Autism and the Benefits of Animals

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

We all love our furry and feathered friends dearly don’t we? Seems hard to imagine the internet without funny animal videos these days!

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Animals are so important to us that they are not just friends, but an integral part of the family.

For autists, an animal in the home can be this and so much more (#specialistinterest 😉 )!

Research suggests that animals can play a very important role in the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and can also aid the development of empathy. Animals such as assistance dogs (which I hope to write a post on at a later stage), cats, horses, guinea pigs, and interestingly keeping chickens is the latest trend to help improve these skills in the autistic community!

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Studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet. Pets are often considered “social lubricants” wherein they provide autists with a source of conversation which can encourage better engagement.

Sometimes we find it a lot easier to relate to animals. I’ve often remarked growing up that life would be so much easier if we were all dogs for example. With a dog, life is black and white (fun fact– they aren’t colour blind!). You take care of them, they love you forever-simple. There are no games or tricks (well, unless like my dog yours spins round in circles when you try to brush him to make you dizzy in the hope that you will go away 😛 ), you never have to wonder where you stand with a dog, they’ll make it very clear if they love or hate you!

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Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a measurable biological effect on people with autism! A recent study measured “excitement” levels in children with autism when performing such tasks as reading out loud and playing with a group. The results showed that in these situations, the excitement levels were higher in the brain indicating stress. However, when these levels were measured whilst playing with an animal they  plummeted as stroking the animal induced biological calm.

Finally!

Scientific proof that I should spend more time cuddling my dogs!!! 😉

 

 

However, as beneficial as animals can be, experts advise that the individual needs and sensitivities of the child are taken into consideration when choosing a pet. A dog might seem like a good idea, but whilst many autists may gravitate towards the soft and furry, others may be repulsed by the texture of their hair, the smell or may even be overwhelmed by their energetic nature.

Aoife’s Top Tip– Try to expose your child to different animals to gauge their reactions before making any firm decisions on a pet- they are a big commitment! The research shows that any pet, even a spider, can be beneficial 🙂

There we have it dear Earthlings- another, scientifically proven reason to love animals all the more! 😀

What better way is there to spend the bank holiday weekend than relaxing with your pet? 😉

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Aoife

Social Awkwardness & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Soooo today we’re going to talk about perhaps one of the biggest banes of my life- social awkwardness! 😛

I’m not going to lie- social awkwardness is not fun. The constant fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say, the burning sensation in your face that’s never far away (huzzah for unintentional rhyming! 😀 ).

This article sums up the feeling pretty nicely through gifs’ s:

http://mashable.com/2013/08/15/awkward-gifs/#N36QeeXevGqn

Sitting awkwardly by yourself waiting for friends to arrive in a pub, tapping your glass and constantly sipping just to look like you belong, the pitying glances of bar staff when they see you at a table alone-the awkwardness can be all consuming.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to run from/avoid social encounters because of this awkward feeling.

Awkwardness is worse still when you’re hit by memories of previous awkward encounters! It’s a real domino effect- one awkward memory brings dozens more to the surface until you’re drowning in the red hot embarrassment of a cringe attack! 😛

I am constantly haunted by memories of my social awkwardness, buuuut as time goes on, you eventually learn not to dwell on your social failings 🙂

It’s a struggle yes, but you can push through the awkwardness. Over the years I’ve devised ways to navigate the rapids- making self deprecating jokes, keeping a mental list of backup topics for awkward silences, chugging a drink you’ve been bought (but don’t like) while your friend is in the bathroom so they don’t see your disgusted facial expressions 😛 😉

Social awkwardness may be a pain, but ultimately you can’t let the fear of getting wet keep you from swimming the social seas 🙂

Who knows-you might even put your awkward stories to good use in a blog some day! Comedy is tragedy plus time after all! 😛 😉

But is there any scientific reason for our social awkwardness?

Remember oxytocin?

Scientists have linked gene variations in the oxytocin receptor (which allows oxytocin to bind and interact with the body) to autism. Evidence indicates that people with autism have a specific variation in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which makes it more difficult for them to empathize, read facial expressions and social situations- predisposing us to social awkwardness.

In addition to this, psychologists have suggested that social awkwardness is all about perception. Awkwardness is thought to be influenced by the individuals perception of how a social situation should play out versus reality. If a social interaction does not go as planned…then the awkward turtle swims into view!

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This is a particularly interesting hypothesis. Oftentimes I find myself feeling awkward when silence falls in social settings as I perceive conversational silence to be awkward….aaaand then I tend to ramble on nonsensically to fill that silence! 😛

In reality, the silence may not in actual fact be awkward. Companionable silence is perfectly natural; the awkwardness I feel may inadvertently be of my own creation!

So it seems that perhaps social awkwardness in autism comes from the disparity between perception and reality in social interaction.

Social awkwardness is also thought to ironically help people improve their social skills! It has been theorized that social awkwardness acts as a warning system to help us to recognize that we have made social mistakes so that we will not repeat them in the future.

Seeing as autists struggle with social communication and interaction, it stands to reason that we often feel awkward so that we might improve our social skills in the future.

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So social awkwardness may in fact serve a purpose in autism! 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Discussion-Emotions and Empathy

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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?

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Ah yes- murder…I mean emotions! 😉

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 note I have to catch my breath and swallow hard to keep the floods at bay! 😛

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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 🙂

This past year in particular must be a new record for ‘least amount of time spent crying for no good reason in public‘! 😛 😉

Advice for friends and family: While this behavior 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. 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!!

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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! 😛 ).

Proof if ever there was that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover! 😉

Aoife

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