Autism and Gait

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

This week I’d like to discuss another lesser known aspect of the spectrum- autism and gait.

As I’ve discussed previously, coordination issues are part and parcel with autism, however, what you may not know is that these coordination issues tie in with an autists gait- particularly for those with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact one of the lesser known diagnostic criteria in the DSM-V is that of an odd or unusual gait.

New technologies are even using gait analysis as an early means of detecting autism:

I know it seems an unusual trait, (let’s face it, we rarely notice a person’s walk) but researchers have observed that autists can have greater or even reduced step and stride length, increased step width, have unusual posturing, tend to walk on their toes, and are lacking in “motor smoothness” when compared with their neurotypical peers.

So why is an autists gait so unusual? What does the science have to say?

Thus far only a few studies have investigated the underpinnings of gait and autism (although the association has been known for decades), but as usual, the evidence points back to the brain. There has been a lot of debate as to which region is responsible for gait differences, however there is evidence to suggest that neurological alterations in the cerebellum (regulates motor movement) and the basal ganglia (a group of nerves involved in voluntary control of motor movements) in autists are the likely culprits.

Furthermore, those autists who tend to toe walk can develop a leg length discrepancy which can also contribute to their odd gait. Gait issues such as this can have a negative impact on the body as this can shorten your Achilles tendon.  Research shows that children with ASD’s tend to have a reduced range of motion in the knee and ankle when walking which may imply weakness around these joints.

It’s not all bad news however, as special orthotics can be used to help improve some of these issues.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Clothing

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to briefly expand on something that I touched on in my previous post about skin sensitivity, -the importance of clothing and autism.

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No, I’m not going to talk about fashion, but function!

For many autists, it can be quite difficult to pick out clothes. A stray fiber, an itchy label or a prickly seam can unleash a storm of sensory discomfort. Gene mutations cause the nerves in our skin to be extra sensitive to certain stimuli. This coupled with hyperactivity in the cortex and the amygdala (both regions involved in sensory processing) don’t make for the happiest of bedfellows.

But what if the clothes that irritate us could in fact be used to manage autistic symptoms?

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Clothes are now being designed and adapted to cater for the different needs of autists. Companies are now producing  seamless socks and underwear, looser fitting clothes made from softer materials, and most interestingly, weighted and compression clothing.

Based on the research of the great Temple Grandin and her hugging machine, both weighted and compression clothing provide calming, deep pressure stimulation much like a soothing hug. The pressure switches off the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), promoting the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters. Based on this, it’s thought that autists are better able to cope with sensory issues, hyperactivity, motor skills and sleeplessness when wearing sensory clothing.

It’s a really interesting premise- there’s even been an inflatable sensory scarf produced that’s designed to provide soothing pressure in addition to emitting calming aromas! Check it out:

https://www.wired.com/2015/08/odd-looking-clothing-designed-help-autistic-kids/

In reality however, the results are mixed. Scientific studies indicate that weighted and inflatable vests do not appear to be effective and are not clinically recommended, yet the personal testimonials of families across the globe beg to differ. One testimonial claimed that a child’s meltdowns went from 12 a day to having none in 3 years!

Either way, nothing ventured nothing gained, so if you think that sensory wear may be of benefit to you or a loved one with autism, why not give it a shot? 🙂

With the variety of sensory wear available, you’ll at the very least look fabulous! 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Alexithymia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly elaborate on something that I’ve touched on in previous posts– autism and alexithymia.

So what exactly is alexithymia?

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Alexithymia is a personality trait wherein an autist may struggle to identify and describe emotions in themselves and in others. We feel emotions just like everyone else, we just aren’t always aware of what it is we are feeling. It can be incredibly frustrating (ironically I’ve often struggled to identify this emotion in the past 😛 ) knowing that you feel something but not having a clue how to verbalize it or process it properly. I’ve honestly spent days going “The thing is…it’s just…um..I dunno!” round and round my mind until I can figure out what it is I’m feeling!

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Thankfully as I’ve gotten older this happens less and less frequently.

Aoife’s Top Tip: as I’ve discussed previously, music can be quite beneficial when dealing with alexithymia. If I can’t identify an emotion, I tend to gravitate towards songs that sound like what I’m feeling or a particular lyric that resonates with my experience which can help get you past a rough patch 🙂

As many as 85% of autists may have varying degrees of alexithymia, but is there a scientific explanation for it?

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The science remains unclear, however some neurological studies may provide us with some clues.

Early studies proposed that there is a breakdown in communication along the corpus callosum between the emotional right and the logical left hemispheres of the brain when emotional information is transferred to the language regions of the brain. In one third of autists, the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerves which connect the hemispheres) is either partially or completely missing which could explain the struggles to identify emotions. Another study suggests that dysfunction in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain may contribute to alexithymia, an area of the brain associated with empathy that appears to be weakly activated in social situations in autists.

So try not to judge us too harshly when we struggle to show empathy 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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? 😲

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 😲

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 of 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! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism- Atypical Language Use

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d just like to briefly talk about the use of atypical or unusual language in autism.

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Now you may have noticed in previous blogs that I don’t always use the most simplistic of language to express myself- I have always been fond of big words, and have a tendency to regurgitate these randomly in casual conversation.

One infamous incident was the time that I told my Maths teacher that I intended to drop to ordinary level Maths after I had been “ruminating” on it for the previous few days- my family have never let that one go! 😛 😂 Similarly, my supervisor nearly shot me for including the word “multitudinous” in my first publication! Needless to say it was pulled during edits 😛

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I was most interested to learn after my diagnosis that my verbosity (couldn’t help myself choosing this word! 😂)  is not uncommon among autists, particularly among those with Asperger’s syndrome. In fact the tendency to use more formalized language was first observed during Kanner’s original observations of autism back in the 1940’s and is included on the common list of diagnostic criteria.

So is there a scientific explanation as to why many autists tend towards atypical language?

Studies of individuals with damage to the right hemisphere of the brain have been known to have a proclivity for verbose language. Moreover, brain imaging studies of autists have shown that there is a tendency towards “rightward asymmetry” (a tendency for certain brain functions to be more specialized in the right side of the brain) in language areas versus their neurotypical peers. Taken together, alterations to the right hemisphere of the brain may explain why some autists prefer a more formalized use of language when communicating.

Alternatively you could just enjoy using big words as I do- like I always say, why use a smaller word when there are so many glorious synonyms floating around in the back of my brain!  😛 😉

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

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

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