Autism and Thrush

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Thrush- not the most fun topic to talk about, and not one that you would immediately associate with ASDs.

BUT!

This opportunistic infection may have more to do with autism than you might think!

Following a recent brush with thrush in my throat (cheers for that Ventolin! ๐Ÿ˜› ), and being a super nerd who likes to understand their afflictions, through my reading I’ve discovered that candida infections in the gut are thought to contribute to the symptoms of autism.

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So first things first, the basics- what is thrush?

For those of you fortunate enough to have not been infected at some point in your life, Candidaย is a type of yeast that usually exists in small colonies in the body, kept at bay by the immune system and our friendly neighbourhood symbiotic bacteria. However, when our immune system is run down, or after taking some forms of medication (such as antibiotics and steroid inhalers), this fungus can overgrow and cause a yeast infection (more commonly known as thrush). These infections for the majority of cases are mild and easy to treat, however more severe infections can be life threatening.

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But how does this relate to autism?

In recent years, emerging evidence suggests that autists may have over double the amount of candida in their gut than their neurotypical peers. As we have discussed in my previous post exploring digestive issues in autism, the microbiota of the gut can play an important role in influencing brain development and behaviour. As such, it has been theorized that toxins such as ammonia released by yeast during infection may interfere with mental processing and induce autistic behaviours. Some doctors have reported improvements in autistic symptoms through the use of anti-fungal medication and candida diets (low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet purported to improve gut health); however, the vast majority of physicians remain skeptical about candida’s role in autism due to limited scientific evidence (at present).

So might there be a reason that autists are particularly prone to thrush infections?

Interestingly in my reading about pro-biotics (particular strains of live bacteria which can have beneficial effects for gut health such as in yogurts, supplements, pro-biotic drinks etc.) and their use against thrush, I discovered that the bacteriumย L. reuteri is thought to be one of the main gut defenders against a number of candida infections.

Now why does that name sound familiar?

In my post about digestive issues in autismย we learned that this strain of lactobacillus is absent in some cases of autism. Moreover, some studies suggest that administering pro-biotics forย L. reuteri to autists can improve behavioural symptoms, which would suggest that perhaps this bacterium, or lack there of, may predispose autists to thrush infections!

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See? Far more interesting than you may have thought! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Research News Update July 2018

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

The world of research is fast paced- every day new studies are published telling us new and exciting things about the human body. As the scientific community has yet to pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms involved in autism, the wheel of research is constantly churning out new evidence to provide us with a better picture of the autistic brain.

Since my previous post about the neuroscience of autism,ย there have been several new and exciting insights into the physiology of the autistic brain, so I’ve decided to give you a brief summary of the research! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Folding in the Brain

In recent weeks a study has emerged that suggest that symptoms of autism may be attributed to excessive folding in the brain.

No- I’m not talking origami, but the formulation of the squiggly ridges or ‘folds’ that make up the brain (by a process known as gyrification) as you can see in the gif below:

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Brain tissue folds to allow for a greater surface area for cognitive functioning within the cramped confines of the skull- like a bar of chocolate melts quicker when you break the pieces up, so too does the folded brain work more efficiently than if the surface were smooth.

Recent research shows that autists brains may not fold in the same way as their neurotypical peers. Some regions of the brain, such as those associated with facial recognition are smoother in autists, whereas other areas such as the temporal (sensory processing) and frontal lobes (memory and attention) show signs of exaggerated folding. Excessive folding in these areas could explain sensory sensitivities in autists, in addition to variations in memory and attention deficits. On the other hand, decreased folding in the occipital lobe may explain why autists struggle with facial reading and processing ๐Ÿ™‚

Brain Shape

In addition to folding, recent research has focused on the cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) which contains roughly 80% of the neurons of the brain whilst only taking up 10% of it’s total volume! Thought to be associated with implicit learning (learning without awareness like learning to ride a bike or to swim), sensory function and cognitive function, 3D analysis of MRI data suggests that the shape and structure of the cerebellum may be different in autism. It appears that in some autists the cerebellum is flatter on the right side (the flatter the tissue, the lower the efficiency of the brain), but in autists with higher functioning social skills the structure is closer to that of a neurotypical individual- which may explain some of the communication difficulties associated with autism as the right side of the cerebellum is associated with language processing.

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Abnormal Brain Connections

MRI scans of preschoolers with autism have provided more evidenceย that the autistic brain is abnormally connected. In this study it appears that a number of brain networks connecting different areas of the brain show significant differences from neurotypicals. A number of components of the basal ganglia network in particular were altered in autism (which plays an important role in behaviour). Differences were also found in the para-limbic network which is also involved in behaviour in addition to emotional processing, motivation and self-control.

This may indicate the use of MRI scans to obtain faster autism diagnoses in the future, but it’s still very much early days ๐Ÿ™‚

There we have it now dear Earthlings, hope you hadn’t missed me too much while I was away.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

Sheldon Cooper- A Case Study

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ˜ฌ!

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 ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), 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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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! ๐Ÿ˜€

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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…๐Ÿ˜ฌ๐Ÿ˜‚)?!

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism Management- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’d like to briefly examine one of the most commonly recommended therapies for autism management- cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT.

So let’s all lean back in our chez long as we dive in! ๐Ÿ™‚

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First off, what exactly is CBT?

Originally designed as a treatment for depression, CBT is a form of psycho-social intervention (i.e. counselling/psychotherapy) that is widely used to help improve mental health. Unlike other forms of therapy, CBT focuses on developing coping strategies to target our problems and to change unhelpful patterns in emotions, attitudes, negative behaviours,ย  and thought patterns.

In other words- CBT aims to change negative ways of thinking or cognitions in order to improve behaviour.

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As a result, CBT is widely used to treat anxiety, depression, eating disorders,ย OCD and a range of other psychological issues- many of which are co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis. It’s thought that CBT can be a particularly useful tool to treat anxiety and to help develop emotional recognition in autists.

CBT was personally recommended to me following my initial diagnosis in order help me to better understand autism and to conquer my social anxiety.

So what did I make of it?

Well, being honest (as we aspies must be ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ), my opinions are slightly mixed regarding CBT. Whilst initially I found it helpful as it taught me a lot about autism and the reasons behind my behaviours, after a time, I felt that I didn’t really need it- especially given that I was in my twenties and had already overcome many of the challenges associated with ASD’s. In many ways, simply knowing and understanding Asperger’s Syndrome was enough to assuage much of the mental anguish I had inflicted on myself for being different ๐Ÿ™‚

Nevertheless, I did find it beneficial to have a neutral party to talk to in those first initial months post diagnosis. It’s quite a lot to take on board, so it was nice to have that outlet to help guide me through the fog.

All in all, I felt that perhaps CBT may be better suited for a younger person with autism in helping them to develop lifelong coping mechanisms that will enable them to thrive. Had I better understood myself earlier in life through CBT intervention, many things could have been so much simpler ๐Ÿ™‚

So if you think CBT may help you or your child, why not give it a try- get out your phone, book an appointment and take a seat on that couch (it’s surprisingly comfy ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Repetitive Behaviours- Skin Picking

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to give you an insight into a particular form of repetitive behaviour- skin picking.

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Ok- I know it sounds disgusting, but it is common for those with autism! The statistics are limited, but as many as 14.8% of autists exhibit this type of behaviour.

Skin picking, also known asย neurotic excoriation or dermatotillomaniaย  (I really do like the sound of these terms! ๐Ÿ˜€ ), is characterized by excessive rubbing, scratching, digging,ย squeezing and gouging of healthy skin. In chronic cases, the urge to pick and scratch can lead to scarring, tissue damage and infection.

If I were you though I probably wouldn’t look the condition up…some of the pictures of these chronic cases are disgusting!

In my own experience, I have a mild tendency towards skin picking. I prod and poke at bites and burns, pick at cuts and scabs etc., but squeezing my skin would be my biggest issue- I find it so addictive and it can be quite hard to stop! I also have a particular tendency to press hard against injured skin, like pinching an infected finger or pressing a sore toe against a hard surface- for some odd reason I find it comforting! It hurts, but I feel better about the injury after doing it. I suppose it must link back to the calming sensation of deep pressure stimulation or something!

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Now before we call the men in the white coats, let’s see if there’s a physiological reason for all of this! ๐Ÿ˜›

Research suggests that the dopamine pathway may play a particular role in this behaviour.

Dopamine is involved in reward motivated behaviours in the brain. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine activate dopamine, which is thought to contribute to the sensation of skin crawling and subsequent picking often experienced by addicts. So experts believe that dopamine dysfunction may be at play in this behaviour.

As I’ve discussed in other posts (sleep, ADHD, curiosity, inside the autistic brain etc.) dopamine is often dysregulated in the case of autism, so it stands to reason that this neurotransmitter may play an important role in skin picking behaviour in ASD’s.

Other experts point to a psychological reason for the behaviour as there is a strong link between skin picking and co-morbid psychiatric diseases. Skin picking is thought to act as a form of ย communication in times of stress in the case of autism and is believed by some to act as a sensory outlet for sensory stimulation and or soothing.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously discussed, we autists tend to have more sensitive skin than the average person, this too could influence our tendency towards picking and scratching our skin.

Ah- so I’m not crazy after all! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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But is there anything we can do to manage it?

Dermatologists and physicians find this one particularly difficult to treat and often seek drug and behavioural interventions to counter skin picking.

For me personally, this is difficult to advise as the reasons for picking differ from person to person, annnnnnd I tend to indulge the behaviour rather than avoid it ๐Ÿ˜›

However, I have been making conscious attempts to reduce the frequency in recent years to help protect my skin, and to avoid looking like a weirdo in public! Don’t want people thinking I have fleas if I persistently keep scratching myself!

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The best advice that I can give is to keep your hands busy- if they’re occupied, you won’t pick! Gaming and crafting I find can be useful to keep my hands from wandering ๐Ÿ™‚

So there we are Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope I didn’t disgust you all with this post! ๐Ÿ˜›

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

Autism 101- Meltdowns

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from Friday’s post, I’d like to place the autistic meltdown under the microscope today.

So what exactly is a meltdown?

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. You see a petulant, naughty child that didn’t get their way. Screaming, throwing things, violent behaviour- it seems like a tantrum, but the reality is very different.

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Meltdowns are described as a temporary loss of behavioural control in response to an overwhelming situation or stimulus. This can manifest physically (lashing out, kicking, biting etc.), verbally (shouting, crying, screaming) or both.

So what’s happening in the brain that causes these outbursts?

The human body increases secretion of what are known as stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline, cortisol) in response to a stressful situation. Studies have shown that autists have higher levels of these stress hormones than their neurotypical peers.

When a stressful situation passes, stress hormones should return to normal levels. In the case of autism however, these hormones persist in the body for some time afterwards. The autist is left with residual levels of biological stress which make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts.

Release of stress hormones is controlled by the hypothalamicโ€“pituitaryโ€“adrenal axis or HPA axis, a complex interconnecting network that comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland andย the adrenal gland (i.e. HPA). This system controls how the body reacts to stress. Research suggests that this system is hyper-reactive to stress in the case of autism.

In particularly stressful or harmful situations, our bodies enter a heightened state of physiological stress which triggers the “fight or flight” response. High levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline increase the release of glucose (to give a burst of energy) and increase blood pressure (to divert blood to the muscles) in order to prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it.

This response is triggered in the case of a meltdown.

Excessive stress hormone release pushes the brain over the edge. The brain thinks it’s under attack and instructs the body to protect itself at all costs. The autist is in instinctual fight or flight mode at the mercy of their stress hormones.

Meltdowns manifest differently from person to person. When I would meltdown, it appeared as though I were throwing temper tantrums as I stood and fought my corner; other times I would run away from my trigger somewhere quiet. Sometimes I fought and then ran away.

 

My parents tried everything to get me to control my “tantrums”. Taking away toys, sending me to my room, bribery, guilt, you name it!

Bribery was perhaps one of the more successful tactics they used. My meltdowns were at their worst around the age of 6, so my mother implemented a sticker reward system. If I behaved myself, I got a sticker for the day on the calendar. At the end of the month if I had a full set of stickers I would get a present.

It didn’t really work though…I only managed maybe two months without incident, and I doubt that they were consecutive. I still think fondly of that hard earned Monkees greatest hits tape (such a Hipster child! ๐Ÿ˜› ) and Hula Hair Barbie! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anyone else remember her?

One year, I was even asked to give up losing my temper for lent!!! ๐Ÿ˜› I lasted about 4 weeks, had a meltdown and subsequently felt like the worst person in the world for letting Jesus down!

It seemed biology had a different plan- how naive we were! ๐Ÿ˜›

So what does a meltdown look like for me?

I like to classify the severity of a meltdown on a scale from 1 to 3:

Stage 1: These are very mild and normally pass within a few minutes. Usually these entail getting a little bit overwhelmed and starting to cry unexpectedly- often mid sentence! Think of these moments as opening the steam valve to cool the system ๐Ÿ™‚ Maths classes for example triggered many of these mini meltdowns- I wouldn’t understand a concept or problem, get frustrated, aaaannnnd suddenly find myself choking back tears while my exasperated maths teacher attempted to break things down for me (or if this happened mid-homework I’ve been known to throw my book at the wall ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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Stage 2: This type of meltdown is a little more intense spreading out over several minutes, hours, and if particularly overwhelmed, on and off again over days. A situation, rumination or accumulation of stress tends to set these guys off. If wound particularly tightly, something very simple may tip the scales in this case- “You don’t want to play with me? FINE!” **Core meltdown activated**! Tears flow, your chest gets tighter and breathing can be difficult. This tends for me to be a “feeling” or cathartic stage. You’re in overload and need to feel, think and process the triggers until the storm passes.

TIP: I find thatย reasoning and music (songs that relate to the emotion or trigger) often work well to calm you and speed up the process. Hugs are also greatly appreciated as deep pressure calms and eases stress ๐Ÿ™‚

In this stage I find that shutdowns can also happen, wherein I struggle to speak, think and even act (an experience I’ll delve into further on Friday ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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Stage 3: Enter the dragon! These are full scale, out of control meltdowns. Fight or flight is triggered and you are working on autopilot. The brain has been pushed too far and launches all out war.ย These tend to be brief, (gradually abating to a stage 2 meltdown when the adrenaline wears off), but are highly destructive. You can literally say or do anything in this heightened adrenal state. Your mind believes it’s at war and will act accordingly to protect itself. Reason is useless; scolds are futile. The real Aoife is locked outside her brain, banging on the door desperately trying to re-enter the cockpit. I’m aware that I’m out of control and want it all to stop, but am powerless to do so. Nothing can be done but wait until the door is unlocked once more.

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TIP: Anger and attempts at restraint are useless in this situation, it only fuels the fire. Remaining as calm as possible until the mist passes is key.

I know these can sound a little scary, but they do decrease in frequency with time and stress management. It takes a significant stressor to trigger a stage 3 for me anymore ๐Ÿ™‚ Happy stage 1 meltdown’s, like hearing the Phantom of the Opera overture, can even be quite amusing! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Meltdowns are tricky, but easily managed when you understand them for what they are. In the years leading to my diagnosis, without knowing it, I developed methods to help ease these passing hurricanes. Deep breathing, writing out my emotions, hugging a pillow or giant teddy, talking, and praying, but most importantly music. Music is key for me personally. The melodies, the riffs, but especially the lyrics; they soothe my soul. They verbalize the emotions I’m struggling to identify and process,ย guiding me safely past the storm ๐Ÿ™‚

A meltdown is not a tantrum; it is not attention seeking behaviour; believe me- no one wants it to stop more than I do.

It is a biological response to excessive stress. We have no control over it. Punishments and judgments will only make things worse. Growing up would have been so much easier had my friends, family and (most importantly) I understood this.

Love, support and understanding are critical to meltdown management.

So try not to judge that kid crying hysterically in the corner at a party- there may be far more to it than you realize ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Does Autism Make Me A Bad Person?

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ˜›

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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 myย 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! ๐Ÿ˜›

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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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰

Having autism doesn’t make a person bad, it merely makes us human ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

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