Autism and Attachment to Objects/Toys

 

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly talk about autism and attachment to toys and or objects.

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Why Aoife I hear you ask? Is it not “normal” for children to be attached to toys, blankets, teddies etc.?

Indeed, as many as 70% of children will be so attached to a particular toy that they take it everywhere, however, for autists, the attachment can last late into childhood and beyond (some autists are even more attached to objects than people).

Take Jamie Knight for example (a computer programmer who was involved in the creation of the BBC iPlayer). Since college, Jamie’s childhood teddy ‘Lion’ goes everywhere with him.

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In my own case, I had a particular rabbit “teddy” (although it was more sock than teddy by the time I let it go from all of my mother’s repairs 😬)  that I couldn’t sleep without until I was 16, as embarrassing as that is to admit-but hey we can blame it on the Asperger’s! 😛 😉

Other autists have been known to be attached to more obscure objects than soft cuddly toys, such as batteries, fruits and vegetables, cereal boxes, even sticks!

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But why does the attachment to such objects endure for autists beyond childhood?

The reasoning for attachment to objects remains unclear however, the general thinking is that these attachments offer comfort (especially as more textured items offer opportunities for stimming), and stability, helping to ground autists in a world (to their mind) spinning out of control.

In Jamie’s case for example, carrying around Lion is a coping mechanism, providing him with structure, consistency and a sense of comfort. When overwhelmed, the familiar texture and scent reinforces a sense of structure and routine to quickly soothe the mind.

Similarly, artist, comedian and performer Tilley Milburn relies on her pig Del to navigate everyday life, providing her with comfort and a medium through which she can communicate by proxy in overwhelming situations. For example, her mother often says that Del is more reasonable than she is, so she will often ask to talk to Del! 😂

These attachments might seem a little odd, but they can serve a very important purpose, so don’t be too quick to judge an adult carrying around a plush toy 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Gaming

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to explore one of my favourite pastimes and it’s benefits for the autistic community- gaming! 🙂

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Ah gaming- one of the true loves of my life! 😛 😉 It keeps me entertained, it’s fun, and ironically helps me to switch off when my brain is cluttered with other matters, drawing me into the game and allowing me to escape from my troubles.

But gaming, whilst fun, hasn’t always been that well received. Concerns are regularly voiced about violence in shooter games, obesity, and the antisocial nature of gaming.  In particular relation to the autistic community, expert Tony Attwood has expressed concern at the addictive nature of gaming (especially with regard to specialist interests) and it’s potential to isolate autists and discourage them from making social efforts.

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I think it’s fair to say that I’ve wasted a significant portion of my life investing hours upon hours, weeks, months and even years into my craft, but has it all been a waste? Might gaming actually be beneficial?

Some studies have shown that gaming provides a number of cognitive benefits in improving basic mental abilities (think back to the days when brain training was a huge deal in the noughties). Other studies believe that gaming offers a healthier alternative to watching TV as gamers are less likely to snack on unhealthy foods versus a TV viewer (I’ve certainly forgone food and delayed bathroom breaks when I’ve been in the zone! 😂). Moreover, research suggests that gaming can help children develop executive, logical, literary, and even social skills- the latter being particularly beneficial for children with autism.

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One game in particular has shown numerous benefits for autists- Minecraft. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, Minecraft is “a game about placing blocks and going on adventures”, where the player uses colourful blocks to create a 3D world in which to play. Experts say that the game encourages and motivates learning, increases perception, boosts creativity and improves hand eye coordination (I do have to wonder how much worse my coordination would be were I not a gamer 😛 😂).

Contrary to the belief that gaming encourages antisocial behaviour, Minecraft is helping children with autism build healthy social lives and relationships through the “Autcraft” community. In 2013, Stuart Duncan, a web developer, set up a special server exclusively for people with autism so that they could have a social experience through Minecraft within the safety of this online community. Autists can chat to and game with other players online allowing them to thrive socially in a safe environment where they don’t have to worry about social cues or facial expressions- just fun 🙂

Never been interested in playing it myself (I prefer higher quality graphics like in the Final Fantasy games), but the game certainly looks promising in helping autists 🙂

You can watch a Ted Talk below about the benefits of Minecraft for kids with autism:

So there you have it dear Earthlings, I hope you enjoyed this post! 🙂

Have a good 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

Autism and Voice Control

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to briefly talk about an aspect of the spectrum that many of you may not be familiar with- voice control.

 

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We’re all aware that autism is often accompanied by difficulties with speech (non verbal autism, apraxia, speaking in monotones etc.) however, few are aware of the challenges to control the pitch and volume of our voices.

This is especially challenging for me as I often struggle to accurately gauge my volume. For example, I may think that I am singing along at an appropriate volume, buuuuuut those who are listening to me may have slightly different reactions…

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I’ve probably deafened several members of my friends and family at this stage! 😛

For years I could never understand how I was chastised for my mumbling in school, but a shouter at home- I just could never seem to get the balance right.

I naturally tried to rationalize my shouting with waxy ears and struggles to be heard over the din of the school- but is there any scientific explanation for my struggles to regulate tone?

Many acoustic studies have found that prosody (an area of linguistics that focuses on linguistic functions such as tone, intonation, stress and rhythm of speech) is impaired in autists. Prosody is used to reflect emotional states, sarcasm, stress, emphasis and other areas of language that are not conveyed through grammar and vocabulary- an area where many autists struggle.

MRI studies have shown that the areas of the brain involved in the perception and processing of prosody (the left supramarginal gyrus (SMG)) are abnormally activated in autists compared to their neurotypical peers. Neurons in the left precuneus, the left medial prefrontal cortex and the right anterior cingulate cortex should be deactivated when exposed to prosody, however these areas are active in the autistic brain.

As a result, we are often unable to discern the exact pitch, tone or emphasis we should use in conversation. This  abnormal activation also explains why autists often struggle to accurately interpret another persons meaning/intention through their use of prosody in their speech.

Impairments in auditory processing of sound in the brain may also feed into this issue- so try not to judge me too harshly the next time I blow your eardrums out 😬 😉

Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Masking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss something I’ve briefly touched upon in previous posts (women and autism, ‘Please Stand By‘)- autism and masking.

So what is masking?

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Masking is a common behavioural trait within the autistic community wherein social mimicry is used to “mask” other autistic behaviours in social settings.

Basically this means that autists consciously employ techniques from social observation (such as forced eye contact and rehearsed conversations) in order to better blend into the social landscape to prevent their autistic traits from sticking out. You may not see the autism, but it’s still there behind the mask. Some autists even carry multiple masks to be used for different audiences.

Masking mainly tends to happen among girls with autism rather than boys (boys have also shown signs of masking but not to the same extent). Studies have shown that autistic women are generally better at recognizing emotions than their male peers (almost as good in fact as neurotypicals) and show greater social attentiveness which feeds into our ability to mask.

For example, take a quick look at this video I shared in my previous post where a group of autistic women go speed dating with an oblivious group of neurotypical men:

For me personally, social masking kept me under the ASD radar for many years. Without realizing it, I had been giving an Oscar worthy performance for most of my life.

I figured out how I was “supposed” to act from observing those around me, reading books and watching films (though sadly the amount of rom coms/romance films/novels I consume led to some unfortunate learning curves! 😛 ). I forced myself to make eye contact and to watch my mouth more, I even devised a sort of mental go-to phrase card with acceptable answers to such tricky questions as ‘How are you?’ or how to appropriately answer the phone (which I still dread by the way 😛 )

In one of my more extreme forms of masking, I somehow developed the ability to cry only out of my right eye when I would experience mini meltdowns in school so that the tears would roll down unseen behind a curtain of hair! 😬

I became really good at being invisible….well, at least between meltdowns! 😛 😉

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Social masking in girls is thought to be one of the primary reasons that women with autism often go undetected into adulthood, if at all. Research suggests that the ability to mask may even prevent those who have been flagged for assessment from getting the formal diagnosis that they need. In addition to this, a recent survey of autistic adults reported universal exhaustion from their masking exertions which is why it is so important that we develop better diagnostic tools for women on the spectrum.

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Talking to your Child about Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Continuing on from my post discussing if you should tell your child that they have autism, this week I’m going to discuss how to talk to your child about their diagnosis.

When should I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with autism, the answer to this question is entirely individual. Some higher functioning autists may be ready for this information at a younger age than others, or may even be so high functioning as to not need this information during their formative years (as in my case- though in hindsight it would have helped a lot!). Timing can also vary with the age of diagnosis. Girls for example are often diagnosed much later in life than boys with autism.

In general, many experts recommend telling your child around the time they start to become self aware of their differences to their peers- roughly around 6 years old, but this awareness will vary among autists. I, for example, always felt that I was different to my peers, but I never openly questioned it until after I had received my diagnosis in my 20’s.

How do I tell my child they are autistic?

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As with when, there is no right or wrong way as to how you talk to your child about autism (just maybe don’t spring it on them out of nowhere the way my parents did 😛 ), but here are some tips and tricks that may help you:

  • Pick your moment– be very careful with you timing. Make sure that your child is content and calm in a familiar place, things will be much harder if they are anxious
  • Don’t rush– Ensure that there is plenty of time to talk things through with your child. They will have questions and may need extra time to process what you are saying
  • Keep it simple– There will be plenty of time to introduce them to the world of neurodiversity as they grow. Just introduce them to autism one toe in the water at a time. Top Tip– There are a lot of useful kids TV shows (such as Sesame street and Arthur)  and books explaining autism in an age appropriate way which could help this conversation 🙂
  • Emphasize that this is a good thing– Whilst an autism diagnosis can be difficult to process initially, ultimately it is a good thing. Your child will get the help and supports they need to thrive, they will better understand themselves and be understood. However, the black and white autistic mind deals in good and bad. Sometimes an autist cannot perceive the difference between a little bit bad and plain bad which can cause great distress (à la 6 year old Aoife who thought she had to leave home as she could not be good! 😛 ). Highlight the importance of difference and make it clear that this is not a bad thing for them- different, but not bad 🙂

How do I explain autism to my child’s siblings?

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In much the same way as you would tell a child they are autistic, sit them down and have a casual chat about their sibling (or even friend- awareness in the community is crucial to changing societies attitudes for future generations of autists 🙂 ). Depending on the age of the child, what you tell them can vary to suit. Show them videos, give them a book, tell them a helpful analogy (I do love my Supergirl one!) etc to help them understand. Explain that their friend/sibling works a little bit differently and that they don’t always mean to say or do certain things, but we must love and accept them as they are 🙂

Hope you found this post useful Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Finding and Maintaining Employment

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from my blog post about autism in the workplace, this week I’m going to give some of my tips and tricks for finding and maintaining employment for autists.

Finding employment:

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Job seeking can be a daunting prospect for anyone, but for autists in particular, this can be quite the overwhelming experience. Navigating career search engines, filling out applications, preparing for interviews, coping with rejection- it’s a lot to handle.

When it comes to applying for jobs, there are a few important questions that an autist should consider:

  • Is this job a good fit for me?
  • What areas may be challenging for me in this role?
  • Is this an equal opportunities employer?

It’s important that you apply to jobs that cater to your strengths with an employer that will support both you and your needs 🙂

Top Tip: Glassdoor is an excellent online tool for job hunters. It allows you to look up different companies, read employee reviews and interview experiences, giving you invaluable insight into what life could be like for you within that company.

Next comes the dreaded interview- a real struggle for autists, but it doesn’t have to be 🙂

Fun Fact: According to career experts, 95% of interview questions can in fact be predicted and prepared for in advance! And there’s nothing we love more than predictability 😉

There are a number of organisations out there that are dedicated to advising, training and preparing people with autism for the workplace. For example, Specialisterne is an international organisation dedicated to creating jobs for people with autism through partnership with several companies in the science and technology sector. Specialisterne coaches people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome to prepare them for the workplace and additionally provides employers with training so to best support their employees.

There are also numerous career coaches and communications agencies out there which can sit you down and help you to prepare for an interview, run through mock questions, give you tips on body language etc.

Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful to get you through an interview:

  • Preparation is Key– research the company, prepare answers to common questions, look up your interviewers on LinkedIn (don’t worry, you can use a private setting so they won’t know you’ve looked them up! 😉 ) etc. A mock interview can also be very useful. The more you prepare, the more comfortable you will feel in the interview.
  • Keep your answers relevant to the question– I know it sounds obvious, but if you’re anything like me, beware of tangents!
  • Ask for a moment to think– if a question throws you, drink some water and ask for a minute to think. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for this. It gives you time to gather your thoughts whilst remaining in control.
  • Aoife says ‘Relax’! – Easier said than done, I know, but it was only when I began to relax in interviews that I was finally offered a job 🙂

Maintaining Employment:

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Congratulations-you’ve gotten through the interview stage and the job is yours! 😀 However, a number of people with autism will struggle to maintain this job. The workplace can be quite overwhelming as I’ve discussed, and we often do not receive the support we need from our employers.

So what can you do?

If you feel comfortable disclosing your diagnosis to your employer, steps can be taken to help accommodate your needs. For example, autism training can be arranged so that other members of staff can better understand and support you.

Having a work mentor or job coach to talk to and advise you about your workplace can also be helpful. This person can advise you on workplace ettiquette, social skills, interacting with co-workers and the unwritten rules of your place of work.

There are also some steps that you can take to better cope with the pressures of working life:

  • If you struggle with organization as I often do, making use of lists, diaries and Google Calendar can help you to stay on top of things
  • As I’ve said before, talk to someone about your problems with work- let it all out!
  • Take a breath- if you feel overwhelmed or a meltdown coming on, take a moment away from your workstation. Go to the bathroom, step outside the door (if possible), grab a coffee or a glass of water- do anything to distract yourself until you feel well enough to return to work 🙂
  • Try to maintain a good work- life separation. At the end of the day, we all need to leave work at work. It can be hard to switch off at the end of the day, especially for autists, so try to relax! Why not take up a hobby that will engage a different part of your brain such as art, exercise, music or gaming? Do what you have to do to unwind!
  • Take care of yourself- Keep snacks nearby, stay hydrated and get to bed early! Sleep tip– Blue light from screens interferes with the hormone that induces sleep, Melatonin. So ditch the laptop before bed; read a book instead!

Finding and maintaining employment as an autistic adult can be challenging, but remember, you have just as much to offer as any other candidate out there 🙂

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Enjoy the weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

 

Accepting your Autism Diagnosis

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

To kick off the new year I’m going to expand a little bit on something I’ve touched on briefly in the past- coming to terms with your autism diagnosis.

As I’ve stated many times, getting my Asperger’s diagnosis was one of the best things that could have happened to me. Two little words clarified a lifetime of questioning, confusion and misunderstanding.

My entire life finally began to make sense.

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Whilst this diagnosis was indeed a welcome one (in spite of the way my diagnosis was sprung on me 😛 ), I struggled to come to terms with it for some time afterwards. As an adult, the diagnosis shouldn’t have changed anything- Asperger’s syndrome explains me, but it does not define me.

However, just because the shoe fits does not mean that you will break it in overnight.

Logically, there was no issue in being diagnosed; the emotional aspect on the other hand was much tougher.

Getting my diagnosis was like seeing myself for the first time in a mirror. It felt like I had made a revolutionary discovery, and yet  somehow, I was ill at ease. The more I read about Asperger’s, the more self conscious I became of my mannerisms and behaviours. I was hyper-aware of everything that I did.

I knew and accepted that Asperger’s didn’t define me, however, I felt compelled to define it. I talked about Asperger’s incessantly possessed by the niggling urge to explain every single thing I did for fear of being misunderstood. As a friend recently told me, she barely knew my name before I had filled her in about my diagnosis! 😂

There were times when I felt as though I were beginning to disappear behind the smokescreen of the diagnosis, constantly questioning what was me and what was just Asperger’s.

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It took me over two years to learn to fully relax and embrace my diagnosis- somewhere along the way it just clicked. I no longer feel this need to go on about it. Indeed, there are times when I want to talk about it (for example in this blog), but I am also perfectly content to keep people guessing 😉

Asperger’s is a big part of my life, but it’s not the whole picture 🙂

Here’s just a couple of things that helped me on my journey towards acceptance:

  • Talk about it– Real original- I know, but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!
  • Try CBT– Now I know that I’ve said CBT wasn’t particularly useful for me from a management perspective, buuuuuut cognitive behavioural therapy did help to increase my knowledge of autism and better understand who and why I am 🙂
  • Write it out– I know I’ve said it before, but writing can be so cathartic. It really helps to verbalize what you can’t describe, especially if you have alexithymia. My laptop is full of mini essays from deflating my overly full skull at 3am! 😛
  • Read – Whilst this may have partially fueled my hyper-analysis, it also allowed me to better understand and accept myself. The more I learned, the easier it was to accept and embrace my quirks. Just maybe steer away from some of the novelizations of autism- these don’t always paint the most realistic of pictures 😛

Learning to accept an autism diagnosis (as cheesy as it sounds) is a journey. There may be twists and turns and many a speed bump along the way, but you will one day reach your destination 🙂

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Aoife

 

Autism and Pensivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’m going to talk a little bit about pensivity and autism, or as my sister describes it in my interview with her, “staring into the abyss.” 😛

We all have those moments where we retreat into ourselves. Our eyes glaze over, we tune out from our surroundings and make weird, subconscious facial expressions as we dreamily ride the thought train round and round.

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For an autist, these spells of introspection tend to happen a little more frequently. Our minds move so fast that we often find it hard to concentrate, and somehow we slip into this abyss of swirling thoughts:

‘What do I want for dinner tomorrow?’

‘Is evolution real?’

‘What would I look like as a blonde?’

‘What would it be like to have an Alpaca farm!?’ (genuinely spent a weekend considering the practicalities once!)

These are just a few of the millions of questions that I spend my time pondering in the abyss, proceeding to explore these thoughts in minute detail! 😛

I’ve been known to spend almost an hour lying on my bed, staring into space without saying a single word to anyone!

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Once I’ve fallen in, my mind could literally go anywhere-I’ve even conjured up a musical based on the music of My Chemical Romance during one of these particular spells!

It’s not a bad thing in my experience, I get some of best ideas wandering the abyss, but people just don’t know what to make of me in this state in social situations. As my sister says, it really creeps her out watching me! 😛

I suppose I can’t blame her when I often sit around staring like this for 40 minutes:

 

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Half the time, I’m not even aware that I’m doing it, which can be awkward on a night out.  If it get’s very loud or the conversation goes stale, I just slip down into the depths, awoken from my reverie several minutes later by bemused friends and colleagues! 😬

What people fail to understand however, is that I am perfectly content in my little bubble. Yes I look strange, and my face may not show it, but I’m perfectly fine 🙂 In fact I sort of enjoy thinking, just floating around exploring the darkness of the abyss. It’s actually a little bit soothing in an odd way.

Autists are not good with the unknown. We like structure, things we can predict and prepare for. By questioning, or pondering the unknown in our minds, this can help to make the world seem a little less scary. Knowledge is power after all!

So don’t panic if you see me stumbling into the abyss- I’m probably just wondering where I can buy an alpaca! 😛 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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