The Problem with High Functioning Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss the term “high functioning autism”.

You may be surprised to hear that the term “high functioning” is quite controversial within the autistic community. In fact a recent study strongly supports discarding the term “high functioning autism” completely.

So why is the term controversial?

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Firstly, let’s quickly remind ourselves of what constitutes high functioning autism:

High functioning autism (HFA) is a term used to describe autists with strong language skills and an IQ of over 70 ( i.e they do not have an intellectual disability). 

Herein lies the problem- the term uses IQ as a predictor of functionality and does not take into account the day to day struggles of the average autist. An autist deemed to be low functioning may not encounter challenges in their daily life, but may struggle academically.  Similarly, an autist may excel academically, but something so trivial as writing an email may prove challenging. In many of the films I’ve reviewed, the autistic character is described as high functioning, but yet they are incapable of living an independent life.

Moreover, functioning levels often fluctuate from year to year, improving or dis-improving depending on circumstances and levels of support- there’s even evidence to suggest that, as with many things, autism can get worse with age! Levels can even fluctuate day to day where something as simple as lack of sleep can impact upon functioning. As a result of this, many autists deemed “high functioning” do not get adequate support for their needs.

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Researchers have found in a recent study that there is a serious gap between an autists cognitive functioning (IQ) and their adaptive behaviours (i.e. their ability to adapt to their environment). The average results show that autists with higher IQs scored 28 points lower than their IQ in adaptive behaviour scales, suggesting that IQ is a weak predictor of daily functioning.

You can read more about the study here:

Large study supports discarding the term ‘high-functioning autism’

Technically speaking, within the medical community the term “high functioning” is considered an informal term and is not in itself a definitive diagnosis, further fueling efforts to banish it.

However, I personally feel that removing the term could be problematic. In my case, both my IQ and functional abilities are high- I breezed through college, have an active social life, hold a job and live independently. To say that I am simply autistic to a person who doesn’t know me very well can skew their expectations and perceptions of me- especially in the workforce. Granted, public understanding of the spectrum is improving, but still the ‘a’ word can place you into a predefined box in people’s minds.

I worry that our move towards a more generalized view of the spectrum may effectively disable the truly high functioning. Recall how autism is divided into levels. Asperger’s syndrome has been swallowed up by level 1 autism, where autists have noticeable issues with socializing and communication skills. This level is characterized by:

  • decreased interest in social interactions or activities
  • capable of social engagement but may struggle with conversational give-and-take
  • difficulty with planning and organizing
  • struggles with initiating social interactions, such as talking to a person
  • obvious signs of communication difficulty
  • trouble adapting to changes in routine or behavior

where autists are vaguely classed as “requiring support”.

On paper, I fall under this definition, but it does not describe me as well as Asperger’s syndrome or the term ‘high functioning’. This definition paints an entirely different picture for people to that of my reality (for starters the only support I require consists mainly of a good bra, sugar, a hug and a box of tissues for unexpected meltdowns 😂). Were I to have been diagnosed earlier in life, this definition may well have held me back.

For many autists, indeed the term high functioning can be tricky, but I do not believe it should be abandoned completely. Yes, it is time to reevaluate our classification of autism to better define functionality levels across the entire spectrum, but perhaps there’s a better way to go about it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Art

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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

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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 citing Andy Warhol (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:  https://www.theguardian.com/uk/1999/mar/14/vanessathorpe.theobserver

Personally, I love all things creative- I  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 🙂

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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.  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! 😲 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! 😀

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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… 😛 😂)!

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 🙂

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Sheldon Cooper- A Case Study

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 😬!

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 😛 😉 ), 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 🙂 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! 😀

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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…😬😂)?!

Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Travel

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Following a recent trip to Amsterdam a very wise friend suggested that I discuss the subject of autism and travel in this weeks blog 🙂

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We all love nothing more than a nice trip away for a new adventure or some much needed R and R. For autists however, travelling overseas, (like life in general 😛 ), can be very stressful.

The crowds, the smells, lack of sleep, ear popping, travel sickness, the stress of beeping going through airport security knowing that random people may invade your personal space- it’s a lot to process!

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So how might one navigate some of these difficulties?

  • Pack plenty of snacks– one of the trickiest aspects of travel I find is to find “Aoife friendly” food. If you’re travelling long hours without something decent in your stomach, it can be very difficult to stay sane. Eating healthier snacks may also help you avoid some travel sickness. Aoife’s Top Tip– the discovery of Belvita Breakfast Biscuits has made my life sooooo much easier!
  • Sleep/Caffeine– I know it’s not the easiest of tasks, but try to get as much sleep as possible before/during a flight. Nothing frays my temper quicker than sleep deprivation. Caffeine is also useful to help get you through the slumps- or Diet Coke if you like me have sensory issues with hot drinks 🙂
  • Vigilance with metal– To avoid any unexpected pat downs, be sure to double check your pockets before security (you wouldn’t believe the things security have found in my granddad’s pockets- drill-bits to name but one memorable example! 😛 ). Be sure to also double check your hair clips and jewelry- real metals such as silver and gold won’t set the alarm off 🙂
  • Neck pillows- there’s a lot to be said for a good neck pillow on a flight! These can really help to make an autist more comfortable in the cramped confinings of a plane
  • Noise Cancelling Headphones/earplugs– These can be quite useful to help decrease the volume of your surroundings, and can also help to decrease the pressure round your ears in my experience. However, on my flight this week I learned that the use of large headphones is now forbidden for take off and landing- so you may need to check this out with your airline

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In addition to this, airports are beginning to realize the importance of creating an autism friendly environment. Shannon Airport here in Ireland for example has established Europe’s first airport sensory room in the departures lounge. You can check it out here: http://www.shannonairport.ie/gns/passengers/prepare/autismandspecialneeds.aspx

Shannon airport have also implemented a customer care program for autists where special caps and wristbands are assigned so that airport staff can readily recognize and help an autist appropriately.

It’s only a matter of time before other international airports begin to follow suit 🙂

Happy travelling Earthlings! 😀

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Aoife

Autism on Screen- Snow Cake

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from the previous post, today I’m going to have a look at a female character with autism in the 2006 indie romantic-comedy drama (that’s a LOT of genres! 😛 )  ‘Snow Cake‘.

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As discussed in my last post, gender bias is often an issue when it comes to women on the spectrum. Autism is viewed as a predominantly male condition, and as such this is reflected in Hollywood portrayals of autism.

We’ve all heard of ‘Rain Man’, but “Rain Woman” is rarely seen.

Snow Cake‘ is a really interesting example of this seemingly rare portrayal of autistic women on screen.

Starring Sigourney Weaver and the late Alan Rickman, ‘Snow Cake‘ explores the unusual relationship between Linda (a woman with high functioning autism) and Alex- a man who comes to visit Linda after her daughter Vivienne is killed in a car accident in which he was involved. Feeling guilty that he survived the accident, Alex set’s out to meet Linda and bring her some gifts that Vivienne had bought prior to her death, finding himself reluctantly drawn into her world.

You can view a trailer for this film below:

Before I get into the discussion of this, there is one line in the film (that can be seen in this trailer) that stands out for me:

I know all about autism- I’ve seen that film!”

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Granted, this line was likely included as a slight from the screenwriter, (a parent to an autistic child), towards public perceptions of autism, buuuutttt it does reinforce the importance of not believing everything Hollywood tells you of autism- something that one need bear in mind as to the portrayal of autistic women in this film in particular.

In terms of scientific portrayal of autism, the film gives a fairly accurate depiction of the symptoms.

BUT!

There is one major flaw…

Linda displays mostly male characteristics of autism!!

This is a common problem in on screen portrayals of autistic women as much of the information available to actors refers to male experiences of autism. For example, Diane Kruger was advised by a man with autism for her portrayal of Asperger’s syndrome in the series ‘The Bridge‘. When AS was featured in an episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy‘ many years ago, a behind the scenes featurette revealed that the actress based her performance on a boy she knew with autism!

For her role in ‘Snow Cake‘, Sigourney Weaver conducted a lot of research into the role and was actually coached by a woman with autism- Ros Blackburn. Aside from her endearing eccentricities however, the character of Linda does not differ greatly from other films featuring male characters.

The problem here may lie in the script for the film, as screenwriter Angela Pell is mother to a boy with autism, and her writing would have been heavily influenced by her experiences.

However, the film does provide a good reflection of the reality of autism in that Linda is not a savant or overtly intelligent as is often over-represented.

In addition to this, Alan Rickman interestingly chose not to research autism ahead of filming in order to accurately reflect the reactions and frustrations that an outsider would experience in an encounter with an autistic individual, adding a further dimension of realism to the film.

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All in all, gender issues aside, ‘Snow Cake‘, while not the most riveting of films (wasn’t my cup of tea) does paint quite a realistic picture of life with autism.

Happy Friday everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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