Autism and Stress

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Stress- it’s hard to escape it in the modern world; even more so for an autist.

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Ordinary day to day life can be very stressful to navigate. Such simple things as responding to an email, dealing with crowds, sensory triggers and social interactions can be completely overwhelming. The thought alone of these seemingly innocuous situations can be incredibly stressful for an autist.

In my case, just the mere idea of driving in Dublin city centre for example majorly stresses me out- I have genuinely told my friend that if his directions landed us there I would get my car towed and grab a taxi ๐Ÿ˜› Any unexpected scenarios, detours or maneuvers in my car will leave me hot under the collar, praying out loud for help to keep from freaking out!

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But are there any scientific reasons why autists are more predisposed to stress?

Interestingly, autists show signs of greater biological stress than their neurotypical peers. In particular, studies have indicated that autists have higher levels of stress hormones than neurotypicals. As I’ve previously discussed, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released in response to stressful situations from the hypothalamicโ€“pituitaryโ€“adrenal axisย orย HPA axis. This isย a complex interconnecting network that comprises theย hypothalamus, theย pituitary glandย andย theย adrenal glandย (i.e. HPA) to control our response to stress- a network that is hyperactive in autists.

Following exposure to a stressful situation, stress hormone levels should return to normal, however, research has shown that stress hormone levels tend to persist in autists, which can make us more susceptible to stress related outbursts and meltdowns. In other words, we’re constantly living in a state of fight or flight.

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Long term activation of the stress system can lead to a number of health problems such as poor mental health, weight gain, sleep issues, digestive and cardiovascular problems to name but a few- many of which are regularly comorbid with autism.

In addition to this, studies have shown that autists have higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between anitoxidants and free radicals (unstable oxygen atoms that can damage cells causing illness and aging – not so fun fact, free radicals are thought to contribute to hair greying) in our bodies. Several studies have indicated that antioxidant enzyme levels that regulate free radicals in the body may be altered in autists. As such, oxidative stress has been linked to the appearance of autistic symptoms such as language delay in previous studies.

In addition, as with prolonged exposure to stress hormones, oxidative stress may also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and mental health problems such as depression. Worryingly, heart disease and suicide are among the leading causes of mortality for autists, with studies indicating that the average autist lives 16 years less than their neurotypical peers! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ ย In addition to this, research suggests that psychological stress may worsen the symptoms of ASDs.

Therefore, as for everyone, it’s very important for an autist to find ways to manage their stress levels for both their long term physical and mental health.

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

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism in the Workplace

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Did you know that between 75 and 85% of people with autism cannot find/maintain employment, despite many being highly educated?

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Shocking statistic isn’t it?

But why is it so?

Most of us have a strong desire to work and the qualifications to boot, but what we lack are the skills to navigate the workplace and or the interview process.

For many people with autism, the interview is perhaps the most difficult part of the employment process. Unexpected questions can throw us, social niceties can go over our heads, eye contact is a struggle and repetitive movements are often hard to control. We like structure and routine, things we can control and predict; interviews take us out of our structured comfort zones. All these difficulties coupled with the mere mention of the ‘a’ word sadly may see your CV dropped to the bottom of the pile.

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Of those lucky enough to get over the hurdle of the interview, further problems may lie in navigating the workplace itself.

The workplace can be overwhelming for the best of us, but for an autist, this can be even more so. Noise levels and repetitive sounds, the pressure to reach deadlines, the unappetizing smell of your co-workers lunches (whenever someone has fish at work it’s a real struggle for me to hold back my gag! ๐Ÿ˜› )- it can be a sensory smorgasbord, not to mention the potential social issues! Some days it just takes all your strength to hold back a meltdown.

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Most employers do not understand the needs of an autistic employee, and as such we may easily fall off the career ladder- and not just for reasons of poor coordination! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

However, the tables are beginning to turn for the better in terms of making the workplace autism friendly- in fact many companies are now specifically seeking to employ autists to mine our oftentimes untapped skill sets.

But while we wait for the rest of the working world to catch up, here are a few things that you can do to better help you to thrive in the workplace:

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  • Talk about your struggles– shoving it deep down isn’t going to do any good! Talk to someone when you’re feeling under pressure at work- trust me you’ll feel all the better for it
  • Know your limits– if you feel a task is getting on top of you, or you want to jump out of your seat with antsy frustration, take a break- have a snack, go to the bathroom, have an early lunch, or if the company allows it, a quick scroll on your phone. When you feel that overwhelming tidal wave approaching, get out of it’s way; don’t let it take you down
  • Take care of yourself– get enough sleep, stay fed and hydrated. In my experience the combination of exhaustion, hunger and or thirst with the added stress of a tough work task can run the risk of meltdown. Get to bed early, keep snacks and a drink nearby and work will be much easier to cope with
  • Get involved in the work social scene– now I know this one can be troublesome when social anxiety rears it’s ugly head, but making the effort to engage with your co-workers will really help. Many times I’ve forced myself to go to social work gatherings entirely out of my comfort zone and barely knowing the people that would be there, and you know what? It helped me make some brand new friends and put a fresh spring in my step ๐Ÿ™‚

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I’ll delve into more of my tips and tricks for finding and maintaining employment in a later post ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone, be sure to get that Christmas shopping done on time (I may or may not have finished mine a couple of weeks back…#organized! ๐Ÿ˜› )

Aoife

Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings ๐Ÿ™‚

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve ย 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?ย 

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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.ย  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! ๐Ÿ˜› )
  • 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… ๐Ÿ˜› )- 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,ย 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 ๐Ÿ™‚
  • 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 alwaysย  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! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ).

Aoife

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

 

Autism Management- Concerts

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Ah, live music! There’s nothing I love more than a decent rock concert!

“But wait- wutt?!ย 

You’re autistic! Surely you can’t enjoy a loud, flashy, crowded rock concert?!”

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Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! ๐Ÿ˜›

What do I always say? No two autists are alike!!!!

Sure, sudden noises can make me jump, but in actual fact I love the noise! I relish the chaos of alternative rock! The vibration of the music through your body, the bright lights, the pyrotechnics, the showmanship- it’s really hard to beat a decent concert.

That being said, my love for gigs has not come without it’s challenges.

At my very first gig (Paramore’s Brand New Eyes tour, 2009), I suffered both a meltdown AND a shutdown! The crowd made me very unsettled and uncomfortable moshing during Paramore’s opening number, so I spent the remainder of the concert on the sidelines crying and alone! ๐Ÿ˜› We subsequently almost missed our bus home, the stress from which brought on a shutdown.

Certainly a memorable and eventful night! ๐Ÿ˜›

Indeed, concerts can be overwhelming for both neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, but that does not mean that a concert can’t be an enjoyable experience. It’s all about finding what works for you ๐Ÿ™‚

Here are my tips for finding comfort at a concert:

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  • Outdoor vs indoor venues: This is one that I’m learning the hard way. Outdoor gigs, whilst a little easier on the ears than indoor venues, can be a real mixed bag in terms of enjoyment. Crowds are bigger, snagging a good vantage point can be tricky and security have far less control over crowd behaviour. I spent much of my last gig being kicked in the back by a girl sitting on her boyfriends shoulders. Take my advice- choose indoor gigs for your favourite artists.
  • Choose seating– After my first “pit” experience, I have made a point of always choosing to pay a few euros more for a decent seat in large arenas. This way you avoid strangers touching you, claustrophobia, tall people, reduce exposure to potentially unpleasant odours (outdoor gigs are a real pain if you hate smoking as I do) and prevent being unexpectedly hit by stray “balloons”, flying glasses of beer and, on one random occasion, black nail varnish! Don’t you just miss the emo kids of the mid noughties? ๐Ÿ˜›

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Alternatively, if you’d rather be closer to the action, smaller venues (< 2000 capacity) generally offer more comfortable standing experiences. Crowds are spaced out more and are better behaved with security always close at hand ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Sunglasses-Not as crazy as it sounds I promise! Sunglasses are my best friend as they really help to take the edge off bright lights. I’ve even been known to wear them on a night out in the club on occasion! Don’t worry about what other people think- it’ll be dark and everyone will be too focused on the stage to notice ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Earplugs– This one may seem a little bit counter productive, but lot’s of people do it. Loud music is part and parcel when it comes to gigs, but sometimes the noise can be a little excessive. Take my most recent concert just last week. I was standing in front of a girl who insisted upon screaming every 5 seconds for 2 and a half hours- not like your average fangirl, but a murder victim (the kind of piercing scream that makes you jump every time you hear it)! Quite frankly, she’s lucky she wasn’t my murder victim! ๐Ÿ˜œ๐Ÿ˜‚ย I was rather envious of a nearby concertgoer for having had the sense to bring a pair!

So there we have it, my top tips for managing autism at a gig!

As I always say, you should never allow an autism diagnosis to hold you back- if you can’t climb the mountain, there’s always a way around it ๐Ÿ™‚

So rock on dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common autistic traits- difficulty with eye contact. This can be particularly troublesome when it comes to situations such as job interviews where good eye contact is important to success.

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Growing up, I was often told by my family that I had trouble with eye contact, but I never really noticed much myself until I was older. On some level I knew that making eye contact made me feel uncomfortable, but I never really gave much thought as to the reason. We just sort of assumed that I cast my eyes away for lack of self confidence.

In my experience, making eye contact just feels awkward and weird to me. I’ve never really been able to explain why, it just does.

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Over the years, at my family’s insistence, I gradually learned to force myself to make eye contact. There are still times when I find eye contact uncomfortable (if I’m mid or teetering on the edge of a meltdown, any attempt to lock eyes goes out the window!), but I’ve found ways to get through it.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that I seem to have automatically adopted a coping system for making eye contact in close quarters. I make the contact, hold the gaze for an appropriate amount of time, then look away briefly before returning to centre. Other times, I move my gaze around to focus on different group members, breaking the contact just enough to remain comfortable without coming across as weird (I hope ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!

It kind of looks something like this:

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Top Tip: If you feel uncomfortable making eye contact as you’re walking along the street, I find that wearing sunglasses (provided the weather is somewhat appropriate ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) can be a great help ๐Ÿ™‚

So what does the scientific community make of our struggles with eye contact?

One study suggests that the reason we avoid eye contact is actually related to how we process visual information. In this study, children with autism were shown images in both the centre and periphery of their vision. In a neurotypical brain, a large portion of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing information in the centre of your visual field. In the autistic brain, a larger portion of the cortex was engaged when the image was shown in the child’s peripheral vision.

In other words, we have more neurons dedicated to processing peripheral visual information, hence why direct, central eye contact is often avoided.

We’ve known for a while that autists perceive the world in a unique way, now we know that we actuallyย see the world differently too! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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