Autism and Fear

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In light of this spooktacular week, I’ve decided to take a closer look at fear and autism.

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All of the Halloween themed memes floating around on social media this week have put me in mind of how strange some of my childhood fears were in comparison to those of my peers (in fact it’s estimated that as many as 41% of autists tend to have more unusual/irrational fears).

For starters, I was PETRIFIED of comedian Charlie Chaplin! 😛 Absolutely TERRIFIED- he haunted my nightmares for years and I was convinced if I lingered in a dark room for too long that he would come out from the shadows to grab me! In addition to this, I was also irrationally afraid of chemicals and overhead power-lines (so afraid in fact I was convinced just touching the wooden pole would kill you- it was an innocent time before I learned about science and insulators vs conductors!🤓).

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Fear has often been a dominant emotion in my life, fear of what people might think of me, fear of saying the wrong things, fear of losing my cool and melting down in public etc.  According to world famous autist Temple Grandin, “the principal emotion experienced by autistic people is fear.”

But is there any scientific reason for this fear? Might autists be biologically predisposed to being more fearful?

When we experience a fearful situation, a biological fear response is triggered in the amygdala of the brain. Activity in this region when exposed to fearful stimuli triggers fear based changes in body functions such as sweating, shortness of breath, fight or flight, paralysis etc.

As discussed in numerous previous posts, changes/dysfunction in the amygdala are regularly attributed to autistic symptoms. So therefore it stands to reason that perhaps these changes in the amygdala may also influence/exacerbate the fear response in autists compared with their neurotypical peers.

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Other studies have also suggested that there is a muted fear response in autists which may explain the lack of perception concerning safety/danger often seen in young autists.

So there we have it, hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a great weekend! 🙂

Aoife

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 Thrush

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Thrush- not the most fun topic to talk about, and not one that you would immediately associate with ASDs.

BUT!

This opportunistic infection may have more to do with autism than you might think!

Following a recent brush with thrush in my throat (cheers for that Ventolin! 😛 ), and being a super nerd who likes to understand their afflictions, through my reading I’ve discovered that candida infections in the gut are thought to contribute to the symptoms of autism.

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So first things first, the basics- what is thrush?

For those of you fortunate enough to have not been infected at some point in your life, Candida is a type of yeast that usually exists in small colonies in the body, kept at bay by the immune system and our friendly neighbourhood symbiotic bacteria. However, when our immune system is run down, or after taking some forms of medication (such as antibiotics and steroid inhalers), this fungus can overgrow and cause a yeast infection (more commonly known as thrush). These infections for the majority of cases are mild and easy to treat, however more severe infections can be life threatening.

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But how does this relate to autism?

In recent years, emerging evidence suggests that autists may have over double the amount of candida in their gut than their neurotypical peers. As we have discussed in my previous post exploring digestive issues in autism, the microbiota of the gut can play an important role in influencing brain development and behaviour. As such, it has been theorized that toxins such as ammonia released by yeast during infection may interfere with mental processing and induce autistic behaviours. Some doctors have reported improvements in autistic symptoms through the use of anti-fungal medication and candida diets (low sugar, anti-inflammatory diet purported to improve gut health); however, the vast majority of physicians remain skeptical about candida’s role in autism due to limited scientific evidence (at present).

So might there be a reason that autists are particularly prone to thrush infections?

Interestingly in my reading about pro-biotics (particular strains of live bacteria which can have beneficial effects for gut health such as in yogurts, supplements, pro-biotic drinks etc.) and their use against thrush, I discovered that the bacterium L. reuteri is thought to be one of the main gut defenders against a number of candida infections.

Now why does that name sound familiar?

In my post about digestive issues in autism we learned that this strain of lactobacillus is absent in some cases of autism. Moreover, some studies suggest that administering pro-biotics for L. reuteri to autists can improve behavioural symptoms, which would suggest that perhaps this bacterium, or lack there of, may predispose autists to thrush infections!

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See? Far more interesting than you may have thought! 😉

Have a good weekend Earthlings! 🙂

Aoife

Research News Update July 2018

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

The world of research is fast paced- every day new studies are published telling us new and exciting things about the human body. As the scientific community has yet to pinpoint the exact underlying mechanisms involved in autism, the wheel of research is constantly churning out new evidence to provide us with a better picture of the autistic brain.

Since my previous post about the neuroscience of autism, there have been several new and exciting insights into the physiology of the autistic brain, so I’ve decided to give you a brief summary of the research! 🙂

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Folding in the Brain

In recent weeks a study has emerged that suggest that symptoms of autism may be attributed to excessive folding in the brain.

No- I’m not talking origami, but the formulation of the squiggly ridges or ‘folds’ that make up the brain (by a process known as gyrification) as you can see in the gif below:

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Brain tissue folds to allow for a greater surface area for cognitive functioning within the cramped confines of the skull- like a bar of chocolate melts quicker when you break the pieces up, so too does the folded brain work more efficiently than if the surface were smooth.

Recent research shows that autists brains may not fold in the same way as their neurotypical peers. Some regions of the brain, such as those associated with facial recognition are smoother in autists, whereas other areas such as the temporal (sensory processing) and frontal lobes (memory and attention) show signs of exaggerated folding. Excessive folding in these areas could explain sensory sensitivities in autists, in addition to variations in memory and attention deficits. On the other hand, decreased folding in the occipital lobe may explain why autists struggle with facial reading and processing 🙂

Brain Shape

In addition to folding, recent research has focused on the cerebellum (meaning little brain in Latin) which contains roughly 80% of the neurons of the brain whilst only taking up 10% of it’s total volume! Thought to be associated with implicit learning (learning without awareness like learning to ride a bike or to swim), sensory function and cognitive function, 3D analysis of MRI data suggests that the shape and structure of the cerebellum may be different in autism. It appears that in some autists the cerebellum is flatter on the right side (the flatter the tissue, the lower the efficiency of the brain), but in autists with higher functioning social skills the structure is closer to that of a neurotypical individual- which may explain some of the communication difficulties associated with autism as the right side of the cerebellum is associated with language processing.

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Abnormal Brain Connections

MRI scans of preschoolers with autism have provided more evidence that the autistic brain is abnormally connected. In this study it appears that a number of brain networks connecting different areas of the brain show significant differences from neurotypicals. A number of components of the basal ganglia network in particular were altered in autism (which plays an important role in behaviour). Differences were also found in the para-limbic network which is also involved in behaviour in addition to emotional processing, motivation and self-control.

This may indicate the use of MRI scans to obtain faster autism diagnoses in the future, but it’s still very much early days 🙂

There we have it now dear Earthlings, hope you hadn’t missed me too much while I was away.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism and Echolalia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re going to talk about something that effects approximately 75% of autists- Echolalia.

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I know, I know, it’s a mouthful- but echolalia is actually quite simple:

Echolalia is the meaningless repetition of noises, words or phrases immediately after their occurrence (although sometimes this can be delayed).

Derived from Greek echo, “to repeat,” and laliá, meaning “talk” or “speech,” Echolalia is an automatic and unintentional behaviour.  In most cases Echolalia is used in an attempt to communicate, practice or even learn language. In fact, Echolalia is part of normal development- every child experiences Echolalia when they learn a spoken language.

However, whilst “normal”, this behaviour can persist for longer in autists.

But why might this be?

Psychologically speaking, Echolalia is considered by some to simply be a repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviour in autists (as some experience this behaviour only when they are stressed), however, the general school of thought is that it is a communicative behaviour. Imitative behaviour is an essential part of social learning. As autists struggle so much socially, this imitative behaviour can act as a tool to help improve their social skills.

I’ve certainly exhibited such imitative behaviour during my formative years. For example, I somehow got it into my head that in my final year of primary school I needed to practice my swearing so that I would better be able to fit in when I made the jump to secondary school! 😬🙈 Wasn’t especially successful- sure I could swear like a sailor, buuuuuut it didn’t do much to improve my social skills or status (but I suppose I sounded a little less like a walking thesaurus for a change! 😛 ).

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On the biological side of things, much of the physiology of Echolalia remains to be explored, however, one study indicates that the ITGB3 gene (which carries the information for β3 integrin- a cell membrane protein that will interact with other proteins to trigger a number of biochemical reactions in our cells) seems to link autism and echolalia.

There we have it now Earthlings I hope you enjoyed this post! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Memory

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In today’s post we’re going to explore the concept of memory and autism.

When we think of autism and memory, we often picture the ‘Rain Man‘ stereotype- an individual with superb, photographic memory.

Whilst this is a stereotypical view of autism, stereotypes often are based on fact. It is indeed true that many autists possess impeccable and often eidetic memories (although the scientific jury is still out as to whether or not true eidetic memories really exist).

Just check out this autstic artists sketch drawn entirely from memory! 😲

However, the opposite is also true in that many individuals with autism equally possess a number of memory deficits such as difficulties with short term and working memory (a part of the short term memory that temporarily stores information for processing-e.g decision making, reasoning and behavior). As a result of this, children with autism often have poorer memory for more complicated information.

My own memory has always been kind of strange- I fall somewhere between having a normal memory and an eidetic one (I definitely don’t have a full eidetic memory- school would have been a lot easier if I had! 😛 )

bitmoji792226925Whilst I can’t recite the entire works of JK Rowling word for word, my brain does however, tend to randomly churn out eidetic memories every now and again (known as sporadic eidetic memory). I sporadically come out with full eidetic memories recalling such minuscule details as clothes, smells, songs, haircuts etc. My memories are so detailed that I once when recounting the previous night’s episode of Desperate Housewives to my Physical Therapist went so far as to mention the likely flavour of smoothie that the ladies of Wisteria Lane were drinking as they gossiped! 😂😬

I’ve unwittingly been dubbed the “family historian” as a result 😛

But what has the science to say about memory and autism?

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The research is conflicting. Scientists have had great difficulty in obtaining consistent results across memory studies- they are as diverse as the spectrum itself!

However, there are a couple of areas in which scientists seem to agree:

  • Visual memory is thought to be a particular strength in autists due to increased activity in visual areas of the autistic brain, resulting in enhanced perceptual processing (and eidetic memory formation)
  • Deficits in working memory may arise from alterations in the brain networks involved in working memory such as the amygdaloid complex and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) affecting their ability to encode and process information

Fun Fact: The regions of the brain involved in declarative memory (memory of facts and events) are thought to compensate for social deficits in autism, becoming activated in social situations to allow autists to mask (for example using formulaic speech i.e. learned phrases)

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings- I hope this post was ‘memorable’ 😉

Enjoy the weekend! 😀

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

 

Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to discuss a type of autism that lies just outside the spectrum- the broad or broader autism phenotype (BAP).

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What on earth is that when it’s at home?!

BAP is a term used to describe a wider range of individuals just beyond the spectrum who have difficulties with language, personality, and exhibit a number of social and behavioural traits at a higher level than the average neurotypical, but not so high as to be diagnosed with autism.

In other words, this means that you have “a touch of autism” or “not quite autism (NQA)”. The individual has a high number of mild traits, but not enough to interfere with daily life.

So what do we know about BAP?

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Relatively little- it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!

This intermediate description is most commonly associated with family members (parents, siblings, and other extended family members) of those with ASD diagnoses (14–23%), but it can also be found in the general population as well (5–9%).

Interestingly, evidence of an intermediate autism phenotype has existed since the late 1970’s (the term itself was coined in 1994), but it is only in recent years, with the expansion of the spectrum, that it has become a source of research interest for scientists seeking to understand the range of ASD’s that lie beneath the spectrum rainbow.

Broader autism phenotype

Much of the research in this area involves using the BAP to better understand autism- in particular it’s severity and genetics. By analyzing autism traits in families through the prism of BAP for example, researchers may be better able to identify the specific genes which underpin ASDs, paving the way for better therapies for autists.

Apologies for the shortness of this post dear Earthlings, but there is sadly very little information out there about BAP. Perhaps in the future there may be new research that will shed greater light on this subject 🙂

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Smell

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As I mentioned in last weeks post on taste sensitivity, this week we’re going to discuss sensitivity to smell in autism.

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As with other senses we have discussed, autists can be either hyposensitive or hypersensitive to odours. One autist may enter a malodorous environment without noticing anything amiss, another autist may wretch, or worse!

As a child, my nose was particularly sensitive to my environment (although judging by how I could taste the beer my friends were drinking yesterday evening from the fumes alone, this may still be the case on occasion 😛 ). Bad smells were especially trying- the smell of salads, fish, cigarette smoke, incense, even something so simple as a bag of popcorn could easily turn my stomach.

But it wasn’t all bad- this sensitivity comes with a heightened appreciation for pleasant smells too 🙂

Baking, chocolate, nice perfumes, the outdoors, the smell of metal (don’t ask me why I love this one so much- must be something to do with my taste in music! 😛 😉 )- in fact, such smells are not only a sensory sensation, but can also be used to help calm an autist.

As easily as an unpleasant smell could unsettle me, the right smell could calm me back down again as a child.  I always kept a teddy or a blanket near at hand that I could smell to help soothe and calm me and to lull me off to sleep- I couldn’t sleep without one particular teddy until I was 16!

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^^^^My teddy was a lot more raggedy than this…😬

So why does smell affect autists so much?

Interestingly, some studies indicate that there are no differences in sensitivity to smell between autists and their neurotypical peers, however, much research points to the cortex of the brain. This region is heavily involved in smell processing, and yep, you guessed it- the autistic brain shows signs of dysfunction in this region. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex shows signs of overgrowth and excessive linkage in the neurons (just like an overloaded plug), so no wonder sensory perception is altered in autists! This region is also associated with the formation and retrieval of long term memories, which could also explain why smells are often tied to memory recall in autists (which I will explore in more detail at a later stage 🙂 ).

One study also shows that autists may not inhale smells in the same way to their neurotypical peers. Evidence suggests that autists inhale deeply and intensely for both pleasant and unpleasant smells, whereas neurotypicals will tentatively sniff in the presence of an offending odour, which could further explain differences in scent processing.

In addition to this, research suggests that alterations in smell can influence social behaviours. A recent study in fact suggest that autists cannot smell fear and that there is a reversal in their response to fear. In this study, a group of autists were calm when presented with a sample of sweat from a skydiver, whereas their neurotypical peers exhibited classic signs of fear. In contrast, their fear levels increased when presented with the sweat sample from a calm individual!

In other words, an autists social behaviour may be affected by an inability to interpret social cues carried in odours- the mind boggles!

So there we have it dear Earthlings- hope this post didn’t ‘stink’ too badly 😛 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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