Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength ofย synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism on Screen- Atypical

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to place Netflix’s latest original offering ‘Atypical‘ under the microscope.

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The series has been widelyย discussed within the autistic community this week, but in case you haven’t heard about it- ‘Atypical‘ is a coming of age series which follows Sam, an eighteen year old boy with high functioning autism as he sets out to find a girlfriend.

You can watch a trailer for the series here:

The series has received mainly positive reviews from critics (Forbes claim it to be the greatest series Netflix has ever made- uh, ‘Daredevil‘ anyone? ๐Ÿ˜› ), but some have critiqued the stereotypical nature of the character of Sam.

So what did I make of it?

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Show creator Robia Rashid, who herself has experience of autism in her personal life, conducted a lot of background research and hired autism consultant Michelle Dean to review all scripts and cuts- and in my opinion, it shows!

I found ‘Atypical’ to be a quite enjoyable and endearing series. I particularly enjoyed the coming of age angle, taking us away from the typical child/awkward adult portrayals that we see all too often on screen. It’s refreshing to see autism from the perspective of a teenager on the spectrum, a particularly turbulent time in the life of a change resistant autist (even more turbulent if navigated undiagnosed as in my case).

And guess what- the creators didn’t resort to savant stereotypes! ๐Ÿ˜€

Granted, Sam is highly intelligent with an excellent memory, but these traits are subtly infused within the fabric of his personality. I particularly found the acting from leadย Keir Gilchrist, who based his portrayal on his experiences with autistic friends, to be quite excellent, especially for an actor of his age.

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However, as excellent an actor as Gilchrist may be, many have criticized the show for casting a neurotypical actor in the main role. On the other hand, show creators did feature actor Anthony Jacques (seen on the right below), who is himself autistic. Alas, while described as a “supporting” character in many reviews of the show, he briefly appears in only two episodes.

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Nevertheless Jacques’ character of Christopher forms a refreshing addition to the cast with his quirky enthusiasm, representing a higher functioning bracket of the spectrum.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about the show was how it focused not just on how autism impacts Sam’s life, but it also gave equal screen time to the impacts of autism within his wider social circle. We see the toll that autism has placed on Sam’s parents and their marriage, the responsibility that Sam’s younger sister burdens herself with and the reactions of friends and others in the community towards Sam.

As much as I personally enjoyed the show however, there were times where Netflix veered towards the stereotypical. For example, I felt that Sam was a little too literal in his thinking/responses:

Zahid (Sam’s friend): “I’m taking you to Poon-city!”

Sam: “That’s not a real place”

We have our moments yes, but not everything is quite that literal.

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I also found issue with how Sam always speaks in measured monotones- a common autistic stereotype. Whilst, yes, this is characteristic of some within the autistic community, it is not for all. My tone of voice for example can be anywhere from high pitched to a deep drawl depending on the mood I’m in (or an opportunistic head cold ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). This stereotype crops up time and time again in on screen portrayals and it is really starting to bug me! ๐Ÿ˜›

Once again as I watched this show, I felt as though I were seeing yet another carbon copy autistic person dance across my screen. The show talks about neurodiversity, but the character of Sam is, to my eye, far from diverse.

Perhaps Netflix would do well to feature an autistic female lead if the show is renewed for a second season.

All in all, ‘Atypical‘ is a mostly enjoyable affair so check it out if you have a spare 4-5 hours for a weekend binge watch ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Adam

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today we’ll be taking a look at the representation of Asperger’s syndrome in the 2009 (although filmed in 2005) romantic drama film ‘Adam‘ starring Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne.

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Adam‘ focuses on the relationship between Adam, a man with AS, and Beth, his neurotypical next door neighbour, as they embark on a romantic relationship. The film charts their relationship from unorthodox origins (Adam unwittingly asks Beth if she is aroused one night when struggling to read her emotions) to (**SPOILER ALERT**) strained ending, as both parties endeavor to better understand the other.

Check out the trailer below:

So how does ‘Adam‘ rank in it’s depiction of autism?

Scientifically speaking, ‘Adam‘ presents the audience with many of the classic characteristics of AS, providing insight into the emotional, sensory and social issues which many of us deal with on a daily basis, such as Adam’s struggles with job interviews.

One of the finer details in the film that stood out for me was how Adam separates different foods on his plate so that nothing is touching. This can be seen in the screenshot below:

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I remember reading ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time‘ by Mark Haddon as a teenager and identifying with how Christopher does not like his foods to be touching as ‘Adam‘ demonstrates here.

For me, certain foods that touch contaminate flavours and textures so I often endeavor to separate them on my plate. It’s a logical thing- I’m not crazy, I swear!!! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Ironically, I never put two and two together about having AS myself! ๐Ÿ˜›

The film is flawed however, in that the character of Adam is a highly intelligent electronic engineer with a photographic memory, further perpetuating the rare savant stereotype…

Dear film makers/screenwriters-enough with the savant skills already! It’s been done to death! ๐Ÿ˜›

In addition to this, there is one slightly insulting moment in the film wherein Adam is not considered “dating material” in Beth’s social circle. Granted, Beth largely ignores the advice of friends and family to pursue a relationship with Adam, buuuut (* *SPOILER ALERT**) ultimately agrees that they are from two different worlds and cannot make the relationship work.

Indeed, relationships can be hard for us, but that does not mean that we are incapable of making them work (I know several neurodiverse-neurotypical romantic pairings). One of the biggest problems in the relationship between Adam and Beth is that Adam is unable to tell Beth that he loves her. Believing that Adam sees their relationship practically and not emotionally, Beth makes the decision to break up with him as a result.

As previously discussed (Discussion: Love and Romance), saying ‘I love you’ can be quite difficult for an autist, but that does not mean that love isn’t there. I may struggle to say the words to the ones I love, but love them I do.

In watching the film, it’s obvious that Adam loves Beth, he just has a different way of showing her- something that parents, friends and significant others alike should be aware of. We do love you, it’s just hard for us to show it sometimes ๐Ÿ™‚

All in all, ‘Adam‘ is a quirky affair that balances both the positives and negatives of life on the spectrum to give a relatively (we’ll let the high IQ/memory slide this time) realistic insight into the autistic experience ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

Social Awkwardness & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Soooo today we’re going to talk about perhaps one of the biggest banes of my life- social awkwardness! ๐Ÿ˜›

I’m not going to lie- social awkwardness is not fun. The constant fear of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say, the burning sensation in your face that’s never far away (huzzah for unintentional rhyming! ๐Ÿ˜€ ).

This article sums up the feeling pretty nicely through gifs’ s:

http://mashable.com/2013/08/15/awkward-gifs/#N36QeeXevGqn

Sitting awkwardly by yourself waiting for friends to arrive in a pub, tapping your glass and constantly sipping just to look like you belong, the pitying glances of bar staff when they see you at a table alone-the awkwardness can be all consuming.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to run from/avoid social encounters because of this awkward feeling.

Awkwardness is worse still when you’re hit by memories of previous awkward encounters! It’s a real domino effect- one awkward memory brings dozens more to the surface until you’re drowning in the red hot embarrassment of a cringe attack! ๐Ÿ˜›

I am constantly haunted by memories of my social awkwardness, buuuut as time goes on, you eventually learn not to dwell on your social failings ๐Ÿ™‚

It’s a struggle yes, but you can push through the awkwardness. Over the years I’ve devised ways to navigate the rapids- making self deprecating jokes, keeping a mental list of backup topics for awkward silences, chugging a drink you’ve been bought (but don’t like) while your friend is in the bathroom so they don’t see your disgusted facial expressions ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Social awkwardness may be a pain, but ultimately you can’t let the fear of getting wet keep you from swimming the social seas ๐Ÿ™‚

Who knows-you might even put your awkward stories to good use in a blog some day! Comedy is tragedy plus time after all! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

But is there any scientific reason for our social awkwardness?

Remember oxytocin?

Scientists have linked gene variations in the oxytocin receptor (which allows oxytocin to bind and interact with the body) to autism. Evidence indicates that people with autism have a specific variation in the oxytocin receptor (rs53576) which makes it more difficult for them to empathize, read facial expressions and social situations- predisposing us to social awkwardness.

In addition to this, psychologists have suggested that social awkwardness is all about perception. Awkwardness is thought to be influenced by the individuals perception of how a social situation should play out versus reality. If a social interaction does not go as planned…then the awkward turtle swims into view!

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This is a particularly interesting hypothesis. Oftentimes I find myself feeling awkward when silence falls in social settings as I perceive conversational silence to be awkward….aaaand then I tend to ramble on nonsensically to fill that silence! ๐Ÿ˜›

In reality, the silence may not in actual fact be awkward. Companionable silence is perfectly natural; the awkwardness I feel may inadvertently be of my own creation!

So it seems that perhaps social awkwardness in autism comes from the disparity between perception and reality in social interaction.

Social awkwardness is also thought to ironically help people improve their social skills! It has been theorized that social awkwardness acts as a warning system to help us to recognize that we have made social mistakes so that we will not repeat them in the future.

Seeing as autists struggle with social communication and interaction, it stands to reason that we often feel awkward so that we might improve our social skills in the future.

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So social awkwardness may in fact serve a purpose in autism! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Textures

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk about something that you may not be aware of in relation to autism- the issue of texture sensitivity.

During my assessment, I was asked by the psychologist if I had any issues with textures. Caught off guard (as I was unwittingly hoodwinked into attending the assessmentย ๐Ÿ˜› ), I quickly answered no, only to realize hours later that in actual fact, textures influence my life hugely!

In all previous conversations about autism, I had never heard anything about textures, but these are in actual fact a common source of sensitivity for autists.

Rough seat belts, itchy labels and materials, even bras can be extremely irritating to the hypersensitive autist.

There was absolute war between my mother and I when I would refuse to wear a bra as a child! The sensation of the garment against my skin weirded me out and I found it extremely uncomfortable. I would even try wearing it over my thermal vest to place a barrier between me and it, buuuut it didn’t very work well…I was constantly fidgeting! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Weird textures completely freak me out- cornflour (a particular pet peeve), some fruits and veg, yogurts (or most foods) with lumps in them and nail files to name but a few.

Encounters with such textures can lead toย reactions like these…:

(Fun fact about me- I genuinely shake my head like a dog when I shudder! ๐Ÿ˜› )

It’s not all negative though-ย you can learn to adapt and condition yourself to stimuli ๐Ÿ™‚ I never drank a glass of water until I was 11 years old as it felt really weird to me compared with other more flavorful drinks. I gradually conditioned myself to it by taking one gulp water followed by one gulp juice (my family found this hilarious ๐Ÿ˜› ) until the glass was empty- I now drink pints of water daily without issue! ๐Ÿ™‚

Pleasant textures on the other hand pose an entirely different sensory experience, lighting up my brain like a Christmas tree! ๐Ÿ™‚

The creamy texture of ice cream or chocolate melting in my mouth, the strangely irresistible and soothing feel of metal against my skin or the drug-like euphoria that comes from stroking a fluffy puppy-sheer bliss! ๐Ÿ™‚

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As my sister remarked as I was writing this piece, it’s easier to list the textures that I do like than those I don’t! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what’s the scientific reason for this sensitivity?

As we have discussed in previous posts (Autism 101-Sensory Processing;Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality), people with autism are hypersensitive to the sensation of touch. Dysfunctions in brain areas involved in sensory integration, in addition to hyper-connected and hyper-excitable neurons within the autistic brain, can greatly influence our responses to texture.

MRI studies of autistic brains also suggest that there is an exaggerated response to unpleasant stimuli in particular within the limbic system- a set of structures involved in such processes as emotions, behaviours and motivation.

It may seem like we’re consciously overreacting to certain textures, but our response is entirely neurological- so try to keep that in mind next time you see us pull a weird face after encountering an unpleasant texture! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Have a good week everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Discussion:Women & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today, I’m going to discuss a very important issue within the autistic community- gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women with autism.

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a person with autism, the majority of you will have pictured a man (most likely Dustin Hoffman! ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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The current ratio for male to female diagnosis of autism is estimated at 4:1 as the condition is thought to be rarer in women; however, many experts now believe that this figure may be as low as 2:1.

So why the discrepancy?

Did you know: Women with autism present differently to males on the spectrum?!

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Yep- as neurotypical men are from Mars and women from Venus, so too are autistic men and women from entirely different planets (maybe Krypton and Daxam for the DC nerds out there ๐Ÿ˜‰ )!

So how do women with autism differ from men?

For starters, several neurobiological studies have shown distinct anatomical differences between the male and female autistic brain (which I will explore in a separate post at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Girls with autism are thought to have more active imaginations than boys and participate more in pretend play, often creating elaborate fantasy worlds (I had a particular penchant for this. My sister and I created an elaborate world for our teddies each night, so elaborate that our star couple had their own imaginary portable mansion when we went on holidays!! ๐Ÿ˜€ ). Reports also indicate that women have lower levels of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than men.

Evidence has also shown that women are better at recognizing emotions than males, almost as well as their neurotypical peers in fact, and demonstrate signs of better attentiveness in social situations.

As a gender, women are more socially inclined than men, and so female autists feel a greater need to make an effort socially.It is expected that women should be more social than men when it comes to communication, and as a result, we are often held to greater social standards. I can’t count how many times a teacher/my mother pulled me aside to advise or chastise me for my social ineptitude! ๐Ÿ˜› It was thought that I struggled, not because something was wrong, but that I simply didn’t try hard enough socially. Had I been a boy this would not have been the case.

One of the biggest differences between men and women with autism is the tendency among women towards social mimicry. Girls are particularly adept in masking their symptoms through observation of their peers, obscuring them from the view of parents, teachers and medical professionals.

I’m particularly guilty of doing this. For example, when someone asks ‘How are you?’, I honestly don’t know how to respond! Should I just say fine? Should I reciprocate the sentiment? Should I detail the many ways my life sucks at present?! Three of the simplest words in the English language and I struggle to respond! I eventually developed a mental phrase card in my head for common questions like these so that I would have a standard answer when called for, and 90% of the time you pass for a functioning human being! Other times you get caught off guard and situations like this happen ๐Ÿ˜› :

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My life is full of these little social coping mechanisms, which I’ll expand on separately at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Finally, as previouslyย discussed, when it comes to specialist interests, female autists tend to have interests resembling those of their neurotypical peers (horses, Harry Potter, soap operas, Justin Bieber etc.), which can additionally hide them from view. Psychologists have also noted a ‘mothering’ tendency among peers of autistic girls, taking autists under their wing and adopting them into a social group. This further creates an illusion of social functioning for teachers, allowing these women to further slip beneath the radar.

As a result of all these differences, women are diagnosed much later than men, (men on average are diagnosed in childhood (~7 years); women as teenagers or adults) ย if at all.

But why it it only now that these gender differences are emerging?

Gender bias in autism can trace it’s lineage to the original observations of both Leo Kanner (described autism) and Hans Asperger (described Asperger’s syndrome) in the 1940’s. In Kanner’s work,ย โ€˜Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contactโ€™ (1943), Kanner observed a group of 8 boys, but only 3 girls with autism. Hans Asperger on the other hand, exclusively observed groups of boys, believing that AS was uniquely male! As a result, AS was not described in women until the 1990’s!!

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I know!

Consequently, the diagnostic criteria for autism has been largely based on the male model of the condition, and as such, many women like me have slipped under the diagnostic radar.

Due to our inherent talent for social mimicry, women with autism unknowingly find themselves hidden from view. The warning signs that are obvious in males are not always visible, and as a result thousands of women go un-diagnosed, or worse still are misdiagnosed.

Mental health issues such as OCD, eating disorders, ADD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression are frequently linked with ASDโ€™s and are particularly prevalent among women.
Experts believe that women with autism tend to internalize their autistic symptoms, leading them to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and experience higher levels of anxiety than male autists.

Women are frequently mis-diagnosed with mental health issues, whilst the underlying root ASD goes unnoticed.

The internet is filled with stories of these women who spent years in mental anguish without receiving the one diagnosis they needed. I recently came across an article where it tookย “10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses” before a 21 year old girl got her autism diagnosis! You can read the article here: (https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/).

Researchers and clinicians have in recent years begun to adapt the diagnostic criteria to better serve autistic women, but there is much work still that needs to be done.

Rain Man‘ has dominated for too long- we need now to focus on “Rain Woman”.

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Aoife

 

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to briefly introduce you to the issue of sensory processing for people on the spectrum. This is a very broad topic, but I’ll expand on the issues in more detail at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Many individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle to process every day sensory information. Sounds, textures, smells, lights, even colours (boys in particular struggle to process the colour yellow) can overload the nervous system and greatly upset us, effect our behavior or even trigger a meltdown.

But why?

In autism, our senses can be either hyper or hypo sensitive (sometimes even both) to stimuli at different times. Our senses are heightened- smells are stronger, sounds are louder. As a result of this, stimuli reverberate all the more intensely in our brains.

Think of the brain as a computer server at exam time where everyone is logging in at once. Too much information has been entered into the system, but the server can only cope with so much. The entire system becomes overwhelmed and the server crashes.

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Here’s just a quick video simulation of sensory overload.

Warning for those on the spectrumthis video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises

For me personally, I have many (mild) issues with sensory processing. Smells, tastes and textures are a daily struggle. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a salad as the smell alone makes me want to throw up- I’m dreading what pregnancy may one day bring! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Loud or irritating ย noises, (especially repetitive ones), too can be a challenge. Don’t get me started on the shock I get when a passing bus makes that giant hiss/woosh sound or a car honks the horn unexpectedly!! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Most days, you’re lucky and the offending stimulus passes quickly, but other times it can get the better of you. I recently had a near meltdown on holiday from a cocktail of excessive heat, hunger, exhaustion and social frustration.

Top Tip– Keep on top of your hunger/thirst. I’ve discovered this past year that an excess of either will make me act really loopy! ๐Ÿ˜›

When you’re hit by sensory overload, it feels as though your head is caught in a vice grip. Your mind is screaming, unable to focus on anything else but the source of discomfort.

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The worst part of it I find is coming across as a complete basket case when overloaded. You don’t get the most sympathetic of looks when you complain about a persistent noise- few can understand how it’s making your brain hurt.

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So what does science have to say about sensory processing?

Sensory integration involves three basic sensory systems:

  • The tactile system (touch)- comprises a series of nerves passing information from the skin to the brain
  • The vestibular system (sound)- comprises a series of structures in the inner ear involved in movement detection
  • The proprioceptive system-a series of receptors in the muscle (proprioreceptors) which feed information to the brain about the body’s position

These three systems share a close but complicated relationship which allow us to experience, process and respond to different stimuli. Dysfunction in this network can cause hyper/hypo sensitivity, in addition to problems with coordination, behavior and academic issues.

Evidence from brain imaging studies has also shown that autists experience stronger responses in the brain to sensory stimuli in areas that process sensory information and the amygdala- an area that is involved in attention, emotional reactions and threat response.

But why is this?

Several studies have found evidence of hyper-excitability and hyper-connectivity in the autistic brain.

Evidence shows that in many cases of autism, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain are more sensitive and excitable than others. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

The autistic brain has also shown signs of hyper-connectivity, where regions of the brain are excessively connected- like an overloaded plug!

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This amplifies memory formation, sensory processing and causes an autist to be hyper-emotional, which can make the world painfully intense. Scientists have theorized that autists prefer safe, controlled and predictable environments as a coping mechanism to actively avoid this pain.

Finally, studies have indicated that sensory issues, in addition to a number of other autistic behaviors, may be linked to neurotransmitter (chemical messengers between body and brain) levels in the body. As previously discussed, some neurotransmittersย are dysregulated in autism. Evidence suggests that in cases of autism, there are higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, and lower levels of inhibitory (i.e. calming) neurotransmitters. These high levels of excitatory neurotransmitters cause neurons to fire excessively, which can influence sensory perception and processing.

I’ll expand a little bit more on the individual sensory issues at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy your week everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism 101- Savantism & High IQ’s

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Following on from the previous post examining ‘Rain Man‘, today I’m going to dive into the area of high IQ’s and savantism relating to autism.

Now before we start, remember- in spite of what Hollywood has led us to believe, savantismย is a RARE condition affecting betweenย 0.5 and 10% of autists. This means that over 90% of the autistic community do notย possess these skills.

So be sure to take ‘Rain Man‘ with a grain of salt.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s explore this fascinating condition properly ๐Ÿ™‚

So first off- what exactly is savantism?

Savant syndrome is an extraordinary phenomenon wherein a person with serious mental disabilities (such as autism) shows unusual or exceptional aptitude for a particular area, task or activity in spite of their mental challenges. Historically, these individuals were also referred to as ‘idiot savants’, a term that is sometimes still used today.

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While seemingly ย insensitive, the phrase actually comes from the French term meaning unlearned (idiot) skill (savant).

Surprisingly, savant skills tend to exist within five different skill categories:

  • Music (perfect pitch, performance skills)
  • Art (drawing, painting etc.)
  • Mathematics (human calculator abilities)
  • Calendar calculating (i.e. can tell you the weekday a previous date fell on)
  • Mechanical/Spatial skills (model construction, mental measurement calculation)

Other skills have been recorded, but most generally fall within these categories.

Like autism, savant syndrome exists on a spectrum with varying degrees of savant ability. For example, there are:

  • Splinter skills- the most common form, involving memorization and obsession with facts, music, trivia, licence plate numbers etc.; kind of like specialist interests
  • Talented savants- who show highly honed talents and abilities predominantly in single areas of expertiseย 
  • Prodigious savants-those who possess extraordinary skills

Savant skills are additionally accompanied by exceptional memory. For example the ‘megasavant’ Kim Peek on whom ‘Rain Man‘ is based, memorized over 6000 books in his lifetime, all US area and Zip codes, several maps and possessed encyclopedic knowledge of music, geography, literature, history and sports to name but a few!!!

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Astonishing!!! ๐Ÿ˜€

So what’s going on in the brain to cause this?

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, but as with autism, there is no one single theory to explain all cases. However, two theories in particular seem to dominate.

As savantism is found more often in cases of autism than in other mentally disabled groups, leading expert Simon Baron-Cohen proposed a theory concerning hyper-systemizing.

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I know- it sounds complicated! ๐Ÿ˜›

But basically the theory suggests that savantism results from an autists ability to recognize repeating patterns (systemizing) and excellent attention to detail. People with autism have a different style of thinking and memory filing and this predisposes them to savant skills ๐Ÿ™‚

Further to this another theory, supported by several neurological studies of savants, indicates that dysfunction in the analytical left hemisphere of the brain (responsible for logic, language, reasoning, maths etc) causes the right hemisphere (creativity, imagination, art, music) to compensate, which can cause savant skills to emerge. It’s kind of like the right hemisphere is giving the left a piggyback.

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In addition to savantism, higher IQ’s are sometimes linked to autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

A number of studies have found that some of the genes linked to autism development are also associated with high intelligence. The link between autism and intelligence is not yet clear, however, people who carry these genes scored better than those without on intelligence tests.

These findings create an interesting paradox given that autism is generally characterized by lower IQ’s. Researchers have proposed the hypothesis that autism involves augmented, but imbalanced elements of intelligence to counter this paradox. This basically means that autists have higher levels of intelligence in some areas (e.g. academia, mathematics, art etc.) but not in others (e.g. social intelligence).

So there we have it, just a quick over view of savantism and IQ in autism! ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Rain Man

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

I’m going to change things up a little today with a new series examining the portrayal of autism on screen.

Film scholars have remarked that the portrayal of autism on film is generally inaccurate and highly stereotyped, so I’ve decided to take a closer look at things from a personal and scientific perspective ๐Ÿ™‚

So let’s start at the very beginning with perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism in cinema- 1988’s ‘Rain Man‘.

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For those of you who have not seen the film, ‘Rain Man’ย focuses on the relationship between brothers Charlie and Raymond ‘Rain Man‘ Babbitt as they embark on a cross country road trip to Los Angeles (Raymond refuses to fly unless it’s with Qantas- the safest airline in the world!). Charlie grew up without any knowledge of Raymond, only discovering his existence upon learning that his father’s multi-million dollar fortune had been bequeathed to the mental institution in which he resides. And so Charlie sets out to be Raymond’s carer in order to access the fortune, but *SPOILER ALERT*- ultimately has a change of heart. Classic Hollywood ending.

Here’s a trailer for anyone who’s thinking of watching it ๐Ÿ™‚

โ€˜Rain Manโ€™ is often considered to be the main reference point for autism on film, as it prompted the breakthrough of autism into the wider conscious of the public. Prior to this, characters displayed autistic like traits in film, but autism itself was not discussed- likely due to the fact that the diagnostic criteria for autism was only just emerging in the late 1980’s. The term ‘Rain Man‘ has also become synonymous with autism and other mental disabilities in popular culture, as seen in this example from the film ‘Miss Congeniality‘ (2000):

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As a “female rain man”, I find this highly insulting, so try not to brand autistic people using the term ๐Ÿ˜›

Winner of ย 4 Oscar’s, ‘Rain Man’ has been highly critically acclaimed- but does the film match up to the reality?

Rain Man‘ is generally thought to be an accurate portrayal of the autistic condition in scholarly papers. Indeed, there are many areas in the film in which Raymond perfectly demonstrates some of the classical signs of autism- sensitivity to touch, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, specialist interests, coordination issues, deficits in social communication, autistic meltdowns etc.

Interestingly while I thought that I would not be able to relate to Raymond from previous viewings, I found that his literal thinking had me written all over it. There’s a scene in the film (which you can see in the trailer) where Raymond stops in the middle of the road on a pedestrian crossing after the light flashes “DON’T WALK”! I have a terrible habit of dawdling at pedestrian crossings. Oftentimes I can see that the road is clear, but still I’ll wait for the green man (although this may be related to getting clipped on the ankle by a car crossing the road in Dublin as a teenager! ๐Ÿ˜› ). However, I’m not as bad as I used to be since learning to drive; hesitation gets you nowhere on a roundabout after all! ๐Ÿ˜‰

The story where Raymond inadvertently burned Charlie in the bathtub as a child (which led him to be institutionalized), also brings back many memories from my childhood. There have been many cases where I have inadvertently harmed my siblings- why just yesterday I threw a foam roller at my sister in an attempt to help her stretch out her legs, only for it to whack her in the throat…oops!

Bad Aoife! ๐Ÿ˜›

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But my intentions were good!!

Acting without thinking is something that I tend to do an awful lot of (probably why I overthink and don’t act when it comes to love ๐Ÿ˜› ). My mother had to keep a really close eye on me growing up after she found me attempting to push hair-clips down my sisters throat…I have no real answer for why I did that, but based on similar experiences, I’d say scientific curiosity probably had a role to play! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ We’ll explore curiosity and impulsivity a little bit more in the coming weeks.

On the other hand however, this film has largely perpetuated the stereotype that autists typically have superb memories and savant skills. As I’ve stated previously, these traits are rare, and the vast majority of autists do not possess them. The same goes for card counting- a family friend actually inferred that I should be able to do it once! ๐Ÿ˜›

Here’s a fun article I found about a man who lost $17,000 after trying to use his autistic friend to count cards!

http://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/i-took-my-autistic-friend-to-the-casino-and-lost-17-000-in-ten-minutes/

In addition to this, Raymond is also described as ‘high functioning’ in the film, BUT Raymond is incapable of living independently. Whilst the definition of what constitutes high functioning autism varies, for many, Raymond does not fit the high functioning category and therefore does not come across as a true reflection of autism.

One of the biggest issues here I believe, is the fact that the character of Raymond is based on Kim Peek- a “megasavant” who did not in fact have autism, but FG syndrome (a rare genetic syndrome characterized by intellectual disabilities, low muscle tone and an abnormally large head).

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Bit hard to write a film about autism when the inspiration doesn’t actually have autism if you ask me! ๐Ÿ˜›

On top of this, Dustin Hoffman famously prepared for the role by observing autistic adults for months in psychiatric institutions. However, Hoffman by his own admission describes Raymondโ€™s character as an unrealistic grouped composite of high functioning autists he encountered during his research.

With this in mind,ย don’t believe everything you see in the movies folks! ๐Ÿ˜‰

When I first got my diagnosis, this film naturally came to mind, however, I really struggled to relate what was presented on screen to my reality. Indeed, ‘Rain Man‘ reflects some of the realities of autism, but not all. ‘Rain Man‘ is an excellent film with superb acting from Dustin Hoffman, but it comes from a time before the ‘spectrum‘ when knowledge of autism was limited.

So when it comes to films about autism remember-ย autism is a spectrum; one size does not fit all ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

 

 

 

 

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