Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ˜› )?

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… ๐Ÿ˜›

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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! ๐Ÿ˜› )

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But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! ๐Ÿ˜› Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and Empathy;ย Autism 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 inย 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).ย 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a wonderful weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

 

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

So let’s get down to some science! ๐Ÿ™‚

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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 ย 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! ๐Ÿ™‚

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain ๐Ÿ™‚ 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! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

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