Phones and iPhones, neurotypical and neurodiverse- these are all natural variants.

What makes one more desirable than another? Why should one be changed while the other stays the same?

At the end of the day, “normal” is subjective.

Autism is my normal-why would I ever want to change that?

No cure? No cure needed.

bitmoji-1537264962.png

I may not want to change my brain, but hopefully I can help to change people’s perceptions of autism with this blog.

Autists may think in black and white, but autism itself is a spectrum of colour ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

 

 

 

Discussion-Emotions and Empathy

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most prominent stereotypes for people with autism- that we don’t feel emotion.

We struggle to empathize, and as such, we are often perceived to be emotionless robots.

Nothing could be further from the tru-

Kill….Aoife must KILL…!’

So sorry about that… I don’t know what just happened! Now where was I?

giphy-13tumblr_lwnfdj8ah31qzdf0go1_500giphy-12

Ah yes- murder…I mean emotions! ๐Ÿ˜‰

The notion that autists are incapable of experiencing or showing emotion is entirely false.

In reality we feel too much, so much in fact that we have difficulty processing what we are feeling.

When I’m feeling something, I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by the emotion. Where a normal person may demonstrate no physical response to their feelings, I will likely dissolve into tears.

This may sound normal enough in certain emotional situations…but not for all!

Exhausted? Tears!

Frustrated by maths homework? Tears!

Holding a puppy? Tears!

Just hearing the Disney overture? Tears!!!

The smallest of emotions can completely trigger the waterworks because I simply feel the emotion on a much greater scale. Going to musicals can be a real problem- from the moment I hear the first noteย I have to catch my breath and swallow hard to keep the floods at bay! ๐Ÿ˜›

mean_girls_i_just_have_a_lot_of_feelings

As you can imagine, I’ve spent much of my life as a blubbering mess, but you gradually learn to get a better grip on your emotions ๐Ÿ™‚

This past year in particular must be a new record for ‘least amount of time spent crying for no good reason in public‘! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Advice for friends and family: While this behaviorย is normal, try not to be too dismissive of it. With this emotional hypersensitivity can come a lot of mental anguish. I was branded a drama queen so often that when I was genuinely suffering, very few noticed.

In addition to emotional processing, autists can often struggle to identify and/or describe the emotion that they are feeling.

This is known as alexithymia.

You find yourself gripped by emotion, knowing that you feel something but haven’t the slightest clue what that something is! It can take days, months, sometimes even years to pinpoint what the emotion is in my experience.

Alexithymia makes it difficult for us to not only identify or describe our own emotions, but also to distinguish and appreciate the emotions of others. This is why we often struggle to show empathy. We are not incapable of empathy (scientists have found our emphatic response to equal that of normal peers in areas of moral dilemma, showing even greater responses at the thought of harming others), but we find it hard to correlate your emotions with our own.

For me personally, I often find that in order for me to effectively empathize, I must have firsthand experience of the emotion.

Certainly this has been my experience with grief.

Growing up, I was quite fortunate in that I didn’t lose anyone close to me. As a result, I never really understood how to show empathy or relate to someone going through this experience. Sure I had been to my fair share of funerals, but I never had to interact with mourners.

This caused a lot of problems as a teenager at school…

Tragedy struck, and I did not respond appropriately. I didn’t know the parties involved and as such I carried on as normal with my schoolwork, much to the chagrin of my peers. I knew that the situation was sad yes, but I felt no impact. To my mind I saw no reason to stop the world.

I was branded heartless and widely criticized by teachers and pupils alike, all because I simply couldn’t understand what I had never felt.

It took the death of my dog Oscar to help me appreciate how others felt.ย For much of my teenage years, I felt as though he were my only real friend, so naturally I was devastated when he died.

Okay, I know he wasn’t human, but that didn’t diminish my experience of grief.

Now when I see other’s grieving, I struggle not to cry to seeing them in pain. Even watching old films from my childhood that never made me cry in the past now leave me in floods of emphatic tears!!

giphy (9).gif

But even with this newfound understanding, I still struggle to convey empathy.

I can see that you’re upset, but I’m never sure of what the appropriate response should be. Do I hug you, hold your hand, touch your arm etc.? One person may want me to hold their hand, another could shove me if I try to comfort them in the same way.

It’s extremely confusing!

I want nothing more than to take your pain away, but I just never know how to show you that.

Sometimes it’s just easier to do nothing rather than the wrong thing.

We may appear cold and aloof, but it’s a very different story on the inside (like a reverse baked Alaska! ๐Ÿ˜› ).

Proof if ever there was that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Aoife

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑