Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

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I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

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I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

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….I wake up feeling like death in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! 😛

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! 😛

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, where higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day!                                                   sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! 🙂
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! 🙂

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! 😉

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow 🙂

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on 😉

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to dive into the physiology of the autistic brain to explain what’s actually going on at the neurological level. I’ve touched on aspects of the science in previous posts, but I wanted to give you a quick overview post where the main points in the one place 🙂

So let’s get down to some science! 🙂

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Hyper-connected Neurons:

Scientific evidence suggests that neurons in the autistic brain are hyper-connected. Specifically, studies indicate that autists have too many synapses in the brain. The synapse is basically a gap or a junction between two neurons where chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) carry information like a ferry from one neuron to the next. It looks a little bit like this:

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During normal brain development, about half of the synapses we are born with are “pruned” off. In autism, this process is slowed down, and so autistic children have an excessive amount of synapses compared with their neurotypical peers. As these connections are essential to communication between neurons, this can greatly effect how the brain works and processes information.

Dysfunction at the Junction:

In addition to possessing an excessive number of synapses, communication at these neuronal junctions is also impaired in the autistic brain.

Animal studies have indicated that synapses function differently in the autistic brain as a result of genetic mutation. Mutations cause certain proteins to be absent in autism- proteins that are essential to the normal functioning of the synapse. As a consequence of this, the transmission of information between neurons is affected, resulting in a number of social and behavioral issues.

Think of physical junctions on a busy road- if something goes wrong at the junction, a chain of chaos will ensue!

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Hyper-excitable Neurons:

Research shows that in many cases of autism, neurons in certain regions of the brain are more excitable than others. This means that these neurons are more sensitive to stimulation. For example, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain (which processes sensory information such as smell), are more sensitive and excitable than other neurons. 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.

This sensitizes the autistic brain to all kinds of stimuli as discussed here.

Dysregulated Neurotransmitter levels:

As previously mentioned, information travels across the synapses in the brain via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In the autistic brain, the levels of these neurotransmitters are dysregulated- or out of sync. Research indicates that individuals with autism tend to have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamic acid) and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) causing neurons in the autistic brain to fire excessively. In addition to this, levels of the neurohormone (a chemical that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter) oxytocin, which plays an influential role in trust and social behaviours, are also out of balance. Moreover, dopamine (a neurotransmitter which can both calm and excite) is also dysregulated in autism. Together, the action of biochemicals like these influences a number of autistic behaviours and issues such as ADHD, mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety, sensory processing, social behaviours, learning, memory and emotional responses.

Male vs Female Brain

Perhaps one of the most fascinating  things that I have discovered about autism are the anatomical differences between the brains of the male and female autist. Brain imaging studies have revealed that autistic women have brains that are anatomically similar to neurotypical male brains, and the brains of male autists share anatomical similarities to those of neurotypical female brains.

In short- this indicates that men with autism have feminine brains, and women with autism have masculine brains!!!

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I know!!!!

It sounds weird, but it makes a world of sense. Oftentimes I’ve felt like I had a male brain growing up- my tomboyish interests, my fashion sense, my preference for male company, my inability to walk in heels; it all fits!

Strange but true! 🙂

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain 🙂 There is no clear mechanism through which autism acts, these are just some of the likely pathways involved. I’ll explore other possible mechanisms in a later post.

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

Vaccines and Autism

Greeting’s Earthlings! 🙂

Yep…I’m going there today- the autism vaccine controversy.

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This issue has been thoroughly debated by scientists in recent years, so I’m going to discuss this once, and once alone.

In 1998, the now completely discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield published this paper in The Lancet:

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Notice the word ‘RETRACTED’ in bold red letters.

In this paper, Wakefield suggested that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is linked to inflammatory bowel disease and autism.

This is what I like to call:

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Subsequent to the publication of this paper, serious conflicts of interest and falsified data were discovered. This led to the paper’s ultimate retraction and Wakefield was struck off the medical register in the UK. Countless studies have endeavored to replicate the results of Wakefield’s work, but none have succeeded, proving that there is no medical link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

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Here are the real facts about the case:

Wakefield’s work had multiple conflicts of interest:

  • When the paper was first submitted for publishing, he failed to disclose that he was in receipt of funds (~£435,000 or $674,000) from lawyers acting on the behalf of parents that believed the MMR vaccine was harmful!
  • During the course of his investigation, Wakefield filed a patent for a new measles vaccine, standing to gain financially from the downfall of the currently available vaccine
  • Patients were recruited to the study through anti-MMR campaigners

Several ethical codes were broken by Wakefield when conducting his research:

  • Wakefield unethically collected blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party (reportedly for £5 a pop)
  • Patients were subjected to unnecessary invasive procedures such as lumbar punctures and colonoscopies without prior ethical approval
  • The company that Wakefield sought to establish following the paper’s publication was to be headed by the father of one of the patients included in his study
  • Wakefield further tested out his new measles vaccine on a child without recording it in his medical notes or discussing it with the child’s GP
  • Most serious of all- Wakefield falsified and manipulated his findings!! It was discovered that Wakefield had either misrepresented or altered medical histories in ALL cases described in the study!

Aside from evidence tampering, the design of the study was quite poor. Wakefield’s research examined a very small patient cohort (only 12 children) using case reports- one of the weakest forms of medical research. Large scale studies examining hundreds of thousands of cases have not established a link between the vaccine and autism.

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Of the 12 children examined in the study, 5 showed signs of developmental delay prior to receiving the MMR vaccine, and a further 3 patients did not in fact have autism.

But what of other research in this area?

Studies which are often cited in the MMR controversy suggest a link between thimerosal, (a mercury containing compound), in vaccines and autism- a link which has been largely refuted. Additionally, thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in currently available vaccines- but autism rates still continue to rise.

Studies have also been conducted to explore the impact of the anti-vax movement on autism rates. These studies compare autism rates in those who did and those who did not receive the MMR vaccine. The result- no difference in autism rates between both groups!! 

Furthermore, following the publication of his paper, Wakefield proposed that 3 separate vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella was a safer alternative to the combined vaccine.

But did he have a point?

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Nope- in countries where the practice of giving 3 separate vaccines at 3 separate stages was adopted, autism rates continued to rise regardless.

So there we have the facts about the MMR vaccine controversy. If you’re still a little bit skeptical, I’ll leave you with one final thought:

Wakefield has repeatedly refused to deny or replicate the findings of his study. If there was nothing to hide, then why not prove his claims?

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Aoife

Impulsivity and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

In continuation from the previous post exploring curiosity and autism, today we’re going to take a look at impulse control in autists.

Many people with autism report issues with impulsivity.

All my life I’ve struggled with this issue. Too often I’ve felt like Didi in ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, dying to know what the button will do and being unable to keep myself from pushing it! 😛

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As a child I was highly impulsive. I never knew when to stop eating, would impulsively give up on a book halfway through in favour of another (at one point I had 9 books on the go!)  and when overwhelmed I would often try to run away.

During one particularly interesting meltdown I began to impulsively throw all items that my mother had given me out of my bedroom window (which is a storey high I might add), whilst my sisters in the room below gleefully retrieved them, each determined to claim ownership…Clear example of black logic at work! 😛

So why do we struggle with impulsiveness?

Impulsivity in autism can be explained by deficits in what is known as executive functioning.

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Don’t worry- it’s not as complicated as it sounds! 😛

Executive functioning is simply a broad umbrella term referring to the mental processes involved in cognitive, physical and emotional self control. Examples of executive functions include planning, memory, cognitive flexibility (the ability to adapt thinking to new and unexpected situations) and most importantly response inhibition– aka the ability to suppress unnecessary or inappropriate actions.

But what causes these deficits in executive functioning?

Many autists also suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), both of which have an effect on executive functioning and impulsivity. I’ll explore these disorders at a later stage 🙂

Experts believe that ASD’s share a common genetic basis with ADD and ADHD, indicating that genetic mutation may be at the heart of these deficits in executive functioning.

Impulse control can be quite challenging at times (it’s a real struggle not to run squealing to every single puppy I encounter for a cuddle! 😛 😉 ) but as I always say, it is by no means a cause for despair. You will eventually learn control with time 🙂

Granted I can still be quite impulsive at times- feeling the urge to curl up asleep on the floor like a dog in company (an urge I feel quite a lot! 😛 ), wondering what it would feel like to step on hot ash/coals or wanting to draw designs all over my face with makeup; the difference being that now I am able to choose whether to ignore or act upon an impulse 🙂

Well…for the most part! Still haven’t fully cracked compulsive eating…or maybe I just don’t want to! 😛 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Curiosity & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to explore an aspect of autism that’s not widely discussed- curiosity 🙂

Many people find that curiosity is in fact diminished among members of the autistic community because of our preference for routine. In my experience, the opposite is true.

To quote Albert Einstein, who is widely believed to have been on the autistic spectrum:

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Passionately curious.

That’s how I would describe my insatiable sense of curiosity about the world.

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Throughout my entire life I have been driven by my desire to acquire knowledge. The words who, what, when, where, why and how are rarely ever far from my lips. For me, it’s more than just a desire, it’s a need.

I need to know how the world works, I need an encyclopedic knowledge of those I care about, I need to know why did the chicken really cross the road??!!

If I had had Google as a child I would have been a nightmare! 😛

If I don’t get the answers I crave, it drives me insane, getting under my skin like an itch I can’t scratch. A friend recently told me she had news for me right at the exact moment I lost my WiFi signal! I nearly screamed with frustration over the next two hours trying to reconnect long enough to find out what her news was!!

Curiosity does have its uses though when it comes to the likes of science, motivating you to stick with the building blocks that will one day lead you to understand entire systems.

Buuuuuttt…as we all learned from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, curiosity can sometimes get us into a spot of bother…

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Many autists have issues with impulse control (which I will explore in detail on Friday 🙂 )  and as such, in my experience, curiosity can be impulsive.

For instance, I scorched the kitchen door as a child when I set fire to a drawing with a candle out of curiosity…

Another such incident (which I have no memory of but have been assured happened 😛 ), saw my younger cousin and I trap my kitten between two buckets until my horrified mother caught us in the act!

The only explanation that I can offer for my behaviour based on similar experiences is that I was interested to know what would happen! 😛

Thankfully in this instance, curiosity did not kill the cat! 😉

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Curiosity can also be an issue in social situations. Countless times I’ve landed myself in hot water for asking inappropriate questions, often unintentionally coming across as nosy. As with all things autism however, with time, you learn to reign in your curiosity and channel it towards something more positive, like keeping up with the latest research 🙂 (even if the unasked questions do irritatingly press on the brain 😛 )

But why am I so curious?

Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer in the line of concrete scientific explanation I’m afraid. There doesn’t appear to be much research in this aspect of the autistic experience.

However, in terms of the general science of curiosity, the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an important role. Curiosity activates brain regions associated with pleasure and reward through the activity of dopamine, giving us that pleasurable feeling of satisfaction when our curiosity is quenched. Many addictive drugs operate through this pathway, so you could say that I’m addicted to learning! 😉

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In autism, dopamine levels are dysregulated, which may influence curiosity as a result. Moreover, increased activity in the midbrain is associated with curiosity. Brain analyses of autistic individuals reveal structural changes in this region, suggesting that perhaps these changes contribute to and account for differences in curiosity levels among autists.

Stay tuned for Friday’s post where we’ll be putting impulsivity under the microscope! 🙂

Aoife

Social Awkwardness & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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

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! 😀 ).

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

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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! 😛

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 🙂

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 😛 😉

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

Who knows-you might even put your awkward stories to good use in a blog some day! Comedy is tragedy plus time after all! 😛 😉

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! 😛

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! 😉

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 🙂

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! 😛 😉

Loud or irritating  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!! 😛

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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! 😛

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 neurotransmitters 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 🙂

Enjoy your week everyone 🙂

Aoife

Autism 101- Savantism & High IQ’s

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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, savantism is a RARE condition affecting between 0.5 and 10% of autists. This means that over 90% of the autistic community do not 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 🙂

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  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 expertise 
  • 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!!! 😀

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! 😛

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 🙂

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! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism 101- Digestive Problems

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to discuss the issue of digestive problems for people on the spectrum- but don’t worry, I’ll stick to the science! I won’t regale you with any personal tales on this occasion 😛 😉

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are among the most commonly associated conditions with autism.

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Evidence suggests that autists may be over 3.5 times more likely to suffer from issues such as diarrhea, constipation, food allergies, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel diseases (i.e. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis).

I know- not the most pleasant of subjects, but we can all be adults right? 😉

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Joking aside- these are serious issues for people with autism, especially for children. Autists are already sensitive to such stimuli as sound and touch. Adding GI discomfort to the mix can make things so much more difficult. The associated pain from these conditions can worsen behaviors, and in some cases, trigger regressions.

So what does science have to say about all of this?

As with autism, it’s another game of Cluedo- research is ongoing to determine ‘who-dunnit’. There are many suspects, but the culprit remains unclear.

Bacterial Abnormalities & Carbohydrate Digestion-The gut is home to trillions of bacteria naturally living in harmony with us.  Our gut provides them with food and shelter, and in return they digest certain dietary substances and produce vitamins B and K for us to absorb. This forms what is known as the gut microbiome. Ordinarily bacteria and host exist in harmony, however, if there is an overabundance of certain bacterial strains, this can lead to a number of GI problems. Studies have shown that such overabundance exists in children with autism.

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Abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion have also been reported in cases of autism. The cells of the intestines appear to have difficulty in breaking down and transporting carbohydrates in the gut causing malabsorption of these vital nutrients.

It’s been suggested that these issues with carbohydrates may be connected to the high level of bacteria present in the autistic gut as digestive alterations may influence nutrient availability within the microbiome, but further investigation is needed.

Furthermore, in recent years, evidence is emerging that gut microbes can influence brain development and behavior!

Wuttttttt???!!!

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I know!!!

In particular, there is evidence to suggest that people with autism are missing one specific bacterium- Lactobacillus reuteri.

One study in mice showed that following the addition of this bacterial strain to their diet,  the natural microbiome of the was gut restored AND further restored some behaviors associated with ASD’s! Interestingly, L. reuteri promotes the production of oxytocin, which as previously discussed, is essential for human bonding and social behavior.

Who knew that bacteria could control our brains this way?!

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Brain-Gut Communication and the Role of Serotonin-As in the picture below, the brain and the gut share a very close relationship in the human body.

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The gut in actual fact has it’s own complex nervous system (the enteric nervous system) which regulates the activity of the gut- kind of like a second brain. Together, the gut and the brain form what is known as the brain-gut axis, a two way street where each can influence the other. For example, signals travelling from gut to brain can influence satiety, whereas stress/anxiety signals from the brain to the gut affect gut sensitivity.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate) within this axis. For example, serotonin plays an important role in the control of intestinal motility. As such, alterations in serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of GI problems.

But how does this relate to autism?

Yep- you guessed it, serotonin levels, like oxytocin, are dysregulated in autism, and therefore likely contribute to associated GI issues.

Further to this, there is also evidence to suggest that certain gut bacteria are involved in the production of serotonin in the body by interacting with serotonin producing cells (enterochromaffin cells). So perhaps alterations in these serotonin producing bacterial colonies may also contribute to these GI issues.

Diet-As people with autism often have restrictive eating habits, it was proposed that perhaps diet may contribute to GI issues. However, studies have shown that although autistic diets may differ, overall nutritional intake does not. On the other hand, many people report improvements in both GI and autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy) free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

Genetics- Finally, scientists believe that as with autism, genetic abnormalities likely contribute to these GI issues. Moreover, as autism and GI problems are so frequently linked, researchers have suggested that perhaps they both share the same underlying genetic mutation or may be caused by some other unknown biological mechanism.

So there we have it! 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this ‘alimentary’ introduction to digestive issues and the spectrum! 😉

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Aoife

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