Autism and Perseverance

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As I’m currently attempting to add dressmaking to my list of skills (which is not coming as easily as I thought it would!), this week I’d like to discuss the importance of perseverance when it comes to autism.

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As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day“, so too the same holds for learning new skills and autism. Many autists struggle with learning difficulties (I will discuss this in greater detail at a later stage) which can be challenging when trying to learn social or motor skills and develop coping mechanisms.

But just because things don’t come as naturally to an autist as they do to their neurotypical peers, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

Perhaps some of the most frustrating challenges I’ve faced in my life have come from my efforts to learn new motor skills such as riding a bike, learning to knit, learning to drive etc. Attempting to formulate the necessary neural pathways to forever commit these skills to memory was beyond frustrating! Book-based learning I can handle, but ask me to use my hands and it’s an entirely different kettle of fish!

Knitting was a particular struggle- I would sit and watch my peers making headbands and knitting scarves whilst I sat tangled in a ball of wool. Frustrating as this was however, with a LOT of practice, (and several litres of blood sweat and tears) , before long you couldn’t keep the needles out of my hands, and even today I regularly commit to large knitting projects in my spare time.

Similarly, perseverance was key to developing my baking skills. When I first began to use fondant, I was HOPELESS- I could never get it to go smooth, it was always full of holes, it was too dry, or too wet, it never seemed to go right! So bad was I in fact that one of my friends told me that an early creation of mine was so terrifying that it belonged in a horror film ๐Ÿ˜› :

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Needless to say I have not been able to attempt a canine cake since ๐Ÿ˜›

BUT- I did get the hang of cake decorating eventually as you can see in one of my most recent (and most complex) creations for my Granny’s 90th birthday:

When you get frustrated trying to learn new things like this, it can be all too easy to throw in the towel (God knows I’ve wanted to smash my sewing machine to bits lately after sewing yet another wonky line! ๐Ÿ˜› ), but you can’t let your brain get the better of you. Granted it isn’t always as easy to forge new neural pathways and learn new skills as for neurotypicals, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot be formed. Like digging trenches through soil or stone- a stone trench will take longer, but the result will be the same.

Just focus on the three P’s- patience, practice, persistence!

It will take time, but persevere and you’ll get there in the end ๐Ÿ™‚

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Have a good weekend Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 alexithymiaย (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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Aoife

Autism 101- Coordination

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk to you about coordination difficulties and the spectrum.

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Did you know: Roughly 80% of autists have issues with motor coordination?

And I am no exception! ๐Ÿ˜›

To be honest, I needn’t even write anything for this post- a host of gifs would fairly accurately sum up my experiences of coordination! ๐Ÿ˜›

I drop things more easily, I fall over a LOT, bump into things, walk sideways into people I’m walking alongside, fumble a little longer with buttons, laces, hair clips etc. People have often thought I’ve been drunk on nights out (although I don’t drink) when coordination trouble presents itself- giddyness has a habit of rendering me less coordinated for some reason! ๐Ÿ˜›

These incidents happen so often it becomes another part of daily life- you trip over your feet for no reason, laugh and keep walking! ๐Ÿ˜›

You might think I’m exaggerating but it happens all the time! Even my dogs have noticed- I once fell flat on my face on a walkย and my normally attentive German Shepherd just stood and laughed, waiting for me to get back up! ๐Ÿ˜›

I’ve always been a little slower than my peers when it comes to mastering my finer motor skills. From my very first skip I’ve struggled with my coordination issues.

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My mother often reminds me of how I used to screw my face up in concentration after dance classes in my attempts to master the skill. I would try and try and try to skip around the room, but kept falling over my own two feet!

Don’t get me started on the struggle to add in a skipping rope! ๐Ÿ˜›

But nevertheless, each time I fell, I got back up again and persisted until I mastered it- and then you couldn’t keep me from skipping!

This has always been my experience of coordination. I struggle a little bit longer than my peers to develop my motor skills, but with persistence, master them I will. Tying my shoelaces, riding a bike, learning to drive, knitting- all these skills took time to master, but I got there in the end ๐Ÿ™‚

Now if I could just master walking in heels, I’d be flying! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Top tip– Keeping on top of sleep, thirst and hunger can really help to keep your coordination in check. In addition to acting loopy if I fall victim to these, I find that my equilibrium can also be affected.

But what do scientists have to say about these coordination issues?

The underlying cause of these issues is poorly understood, however, recent studies suggest that motor coordination issues in autism are likely linked to abnormal neural connections in the brain. Remember the synapseย (or connecting junction point between two neurons)ย which we discussed last week? Autist’s have an overabundance of these bad boys compared with normally developing peers.

So how does the synapse affect motor coordination?

Motor learning and control is influenced by a specific group of neurons known as purkinje cells. Purkinje cells, (located in the cerebellum- an area heavily involved in motor control), receive signals from climbing fibers- a type of neuronย which carries information from the body to the brain.ย These climbing fibersย detect changes or disturbances in our environment, such as changes in space or the position of nearby objects, and relay this information to the purkinje cells. Purkinje cells then emit inhibitory signals atย synapsesย so to modify motor movements accordingly.

In autism however, the efficacy of purkinje cells to influence motor change is greatly reduced.

Normally, each purkinje cell receives input from a single climbing fiber. Autists have too many synapses connecting the brain, and so the purkinje cell receives signals from multiple climbing fibers. This confuses the purkinje cell, which in turn alters the efficacy of corrective signals. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the more people involved (i.e. synapses and climbing fibers), the more the message get’s lost in translation.

To give an example, if you were walking along and someone threw a ball at you, climbing fibers will alert the purkinje cells to tell the body to move out of the way. In autism….well, the signal to do this get’s scrambled on route to the brain, aaaaand… you’ll likely get hit in the face! ๐Ÿ˜›

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^^^^Story of my life right here! ๐Ÿ˜›

At the end of the day, whilst coordination problems can be incredibly frustrating, persist and you will get there ๐Ÿ™‚

Never give up- ride that bike, drive that car, skip like there’s no tomorrow!! Autism only limits us if we allow ourselves to be limited ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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