Autism and Stress Management

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post, this week I’d like to briefly discuss stress management and autism.

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As highlighted previously, it’s very important for autists to manage their stress levels for our long term mental and physical health due to our higher levels of biological stress.

To an autist, life and the world can be quite overwhelming so it can be very difficult to manage stress when surrounded by stressors.

So here are a couple of tips and tricks for managing stress with autism:

Weighted blankets- these are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin and dopamine to relax and calm the racing mind.

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“Stimming”- Self stimulatory behaviours such as hand flapping or noise making can help to calm down the brain using a similar biological mechanism to weighted blankets. Glutamate is one of the excess excitatory neurotransmitters that is released in the autistic brain. When we “stim” it triggers the brain’s reward system to release the pleasure hormone dopamine which causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain! Items such as stress balls and fidget spinners can be useful tools for stimming to channel excess neurological energy in this way 🙂 

Specialist interests- specialist interests can be one of the most effective ways of coping with stress. They often provide a safe haven, a way to switch off and escape from the pressures of life which can help autists to manage stress. Hobbies are great dopamine and serotonin boosters- both of which are dysregulated in autism. I doubt I’d have survived my teenage years without the escape that Harry Potter gave me! 

Exercise– the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind really rings true here. There’s nothing like working up a good sweat or going for a nice walk to release endorphins and lower your stress levels.

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Preparedness– one of the most stressing aspects of autism is navigating and coping with the unknown. Nothing get’s my stress levels up more than finding myself in a situation that I don’t know how to navigate- like getting lost on the road in an unfamiliar area; driving in general is one of my largest stressors 😛 Plan routes, study timetables, look up menus- all these little things add up to reduce your stress in the long run. You can’t prepare for everything, but every little bit helps 🙂

At the end of the day, everyone has their own methods for minimizing stress and as with autism, stress management is not one size for all. Try and find what works for you or your child and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Pain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As I am currently recovering from the removal of my wisdom teeth (contrary to popular belief- my mouth is too small 😛 ), I’ve decided to write about pain and autism this week.

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One might imagine that autists have a higher response to physical pain owing to our sensory sensitivities, however, pain perception, as with all aspects of the spectrum, is entirely individual to the autist.

Some are hypersensitive (touching the skin or simply brushing your hair can cause pain), whereas others may in fact have very high pain thresholds. Yours truly unknowingly lived with a permanent ulcer in their mouth from an impacted wisdom tooth for a couple of years due this without batting an eyelid! I thought that was how it was supposed to look…😂😬!

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So why the polar responses to pain?

The evidence as to why this is is unclear. For many years, researchers believed that people with autism were insensitive to pain as they did not always respond to pain in the usual manner (crying, seeking comfort etc), in addition to the display of self injurious behaviours. However, more recent studies have challenged this notion indicating that people with autism show signs of hypersensitivity to pain in the brain, experiencing greater physiological responses to pain than neurotypical peers.

The autistic brain clearly demonstrates alterations in “normal” pain pathways, but is there a root explanation?

Some evidence points to genetic mutations in such genes as the Shank genes (which have  recently been implicated in a number of autistic behaviours), however, the explanation could be much simpler. As discussed in previous posts, numerous neurotransmitters are dysregulated in autism- neurotransmitters which play an important role in our perception of pain.

Evidence suggests that Dopamine in particular plays an important role in the modulation of pain perception and analgesia in the body. Many studies have linked dopamine dysregulation to autism, which could explain why pain responses vary among autists 🙂

There we have it now Earthlings! 🙂 Hope this post wasn’t too “painful” for you! 😉

Okaaaay, that was a bad one! Sorry 😛

We’ll blame that pun on my wisdom teeth! 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and “Stimming”

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to touch on one of the most commonly observed autistic behaviours- “stimming”.

So what exactly is “stimming?”

Self-stimulatory behaviour, (also known as stereotypy or “stimming”), refers to many of the repetitive behaviours often exhibited by autists. Examples of these behaviours include scratching or rubbing the skin, noise making, smelling objects and the classic examples of rocking and  hand flapping, although in my experience it’s a lot more like ‘Jazz hands’ than flapping!

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There are two psychological theories as to why autists stim:

  • As a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli
  • As a means of relieving stress and anxiety

From a physiological perspective, there are a number of possible biological reasons.

Some researchers believe that stimming provides the autist with sensory stimulation. Contrary to common belief, many people with autism have a reduced sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. Dysfunctions in the circuitry of the brain mean that the body craves sensory stimulation, and so we adapt repetitive behaviours in order to stimulate and excite our nervous system.

Deficits in dopamine levels in the brain can also interfere with our reward pathways, leading autists to engage in behaviours, such as stimming, which will provide the extra hit of dopamine that the brain needs.

So that’s why I’m drawn to fluffy things! 😉

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Aside from being drawn to stimulatory texures, I have a particular tendency to fidget with the silver chain around my neck. I just find something oddly soothing about the rough sensation of the metal against my skin! 😛

In my experience, I also find that stimming isn’t always a response to stress, but born from a need to keep my hands busy.

As I’ve discussed previously, research shows that autists have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate, and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, we are often hyper-stimulated. Stimulation of the brain’s reward system, i.e.  dopamine release through “stimming” behaviour, causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain!

This would explain why I’ve often found that stimming sometimes helps me to concentrate and clear my mind by channeling any excess energy into a physical action. I find this particularly helpful when I’m studying, or writing, and for some strange reason while I’m waiting for the microwave to ping! 😛 #excitedforfood

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Stimming can also be considered a form of self injurious behaviour, but I’ll write a separate post on this topic at a later stage 🙂

So is there anything that can be done to control this type of behaviour?

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  • Try replacement behaviours– if the stim is not socially acceptable or harmful, as in the case of biting behaviours, attempt to replace the stim with another one such as a fidget toy or chewing rubber
  • Exercise– there is evidence to suggest that exercising can decrease the frequency of stimming behaviours, although the research is unclear why
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)– is thought to be useful as self stimulatory behaviour operates in a similar way to OCD tendencies which are often managed through CBT techniques
  • Medication– Seems there’s a pill for everything these days! Medications can be used to help modify compulsive behaviours such as stimming, but I personally would not advocate this route

So there we have it Earthlings, a brief insight into stimming behaviours in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know: People with autism are five times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder?

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Autists are highly strung individuals. Our brains move faster than 10 speeding trains as we process the world around us; so naturally, we have a greater capacity for worrying. Imagine you are in the car approaching a straight road- you would just drive straight on without much further thought right?

In the autistic mind, you’re thinking about future bends that may (or may never) pop up, the condition of the road, idiot drivers you may encounter, stray animals or pedestrians, road works and diversions. What if I get lost? What will I do about parking? What if I get caught behind a tractor (a legitimate reason for being late for anything in Ireland! 😛 )?

What if this, what if that!

We over-analyse every single aspect of the most routine of ventures, twisting ourselves into anxious knots about an array of ‘what ifs‘ that may never come to pass.

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In my experience, social anxiety can be quite an issue. Most of the time, everything is hunky dory when I’m socializing- I listen, I engage, I laugh, no problem at all.

Buuuttt sometimes, if I’m in a particular group or struggling to get to grips with the topic of conversation, I feel so awkward that I start to get anxious.

“Am I talking enough? Am I saying the right things? Oh no that came out wrong! Aggggghhh!!!”

Annnnnd then I sort of slip back into my shell… 😛

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Most of the time, it won’t get much worse than this, but other times…I start to burn up, I can feel the sweats, my mind starts going into overdrive “Oh God everyone is staring!! They think I’m a saddo! What is wrong with me?”

My chest tightens up and it can be difficult to breathe.

Taking deep breaths usually helps to calm me down long enough to snap out of it…but sometimes it all starts to crumble in on top of you an then….

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MELTDOWN!!!! (^^^usually the flight instinct kicks in for me!)

Other times, anxiety has been known to wreak havoc with my digestive system. I once threw up on my own shoes from the stress of minding a drunken friend (who ironically did not get sick! 😛 )

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But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! 😛 Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! 😉

So what does the scientific community make of our anxious antics?

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and EmpathyAutism and Music)? Researchers believe that our struggles to correctly identify and understand our emotions (and those of others) to be one of the driving forces behind anxiety disorders in the autistic community. A desire for emotional acceptance and an intolerance for uncertainty are also considered key players in the anxiety debate.

In addition to this, a number of biological factors have been identified in the development of anxiety. Some people are thought to have a higher biological response to stress for example- something that is quite likely in the case of autism, as we are known to have higher levels of stress hormones.

Dysregulation of levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are also thought to contribute to anxiety such as GABA, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. As I’ve discussed in numerous posts- many of these bad boys are indeed dysregulated in the autistic brain. Changes in activity levels within the amygdala or “fear centre” of the brain may also contribute to anxiety- and yes, you’ve guessed it! Similar changes in the amygdala have been linked to a number of autistic issues (skin sensitivity, sound sensitivity). 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend! 😀

Aoife

 

Repetitive Behaviours- Skin Picking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 as neurotic excoriation or dermatotillomania  (I really do like the sound of these terms! 😀 ), is characterized by excessive rubbing, scratching, digging, 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! 😛

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  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! 😉

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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 😛

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 🙂

So there we are Earthlings! 🙂 Hope I didn’t disgust you all with this post! 😛

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to be exploring the benefits of music for people with autism.

We all know that feeling we get when we listen to our favourite songs- the rush, the rippling chills, the feeling that the music is physically running up and down your spine.

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But what if I told you that music can do so much more than just entertain us?

Research has shown that music therapy can greatly benefit people with autism by helping to improve social behaviours and interactions, focus and attention, coordination and spatial awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Music therapists aim to improve the wellbeing of their patients through music by encouraging singing, listening to, moving to and discussing music among other actions.

So how does music benefit the brain in this way?

The simple act of learning to play an instrument can greatly improve brain processing, fine motor skills and non-verbal reasoning skills. Interestingly, physical changes are taking place in your brain when you learn to play an instrument. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) can grow thinner in certain regions which can lead to such issues as anxiety, depression and attention difficulties. Evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument however thickens the cortex in areas associated with emotional processing, executive functioning, and impulse control– functions that are affected in many people on the spectrum.

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Studies have also shown that the vibration of music can help to stimulate and improve brain and muscle function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a role in the brains response to music. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, dopamine regulates emotions and mood. Researchers have found that music encourages dopamine release and positive mood changes, whereas noise exposure negatively impacts mood. As dopamine levels are out of sync in people with autism, music could really help our brains to better control mood swings and improve emotional processing.

In my own life, music has been highly beneficial to help process my emotions.

I have had a lifelong passion for music. The riffs, the vocals, the lyrics- there’s nothing quite like it! Music has always held a special place in my heart, but especially the lyrics from my favourite songs.

As I’ve discussed previously, many autists struggle to identify and/or describe what they are feeling, a condition known as alexithymia (from the Greek meaning “no words for mood“). Many years ago, long before my diagnosis, in times of strife I found myself intensely drawn to music. The lyrics soothed my soul and calmed my mind allowing me to process the storm of emotion passing through. Whenever I could not make sense of my emotions, I could always find a song that would verbalize my struggles, and after a time, everything became a little clearer 🙂

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There we have it Earthlings! We’ve all felt the power of music, and the science shows it’s potential.

So grab your ipod and dust off your guitar this bank holiday weekend- your brain will thank you! 😉

Aoife

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

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I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

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I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

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….I wake up feeling like death in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! 😛

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! 😛

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, where higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day!                                                   sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! 🙂
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! 🙂

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! 😉

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow 🙂

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on 😉

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Autism 101- ADHD

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So today I’m going to be talking a little bit about-

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Haha! Sorry about that! 😛 Although fun story- genuinely stopped mid conversation to cry “SQUIRREL” when out with a friend recently! 😉

Yes that’s right, today we’ll be talking about ADHD in autism- also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

ADHD is commonly diagnosed in autists (in the region of 29-83%), causing such difficulties as impulsiveness, over-activity and poor attention.

There are 3 main types of ADHD:

  • Inattentive ADHD (formerly known as ADD (attention deficit disorder))- This can manifest in a number of ways such as a lack of attention to detail, losing things, organizational problems, making careless mistakes, having trouble completing tasks and struggling to sustain attention.
  • Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD- Signs of hyperactivity and impulsivity include restlessness, excessive talking (Guilty!) fidgeting, interupting others, impulsive descisions and activities etc.
  • Combined Inattentive and Hyperactive-Impulsive ADHD

Personally, I would have really mild combined ADHD tendencies. In addition to my sometimes impulsive nature, I have a habit of zoning out of lessons and conversations, sometimes even films, books and TV shows for brief moments, completely lost in my own thoughts.

I can be pretty easily bored and distracted!

Half the time I’m not even aware of it happening. I could be reading a page in a book one minute, and suddenly find myself halfway down the next page, without any idea of what I was supposed to have taken in! Other times I find myself in a room in the house unsure as to why I came in as I hopped onto another train of thought mid action! I often have to repeat tasks over and over in my mind to ensure I don’t forget them.

My mind just completely wanders off…

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But somehow I’ve always managed to hide my inattention. It never really posed a problem at school. Teachers knew I was away with the fairies, but could never seem to catch me out when pressed! 😛 I suppose my deductive skills must have learned to compensate for my temporary lapses in concentration! 😉

Top Tip: Studies have suggested that playing video games may be beneficial to improving concentration in ADHD.

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Just because concentration can be a struggle however, does not mean that you can’t concentrate.

Interestingly, there occurs a concentration paradox in ADHD and autism known as hyperfocus- an intense form of concentration where you are completely absorbed by a task, something that I like to call “The Zone”. I’ll write a separate post on hyperfocus at a later stage 🙂

Aoife’s Top Tip: Applying specialist interests to tasks can encourage concentration. Last year I was struggling to write an essay for college, I found an angle that allowed me to write about Eurovision and suddenly I couldn’t stop writing! 🙂

In addition to my lapses in focus, I can also be a little bit hyperactive. Now, hyperactive doesn’t necessarily mean bouncing off the walls like a child high on sweets, it can also mean abnormally active.

I am quite a restless individual. On the outside, I may look like I’m staring at a wall, in my mind I could be designing a cake, a knitting project, writing a story or drafting a hypothesis. I once spent a train ride visualizing, staging and arranging a musical based on the music of My Chemical Romance!😂

I always have this need to be productive, even if it’s as simple as building my trophy collection on the Playstation or binge watching a TV series.

My brain never turns off!

If I’m excited enough, I do bounce around the place on occasion too 😉

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But what’s going on in the brain that interrupts our concentration?

It is not clear what exactly causes ADHD in the brain, but remember neurotransmitters? (Inside the Autistic BrainAutism 101-Sensory ProcessingAutism 101- Digestive Problems)

Most current models point to low levels of the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Noradrenaline. Pathways involving these chemical messengers project to the striatum and prefontal cortex of the brain- areas which are responsible for executive function (i.e. memory, planning, organization, behaviour control etc.). If these neurotransmitters are out of sync, this will have an effect on these functions. As neurotransmitters are also dysregulated in the autistic brain, this would explain why ADHD so commonly occurs in autism.

ADHD, like autism, can’t be cured, but it can be treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medication in severe cases, however, the side effects of medical treatment for ADHD have been controversial, and long term usage studies have yet to be completed.

However, like autism, ADHD need not hold you back in life. Some of the most successful people in the world have ADHD, such as Sir Richard Branson, Justin Timberlake, Simone Biles, will.i.am, Russell Brand, Ryan Higa, Jamie Oliver, Jim Carrey and Solange Knowles 🙂

So to conclude Earthlings-

Wait! What was I saying again?! 😉

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Have a good weekend guys!! 😀

Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to dive into the physiology of the autistic brain to explain what’s actually going on at the neurological level. I’ve touched on aspects of the science in previous posts, but I wanted to give you a quick overview post where the main points in the one place 🙂

So let’s get down to some science! 🙂

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Hyper-connected Neurons:

Scientific evidence suggests that neurons in the autistic brain are hyper-connected. Specifically, studies indicate that autists have too many synapses in the brain. The synapse is basically a gap or a junction between two neurons where chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) carry information like a ferry from one neuron to the next. It looks a little bit like this:

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During normal brain development, about half of the synapses we are born with are “pruned” off. In autism, this process is slowed down, and so autistic children have an excessive amount of synapses compared with their neurotypical peers. As these connections are essential to communication between neurons, this can greatly effect how the brain works and processes information.

Dysfunction at the Junction:

In addition to possessing an excessive number of synapses, communication at these neuronal junctions is also impaired in the autistic brain.

Animal studies have indicated that synapses function differently in the autistic brain as a result of genetic mutation. Mutations cause certain proteins to be absent in autism- proteins that are essential to the normal functioning of the synapse. As a consequence of this, the transmission of information between neurons is affected, resulting in a number of social and behavioral issues.

Think of physical junctions on a busy road- if something goes wrong at the junction, a chain of chaos will ensue!

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Hyper-excitable Neurons:

Research shows that in many cases of autism, neurons in certain regions of the brain are more excitable than others. This means that these neurons are more sensitive to stimulation. For example, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain (which processes sensory information such as smell), are more sensitive and excitable than other neurons. 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.

This sensitizes the autistic brain to all kinds of stimuli as discussed here.

Dysregulated Neurotransmitter levels:

As previously mentioned, information travels across the synapses in the brain via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In the autistic brain, the levels of these neurotransmitters are dysregulated- or out of sync. Research indicates that individuals with autism tend to have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamic acid) and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) causing neurons in the autistic brain to fire excessively. In addition to this, levels of the neurohormone (a chemical that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter) oxytocin, which plays an influential role in trust and social behaviours, are also out of balance. Moreover, dopamine (a neurotransmitter which can both calm and excite) is also dysregulated in autism. Together, the action of biochemicals like these influences a number of autistic behaviours and issues such as ADHD, mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety, sensory processing, social behaviours, learning, memory and emotional responses.

Male vs Female Brain

Perhaps one of the most fascinating  things that I have discovered about autism are the anatomical differences between the brains of the male and female autist. Brain imaging studies have revealed that autistic women have brains that are anatomically similar to neurotypical male brains, and the brains of male autists share anatomical similarities to those of neurotypical female brains.

In short- this indicates that men with autism have feminine brains, and women with autism have masculine brains!!!

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I know!!!!

It sounds weird, but it makes a world of sense. Oftentimes I’ve felt like I had a male brain growing up- my tomboyish interests, my fashion sense, my preference for male company, my inability to walk in heels; it all fits!

Strange but true! 🙂

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain 🙂 There is no clear mechanism through which autism acts, these are just some of the likely pathways involved. I’ll explore other possible mechanisms in a later post.

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

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