Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve  all been there at some point, but did you know that autistic people are bullied nearly five times as often as their neurotypical peers?

Studies have estimated that as many as 46% of people with autism have been bullied at some point in their life versus 10% of the general population.

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Our issues with social awkwardness and interpretation, hypersensitivity, literal thinking, poor motor skills and trusting nature can make autists quite vulnerable to bullies. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are being targeting and so the bullying goes unreported.

Navigating school as an un-diagnosed teenager was particularly challenging. My literal thinking meant that I was often unaware that I was being made fun of, simple things said in attempts to fit in were turned into taunts, my expressions of individualism were ridiculed- and I just couldn’t understand why.

When I finally started to realize what was going on, it was devastating. I felt like such a fool that I shoved my emotions down and tried to pretend that I was fine.

Buuuuuttttt there’s only so long you can continue to ignore a full septic tank for before chaos erupts…

Once your peers have seen you have a meltdown, some people will do anything to trigger another one.

So I trudged along quietly everyday blaming myself for the teasing I endured:

Why was I so naiive?

Why did I say that?

Why did I lose it? 

Why can’t I be normal?

I sat back and allowed the storm clouds to gather overhead every time I reached the school doors.

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It wasn’t until I burned out and hit breaking point that I realized I had to find a better way through, began to talk and learned, not just to cope, but to thrive 🙂

So what advice would I give to someone on the spectrum who find themselves in the midst of a bullying situation?

Well, as the bullying game has intensified with the spread of social media since my schooldays (rural Ireland had quite limited access to high speed internet in the noughties), this is a tough one to advise, but here are some of my top tips:

  • Ignore the bullies– An obvious one that’s easier said than done, I know (I pretended to ignore for years- it can take quite a bit of practice to truly let words glide off your back), but when you react or meltdown- that’s what fuels them. My reactions made bullies push my buttons all the harder. If you feel a meltdown coming on, take a moment to go somewhere quiet, get some fresh air and take a deep breath.  Bathroom stalls were a personal favourite of mine to give me some time to regroup (unless someone had been smoking in there… this added further sensory fuel to the fire! 😛 )
  • Find an outlet for your emotions- We autists experience and process our emotions in very different ways. If you shove things down, the end result will not be pleasant. So run, dance, go on a four hour killing spree on your PlayStation (something that I wouldn’t know anything about… 😛 )- do whatever works for you to deal with your frustrations. I know it’s hard, but finding an outlet will help to quell the dragon inside.
  • Try to think before you act/speak– Again this is quite challenging when you don’t have a filter or struggle with impulsivity, but sometimes what may seem like the most simple of sentiments to you can be twisted and misconstrued by bullies. An innocent comment I once passed about the family dog led to years of jeering and implied bestiality…! I still put my foot in it every now and again, but I’ve gradually learned to pause more to assess if my comments will sink or float.
  • Be careful what you post on social media- The online world can be a dangerous, unregulated one. We live so much of our lives online we forget that our peers are always watching. As with your thoughts, take a moment to think through your posts. Something as simple as a picture or throwaway comment could land you in bother both on and offline (a simple lack of an appropriate emoji once caused a rift with a friend). Remember- it’s also perfectly ok to abstain or take some time away from social media. It may seem like social suicide, but we all need time away from our screens- people disable their accounts every day for lots of reasons so don’t worry about what they’ll think at school. Your sanity is far more important 🙂
  • Talk to someone– If you’re being targeted, tell a teacher, confide in a friend or talk to your parents so something can be done. But bear in mind, they can’t always  intervene. Teasing is a natural part of life as much as it may hurt (something that the autistic mind really struggles to comprehend), and not everything can be prevented. What may seem a devastating comment to your mind may mean nothing to an outsider. Intervention aside, by simply talking to someone about how you’re feeling, this will make the load so much easier to bear. Don’t let the quicksand claim you- ask for help!bitmoji2141702869

At the end of it all, just remember what my Biology teacher once taught me- “Whoever said that your school days are the best days of your life lied- college days are the best days of your life!”

So don’t get disheartened Earthlings! It may be hard to see it through the swirling fog in the crystal ball, but life does get so much better (…once you get past the bills, taxes and work-day traffic jams! 😛 😉 ).

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

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

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Soooo….driving…

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Wouldn’t be high on my list of favourite activities I’ll admit! 😛 Stressful roundabouts, merging onto busy roads, idiot drivers, getting lost, the noise of hitting a pothole- it can be a lot for an aspie to handle!

My coordination issues did not make it the easiest of tasks to get the hang of, that’s for sure!

Coordinating pedal movements and gear changes, difficulties with spatial awareness, not to mention the stress and anxiety of learning to drive on country roads (Irish country roads tend to be narrow, winding, and full of potholes! 😛 ) made this a highly frustrating experience!

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I never could understand why I found it so hard to get the hang of driving when my sisters took to it so easily, but after I got my diagnosis, my struggles began to make a world of sense!

Driving would not be the first thing to come to mind when someone pictures the struggles an autist faces. In fact it’s a requirement in some countries that your ASD diagnosis be listed on your drivers licence if it impacts your ability to drive safely– you can even be fined in the event of an accident if it’s not stated on your licence!

Studies among autists actually report more traffic violations than in neurotypical groups, however, this may relate to our tendency to be more honest than our neurotypical peers 😛 😉

This doesn’t mean that autists shouldn’t drive, but it’s something to be aware of.

So how exactly does autism impact our driving?

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  • Impulsivity Autist’s are naturally more impulsive than neurotypicals. This can impact our driving by causing us to make poor driving decisions on impulse. It has also been reported that this impulsivity may influence speeding behaviours
  • Sensory integration/processing issues– Driving involves a huge amount of sensory input. Listening to the engine, watching the road, spatial awareness, not to mention unexpected road noises and unpleasant smells from the outside- it can be a lot for the autistic brain to process when moving a vehicle
  • ADD & ADHD- Autists can get distracted quite easily…on busy roads where lot’s of things are happening, your focus can sometimes waver. If there’s a cute dog nearby, I have been known to take my eyes off the road…raw (2)
  • Spatial Awareness & Coordination Autists often have issues with these which can make it difficult in positioning the car on the road, parking and navigating gear changes. Spatial awareness was one of my greatest obstacles when first learning to drive. I always seemed to be veering towards the nearest hedge…When I first got my car, I was practicing driving around the house with no problems, aaannd then I decided to change direction- BIG mistake! My poor spatial judgement caused me to nicely scratch the car on the edge of the dog house…before getting it stuck on some cement blocks at the oil tank! Caused a mini shutdown which made my sister think I had run the dog over I was so incoherent!! 😛                                                                           fghd.png

Top tip for parents and instructors: PATIENCE!!!! Learning to drive is much more difficult for autists so don’t be too hard on us for when we don’t get it straight away. We’re already beating ourselves up for our slow progression; getting frustrated or annoyed with us will only make it worse.

Here are some useful links with driving tips for autists:

https://www.nasherts.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Driving1.pdf

https://sellmax.com/driving-with-autism/

Aoife’s Top Tip- Get a Sat Nav. They really help to take the edge off when stressed about driving to new and unfamiliar locations. If you mess up, it will recalculate and send you right in the end 🙂

Having autism may initially make learning to drive difficult, however, you will get there in the end 🙂 After two years of stressful practice, I passed my test first time and drive everywhere now.

The freedom you gain from this skill is worth the fight 🙂

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Aoife

Impulsivity and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from the previous post exploring curiosity and autism, today we’re going to take a look at impulse control in autists.

Many people with autism report issues with impulsivity.

All my life I’ve struggled with this issue. Too often I’ve felt like Didi in ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, dying to know what the button will do and being unable to keep myself from pushing it! 😛

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As a child I was highly impulsive. I never knew when to stop eating, would impulsively give up on a book halfway through in favour of another (at one point I had 9 books on the go!)  and when overwhelmed I would often try to run away.

During one particularly interesting meltdown I began to impulsively throw all items that my mother had given me out of my bedroom window (which is a storey high I might add), whilst my sisters in the room below gleefully retrieved them, each determined to claim ownership…Clear example of black logic at work! 😛

So why do we struggle with impulsiveness?

Impulsivity in autism can be explained by deficits in what is known as executive functioning.

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Don’t worry- it’s not as complicated as it sounds! 😛

Executive functioning is simply a broad umbrella term referring to the mental processes involved in cognitive, physical and emotional self control. Examples of executive functions include planning, memory, cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt thinking to new and unexpected situations) and most importantly response inhibition– aka the ability to suppress unnecessary or inappropriate actions.

But what causes these deficits in executive functioning?

Many autists also suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), both of which have an effect on executive functioning and impulsivity. I’ll explore these disorders at a later stage 🙂

Experts believe that ASD’s share a common genetic basis with ADD and ADHD, indicating that genetic mutation may be at the heart of these deficits in executive functioning.

Impulse control can be quite challenging at times (it’s a real struggle not to run squealing to every single puppy I encounter for a cuddle! 😛 😉 ) but as I always say, it is by no means a cause for despair. You will eventually learn control with time 🙂

Granted I can still be quite impulsive at times- feeling the urge to curl up asleep on the floor like a dog in company (an urge I feel quite a lot! 😛 ), wondering what it would feel like to step on hot ash/coals or wanting to draw designs all over my face with makeup; the difference being that now I am able to choose whether to ignore or act upon an impulse 🙂

Well…for the most part! Still haven’t fully cracked compulsive eating…or maybe I just don’t want to! 😛 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Curiosity & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to explore an aspect of autism that’s not widely discussed- curiosity 🙂

Many people find that curiosity is in fact diminished among members of the autistic community because of our preference for routine. In my experience, the opposite is true.

To quote Albert Einstein, who is widely believed to have been on the autistic spectrum:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Passionately curious.

That’s how I would describe my insatiable sense of curiosity about the world.

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Throughout my entire life I have been driven by my desire to acquire knowledge. The words who, what, when, where, why and how are rarely ever far from my lips. For me, it’s more than just a desire, it’s a need.

I need to know how the world works, I need an encyclopedic knowledge of those I care about, I need to know why did the chicken really cross the road??!!

If I had had Google as a child I would have been a nightmare! 😛

If I don’t get the answers I crave, it drives me insane, getting under my skin like an itch I can’t scratch. A friend recently told me she had news for me right at the exact moment I lost my WiFi signal! I nearly screamed with frustration over the next two hours trying to reconnect long enough to find out what her news was!!

Curiosity does have its uses though when it comes to the likes of science, motivating you to stick with the building blocks that will one day lead you to understand entire systems.

Buuuuuttt…as we all learned from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, curiosity can sometimes get us into a spot of bother…

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Many autists have issues with impulse control (which I will explore in detail on Friday 🙂 )  and as such, in my experience, curiosity can be impulsive.

For instance, I scorched the kitchen door as a child when I set fire to a drawing with a candle out of curiosity…

Another such incident (which I have no memory of but have been assured happened 😛 ), saw my younger cousin and I trap my kitten between two buckets until my horrified mother caught us in the act!

The only explanation that I can offer for my behaviour based on similar experiences is that I was interested to know what would happen! 😛

Thankfully in this instance, curiosity did not kill the cat! 😉

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Curiosity can also be an issue in social situations. Countless times I’ve landed myself in hot water for asking inappropriate questions, often unintentionally coming across as nosy. As with all things autism however, with time, you learn to reign in your curiosity and channel it towards something more positive, like keeping up with the latest research 🙂 (even if the unasked questions do irritatingly press on the brain 😛 )

But why am I so curious?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer in the line of concrete scientific explanation I’m afraid. There doesn’t appear to be much research in this aspect of the autistic experience.

However, in terms of the general science of curiosity, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role. Curiosity activates brain regions associated with pleasure and reward through the activity of dopamine, giving us that pleasurable feeling of satisfaction when our curiosity is quenched. Many addictive drugs operate through this pathway, so you could say that I’m addicted to learning! 😉

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In autism, dopamine levels are dysregulated, which may influence curiosity as a result. Moreover, increased activity in the midbrain is associated with curiosity. Brain analyses of autistic individuals reveal structural changes in this region, suggesting that perhaps these changes contribute to and account for differences in curiosity levels among autists.

Stay tuned for Friday’s post where we’ll be putting impulsivity under the microscope! 🙂

Aoife

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