Autism and Catatonia

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So this week I’d like to talk about a rare condition that affects approximately 12-18% of autistic adults- autistic catatonia.

But what exactly is this when it’s at home?

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Autistic catatonia is a neuropsychiatric condition that causes abnormalities in behaviours, speech and motor functions with varying degrees of severity. In other words, it’s a form of autistic breakdown- one that is often misdiagnosed.

There are over 40 symptoms associated with the condition, many of which overlap with autistic symptoms and traits, so it can be quite challenging to diagnose- even for the most experienced professionals in the field. Symptoms may include mutism, hyperactivity, immobility, stupor, agitation, odd repetitive movements and echolalia.ย Due to the overlap in symptoms, it’s thought that this condition may be far more prevalent among autists than we realize.

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But what causes it?

As with autism, it’s cause too remains a mystery, however it is thought that vitamin deficiencies, trauma, infection and co-morbid disorders such as schizophrenia and biopolar disorder may contribute to it.

So how do we treat it?

There are currently no cures for autistic catatonia, however a number of therapies have been used to manage symptoms such as antidepressants, muscle relaxers, benzodiazapines (such as Lorazepam) and anti psychotics. Electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy), brain stimulation and NMDA receptor antagonists (a class of anesthetic drugs that are often used recreationally e.g ketamine, nitrous oxide, PCP and the heroin substitute methadone) have also been controversially used to treat catatonia.

There is limited research in this area at present as to how best to treat autistic catatonia, however a psychological approach to treat underlying stress and anxieties which may trigger catatonia is thought to be the best.

Whilst there is no cure, as in the case of autism, with early detection and intervention the condition can be managed ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings and that you’re Christmas preparations are coming along nicely ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

Autism Profiles: Anne Hegerty

 

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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As an avid fan of quiz shows I’veย  been fascinated by Anne and her brain for some time, and even more so after I read about her diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome at the age ofย  45. Before her diagnosis, Anne was on the brink of homelessness and struggling to “keep it all together”. However, following her diagnosis, she was introduced to the world of elite quizzing by her social worker and the rest is history! ๐Ÿ™‚

Most recently, Anne has been appearing in the news due to her participation in the ITV reality show ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, a group of celebrities (although the term is often used loosely these days due to the decreasing calibre of celebs willing to participate ๐Ÿ˜› ) are deployed into the Australian jungle for a few weeks and the public votes to subject their chosen celeb to ‘bush-tucker trials’ to win their campsite meals and luxuries. These trials are torturous ordeals where the celeb is often exposed to creepy crawlies, may have to wade through slime/crocodile infested waters, could be buried alive (with unknown nasties) and may even have to eat a range of unpleasant jungle critters- meals often including some “unsavory” parts of the kangaroo/crocodile anatomy…๐Ÿ˜ฌ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“People say to me, ‘I understand you suffer from Asperger’s’ or ‘you suffer from autism’, and I’m like, ‘no, Iย haveย Asperger’s, I suffer from idiots!” ๐Ÿ˜‚

Love this woman! ๐Ÿ˜€

It’s such a pleasure to witness to a real aspergirl showing the world that one should not be defined by a diagnosis, but by the strength of your actions ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a great weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Fear

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In light of this spooktacular week, I’ve decided to take a closer look at fear and autism.

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All of the Halloween themed memes floating around on social media this week have put me in mind of how strange some of my childhood fears were in comparison to those of my peers (in fact it’s estimated that as many as 41% of autists tend to have more unusual/irrational fears).

For starters, I was PETRIFIED of comedian Charlie Chaplin! ๐Ÿ˜› Absolutely TERRIFIED- he haunted my nightmares for years and I was convinced if I lingered in a dark room for too long that he would come out from the shadows to grab me! In addition to this, I was also irrationally afraid of chemicals and overhead power-lines (so afraid in fact I was convinced just touching the wooden pole would kill you- it was an innocent time before I learned about science and insulators vs conductors!๐Ÿค“).

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Fear has often been a dominant emotion in my life, fear of what people might think of me, fear of saying the wrong things, fear of losing my cool and melting down in public etc.ย ย According to world famous autist Temple Grandin, “the principal emotion experienced by autistic people is fear.”

But is there any scientific reason for this fear? Might autists be biologically predisposed to being more fearful?

When we experience a fearful situation, a biological fear response is triggered in the amygdala of the brain. Activity in this region when exposed to fearful stimuli triggers fear based changes in body functions such as sweating, shortness of breath, fight or flight, paralysis etc.

As discussed in numerous previous posts, changes/dysfunction in the amygdala are regularly attributed to autistic symptoms. So therefore it stands to reason that perhaps these changes in the amygdala may also influence/exacerbate the fear response in autists compared with their neurotypical peers.

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Other studies have also suggested that there is a muted fear response in autists which may explain the lack of perception concerning safety/danger often seen in young autists.

So there we have it, hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

Have a great weekend! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Colour

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So this week I’m just going to expand a little bit on something I’ve briefly talked about in previous posts– autism and sensitivity to colour.

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Yes- I know it sounds like a silly thing, but colour sensitivity in autism is real!

Thankfully I have no such issues with colour (I’m all about that rainbow! ๐Ÿ˜€ ), but many autists actively gravitate towards a particular colour and/or actively avoid other colours. Autists have been known to eat only white coloured foods, or to only play with toys of one particular colour for example.

You can see this avoidance behaviour quite comically in the film ‘My Name Is Khan’ย where the title character sees a man in a yellow top and awkwardly turns around to walk in the opposite direction to him!ย ๐Ÿ˜‚

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But is there a scientific reason for such an unusual behaviour?

Due to some of the structural abnormalities in an autists’ brain, difficulties in sensory processing and the integration of this sensory info can cause colour sensitivity, as autists will often detect colours with higher intensity than neurotypicals.

The colour yellow has been particularly known to trigger this behaviour in boys with autism as studies show that they really struggle to process this colour.ย 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 (it’s the brightest colour in the visible spectrum), as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye. Furthermore yellow has been known to be the most fatiguing colour to the eyes which could explain why sensitive autists avoid it.

From a psychological perspective, yellow has been known to increase a persons temper, and babies who are exposed to yellow rooms tend to cry more (will have to find another gender neutral colour when the time comes so! ๐Ÿ˜›ย ๐Ÿ˜‚). Yellow is also associated with danger/acts as a warning in the animal kingdom (i.e. bees and wasps). This is also true for fluorescent vests and street signs, which could also potentially trigger avoidance behaviour in the autistic brain!

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Hope you enjoyed this ‘colourful’ post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a great weekend! 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

Autism and Memory

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In today’s post we’re going to explore the concept of memory and autism.

When we think of autism and memory, we often picture the ‘Rain Man‘ stereotype- an individual with superb, photographic memory.

Whilst this is a stereotypical view of autism, stereotypes often are based on fact. It is indeed true that many autists possess impeccable and often eidetic memories (although the scientific jury is still out as to whether or not true eidetic memories really exist).

Just check out this autstic artists sketch drawn entirely from memory!ย ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

However, the opposite is also true in that many individuals with autism equally possess a number of memory deficits such as difficulties with short term and working memory (a part of the short term memory that temporarily stores information for processing-e.g decision making, reasoning and behavior). As a result of this, children with autism often have poorer memory for more complicated information.

My own memory has always been kind of strange- I fall somewhere between having a normal memory and an eidetic one (I definitely don’t have a full eidetic memory- school would have been a lot easier if I had! ๐Ÿ˜› )

bitmoji792226925Whilst I can’t recite the entire works of JK Rowling word for word, my brain does however, tend to randomly churn out eidetic memories every now and again (known as sporadic eidetic memory). I sporadically come out with full eidetic memories recalling such minuscule details as clothes, smells, songs, haircuts etc. My memories are so detailed that I once when recounting the previous night’s episode of Desperate Housewives to my Physical Therapist went so far as to mention the likely flavour of smoothie that the ladies of Wisteria Lane were drinking as they gossiped!ย ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜ฌ

I’ve unwittingly been dubbed the “family historian” as a result ๐Ÿ˜›

But what has the science to say about memory and autism?

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The research is conflicting. Scientists have had great difficulty in obtaining consistent results across memory studies- they are as diverse as the spectrum itself!

However, there are a couple of areas in which scientists seem to agree:

  • Visual memory is thought to be a particular strength in autists due to increased activity in visual areas of the autistic brain, resulting in enhanced perceptual processing (and eidetic memory formation)
  • Deficits in working memory may arise from alterations in the brain networks involved in working memory such as the amygdaloid complex and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) affecting their ability to encode and process information

Fun Fact: The regions of the brain involved in declarative memory (memory of facts and events) are thought to compensate for social deficits in autism, becoming activated in social situations to allow autists to maskย (for example using formulaic speech i.e. learned phrases)

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings- I hope this post was ‘memorable’ ๐Ÿ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Art

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to take a quick look at a more creative side of the spectrum- the benefits of art therapy ๐Ÿ™‚

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Too often we focus on the logic driven mathematical and scientific skills that autists often possess (*cough* ‘Rain Man‘), failing to see the array of creativity that exists within the spectrum. In fact, research suggests that there appears to be a link between milder/higher functioning forms of autism and artistic creativity- with many citingย Andy Warholย (who as mentioned in a previous post (celebrities with autism) is thought by several experts to have had Asperger’s Syndrome) as a prime example. You can read about some of his bizzare traits here:ย  https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/mar/14/vanessathorpe.theobserver

Personally, I love all things creative- Iย  paint, I draw, I sculpt, I knit, decorate cakes and as you all know, I write. Many a weekend has been spent consumed by an art project over the years ๐Ÿ™‚

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In recent years, experts have begun to target creativity in autists by exploring the potential benefits of art therapy.

So what exactly is art therapy and how might it help?

With a key focus on sensory stimulation, art therapy is specifically designed with the aim of addressing deficits and problem behaviours, building life skills, promoting healthy self expression, communication and to help to instill calm.ย  As of yet, there is little research into art therapy, however, currently available evidence has shown that it promotes mental and emotional growth for autists through art making.

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In my experience, the calming effect of art can be quite powerful. As I’ve previously discussed, I often find it hard to switch off my brain at times. However, I have found sculpture to be a powerful way to quieten my mind in the past. I once spent an hour at Art Society in college making a sculpture of dolphins, realizing at the end that I had not thought about anything other than the movement of my hands for the entire duration! ๐Ÿ˜ฒย The physical effort can take up a surprising amount of your thought capacity! Granted, the moisture of the clay and drying sensation against the skin may not be great for some autists on a sensory level- but in exposing yourself to new smells and textures through a fun activity, this can greatly help to reduce your tolerance for unpleasant stimuli! ๐Ÿ˜€

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Knitting can also be quite useful to calm the mind, however, I found that the more I improved, the more room I had in my mind for thought- but hey, it’s still fun, and not as boring as it sounds (my approach should be renamed “extreme” knitting, I have in fact injured myself from my exertions and needed physio in the past… ๐Ÿ˜›ย ๐Ÿ˜‚)!

All in all, art therapy offers us a unique way to help improve autistic behaviours by channeling them into something constructive, creative and above all fun ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Non-Verbal Autism

Greetings Earthlings,

Leading on from my recent post about voice control and autism, this week I’d like to briefly talk about non-verbal autism.ย bitmoji-39779843

Granted, I cannot provide any personal insight into the matter,ย (I could never be described as non verbal ๐Ÿ˜› ), but I’ll do my best to explain it! ๐Ÿ™‚

So first things first, what is non-verbal autism?

Affecting approximately 25-50% of autists, non-verbal autism is pretty self explanatory- the autist is unable to speak.

So what causes non-verbal autism?

Again, as with most aspects of the spectrum, the cause is unclear. Non-verbal autism is highly under-researched and therefore poorly understood. However, one particular study does indicate that there may be differences in the structure of the brains of verbal and non-verbal autists in areas associated with language. Brain imaging analysis of toddlers indicated that autists who grew up to be verbal showed similar signs of activity in these areas to their neurotypical peers. Toddlers who grew up nonverbal however displayed signs of reduced brain activity in the same areas which would likely explain their struggles to formulate speech.

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With early intervention and improved techniques, many nonverbal children can now learn to speak, however, a minority of autists will remain silent. But don’t despair, technological advancements in speech generating devices are now helping to reveal the inner voice of nonverbal autists.

Take the inspirational Carly Fleischmann for example. As I have discussed previously (lesser known ASDs), Carly is a non-verbal autist…and talk show host! :O Carly never let her inability to speak to keep her from her dreams of being a talk show host ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a video of Carly in action ๐Ÿ™‚ :

 

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend!! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Voice Control

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today we’re going to briefly talk about an aspect of the spectrum that many of you may not be familiar with- voice control.

 

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We’re all aware that autism is often accompanied by difficulties with speech (non verbal autism, apraxia, speaking in monotones etc.) however, few are aware of the challenges to control the pitch and volume of our voices.

This is especially challenging for me as I often struggle to accurately gauge my volume. For example, I may think that I am singing along at an appropriate volume, buuuuuut those who are listening to me may have slightly different reactions…

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I’ve probably deafened several members of my friends and family at this stage! ๐Ÿ˜›

For years I could never understand how I was chastised for my mumbling in school, but a shouter at home- I just could never seem to get the balance right.

I naturally tried to rationalize my shouting with waxy ears and struggles to be heard over the din of the school- but is there any scientific explanation for my struggles to regulate tone?

Many acoustic studies have found that prosody (an area of linguistics that focuses on linguistic functions such as tone, intonation, stress and rhythm of speech) is impaired in autists. Prosody is used to reflect emotional states, sarcasm, stress, emphasis and other areas of language that are not conveyed through grammar and vocabulary- an area where many autists struggle.

MRI studies have shown that the areas of the brain involved in the perception and processing of prosody (the left supramarginal gyrus (SMG)) are abnormally activated in autists compared to their neurotypical peers. Neurons in the left precuneus,ย the left medial prefrontal cortex and the right anterior cingulate cortex should be deactivatedย when exposed to prosody, however these areas are active in the autistic brain.

As a result, we are often unable to discern the exact pitch, tone or emphasis we should use in conversation. Thisย  abnormal activation also explains why autists often struggle to accurately interpret another persons meaning/intention through their use of prosody in their speech.

Impairments in auditory processing of sound in the brain may also feed into this issue- so try not to judge me too harshly the next time I blow your eardrums outย ๐Ÿ˜ฌย ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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