Autism and Food

Greetings Earthlings! 😀

Following a recent report about a teenager who has been left blind from a restrictive diet of roughly 4 nutritionally lacking food items, this week I’d like to discuss the topic of food and autism.

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Did you know that feeding difficulties are estimated to occur in as many as 70 to 90% of children with autism?

It’s a shocking statistic!

People with autism are often described as selective or picky eaters, often favouring carbohydrates and highly processed foods while rejecting fruits and vegetables- but why is that?

Research has found that food issues in autism overlap with sensory sensitivities to taste, texture, colour  and smell. As such, autists will often actively avoid these foods to avoid adverse sensory reactions. In the animal kingdom, many species develop conditioned aversions to certain unpleasant tastes, associating them with danger and illness. As the autistic tongue is so sensitive, it’s thought that autists can also develop aversions to foods in this manner.

In my case, although my autistic traits are extremely mild, food continues to be an issue for me. Certain smells, tastes and textures in particular will make me want to throw up. Fruit and veg in particular have been troublesome on a sensory level- for example I love the taste of strawberry, but I can’t tolerate physically eating one due to the texture.

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It’s made things quite difficult at times when I’ve been out eating with friends to try to maintain a neutral expression when a foodstuff disagrees with my brain to avoid hurting someone’s feeling. A lot of the time it’s just easier to pretend that I’m not hungry to avoid an awkward social/sensory situation- pro tip, always keep snacks in your car/handbag.

Selective eating habits are commonplace for autists, however, serious food aversions can can be diagnosed clinically as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), previously known as selective eating disorder (SED).

But is there any getting around these sensory issues?

CBT as with many other aspects of autism, cognitive behavioural therapy can help to change behaviours surrounding food over time.

Persistence- keep trying to build up your tolerance to certain textures/tastes. When I was younger, I could not stand to drink a glass of water as it felt so weird compared with other soft drinks. It was not easy to adjust to this texture at first  (I even had to swap shots of water for shots of orange juice to get it down! 😂), but I stuck with it, and now I drink several litres a day willingly 🙂

Prepare food in different ways- this has perhaps been the most helpful for me. Changing the way some foodstuffs are prepared/cooked can really impact the textural outcome. Smoothies have been particularly useful to help me achieve my 5 a day. I may not be able to eat the fruit itself, but throw it in a blender and bye-bye textural issues. Similarly, with apple tart, if the apples are too chewy, I find it extremely difficult to stomach, but if you bake the tart until the apples are soft and mushy I can’t get enough of it!

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a good 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 Climate Change

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

I know what you’re all thinking, she’s lost it- what on earth has autism got to do with climate change?!

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Well, nothing really, but what I’m referring to is the impact of the recent Lancet report about the need to change our eating habits to stave off climate change and it’s potential impacts for the autistic community. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the report you can check out the paper here:

https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673618331799

or alternatively here’s a handy little summary news report:

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/agribusiness-and-food/meat-consumption-must-drop-by-90-to-avert-climate-crisis-report-warns-1.3760363

The bottom line of the report- we need to reduce our meat consumption by 90% and significantly increase our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans to achieve our daily recommended caloric intake (18 times as much dry beans, soy and nuts in fact! 😲)

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As a scientist, I’m all for finding ways to reverse the impact of climate change,  however, I have found this report quite infuriating!

I haven’t really talked about food too much as an issue on this blog (mainly because it’s a subject that’s going to take some time to write about!), but food issues are perhaps my biggest struggle. Troubles with textures, tastes, smells- it can be a nightmare sometimes; but if the Lancet report is to be taken seriously, my nightmare has only just begun!

I’m a real meat lover, and vegetables for me mainly consists of baked beans and the old Irish favourite potatoes (some stereotypes are based in fact after all! 😛 😉 ). If this report is to be seriously considered, this would restrict my daily intake of chicken (my staple) to 29g or the equivalent of one and a half chicken nuggets. Worse still for my beloved potato the Lancet recommends 50g or 39 calories of potatoes per day- roughly a quarter of a medium-sized potato!

So basically if we start to crack down on these foodstuffs, I’ll be living on fresh air and sugar- I’ll have a killer figure for sure, albeit with a side of diabetes 😛

What I am most concerned about is the larger autistic community. My food issues are mild in comparison to other autists-what about the poor struggling parents who’s child will only eat the same meal day in day out, or will only eat McDonalds or foods of a particular colour? Has no one stopped to consider the struggles that these recommendations will bring?

Don’t even get me started on the implications for those with food and nut allergies, of which a high percentage of the autistic community suffer from!

The agricultural industry in Europe is responsible for a mere 10% of our carbon footprint whereas our energy consumption stands over a whopping 80%! Why must our food habits change when our energy consumption is so staggeringly high?

It beggars belief that the medical community would think that such a radical overhaul of our eating habits is our best option in the fight against climate change.

What we really need are cleaner fuel alternatives, better range of and services for hybrid cars, and better public transport systems for rural communities (a huge issue here in Ireland- if you don’t have a car, rural life is extremely isolating. Where I live one would have to walk for 45 minutes to get a bus to the nearest town!) to cut down our carbon footprint. Or if someone could invent apparition from Harry Potter that would also work pretty nicely too 😛 😉

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend!

Aoife

Autism and the Dentist

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’m going to discuss an important issue for many people on the spectrum- going to the dentist.

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I know- no one ever really enjoys going to the dentist (except maybe Bill Murray in ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘! 😛 ), but for autists in particular, visits to the dentist can be quite traumatic. For many, the invasion of space can be an issue, for others, a trip to the dentist can aggravate sensory sensitivities (the sensation of brushing, the taste of toothpaste, the smell of latex gloves etc).

Thankfully I have never had any major issues with going to the dentist (aside from one unpleasant incident where the anesthetic didn’t take and I felt the drill hit a nerve…), nevertheless it wouldn’t be one of my favourite activities. The high pitched squeal of the tools, the scraping sensation against my teeth, the needles (shudder!)- it’s not the most pleasant of experiences inside my head! There’s a lot of fist clenching! 😛

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So how might we navigate an autists difficulties at the dentist?

Here are just a few tips and tricks that might benefit parents, dentists and autists alike:

  • Inquire if your dentist is autism friendly– Have they had autistic patients before? Do they have any special tools or techniques to make the visit more comfortable? Do they take any sensory interventions such as dimming the lights, providing sunglasses or minimizing any loud noises that may startle the child?
  • Prepare for a dental visit– Help to desensitize an autist to the experience by story-boarding a trip to the dentist with them so that they know what to expect. When it comes to anxiety, the fear of the unknown is often greater than the reality of the experience. Why not inquire if your dentist will allow you to visit the surgery/send pictures to desensitize your child to the environment and meet the staff before coming in for the real thing? 🙂
  • Wear noise cancelling headphones– whilst this may not be as effective as in other situations given that the tools are operating so close to the ears, nevertheless this may help to take the edge off any noise related issues.
  • Weighted blanket– A weighted blanket sitting on your lap could be quite beneficial in calming an autist. As I’ve discussed previously, the deep pressure stimulation can calm the mind and put the autist at ease. X-ray jackets can also be used to substitute for a weighted blanket. Comforters such as soft toys or other sensory items that autists use to ‘stim‘ can also be useful to help put them at ease.
  • Communication is key– as I’ve said above, the unknown is often one of the more unsettling aspects of a dental visit for an autist. Talk them through each step, show them what you are planning to do to their teeth, allow them to see and feel the tools- testing a motion on the hand can be useful to desensitize an autist prior to the oral exam.
  • Rewards and Bribery– what child doesn’t love a good bribe to motivate them to get through their dental appointment?! There’s a lot to be said for the power and promise of a treat (I may have even bribed myself with a trip to the cinema to motivate me to get this post finished on time! 😂)
  • Sedation– though not the best of options, this can sometimes be the only way for particularly anxious autists or those with gagging issues to get through a visit to the dentist.

I’ve also found this useful video about visiting the dentist if you want to check it out:

You can also find more information in the following link:

https://www.autismspeaks.org/sites/default/files/documents/dentalguide.pdf

So there we have it Earthlings! I hope you’ve found this post useful 🙂

Dental care isn’t always the easiest for an autist, but remember, prevention is always best- so get try to find a toothpaste that you like, pick the right toothbrush (soft bristles can be helpful) and take care of those pearly whites! 🙂

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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

Autism and Light Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As twinkling Christmas lights are rapidly being erected around me, I’ve been thinking a lot about autism and light sensitivity this week.

Light sensitivity, also known as photophobia (although the phobia part has never really made sense to me! 😛 ), is quite common for autists.

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We are hypersensitive to other sensory stimuli such as sound, so naturally, light too can cause sensory issues for many autists. The wrong lighting environment can cause a whole host of problems that can exacerbate behavioural issues.

If lighting is too bright, this can distort vision, cause headaches and sleep disturbances, and of course, sensory overload and meltdowns. Equally, some autists can be hypo or under sensitive to light. This can cause issues with depth perception, coordination and clumsiness in addition to blurred vision.

In my experience, I have some minor sensitivities to light. Bright lights don’t bother me as such, but I find that I sometimes need to wear sunglasses to take the edge off of a sunny day- sometimes even on a grey one. There exists many photos of me climbing a mountain in the midst of a rain storm wearing my sunnies without a care in the world!😂

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Getting to sleep can also be a minor issue for me if the lighting is wrong- a past trip to Norway during 24 hours of light was an absolute nightmare! (it’s just not right!! 😛 )

So why are we more sensitive to light?

Well, as with many aspects of autism, there has been little research into this particular trait. One study has shown that the pupillary light reflex (the reflex that causes our pupils to either shrink or dilate in response to light) is noticeably different between autists and neurotypicals. Results from this study indicated that this reflex is delayed in autists, where the pupils constricted at a slower velocity and a smaller amplitude (i.e. the maximum size the pupil could constrict to) to neurotypicals. If our pupils are not regulating the entry of light into our eyes as efficiently as our neurotypical peers, this could explain why light can sometimes overwhelm us.

Optic nerve hypoplasia (a condition where the nerve connecting the eyes and the brain is underdeveloped) has also been indicated in a number of cases of autism, with photophobia being one of the main symptoms. So perhaps the development of the optic nerve may be impacted in the autistic brain.

So what can you do to help navigate this sensory issue?

  • Wear sunglasses– Ah, my best friends! I carry a pair in my handbag at all times as you never know when the sun might unexpectedly peep out- even in Ireland! 😛 For night time, why not try an eye mask (although if you’re as fidgety as I am at night, this could end up on the floor before dawn! 😂)!
  • Install a dimmer switch– A useful tool to help optimize light levels to suit the individual (and loads of fun to play with! 😉 )
  • Coloured Filters (overlays or lenses)– These are designed to block specific wavelengths of light which a person may be sensitive to in order to manage visual stress; however, there is no real research to support this claim. But as I always say- if it works for you, give it a try! 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! 🙂

Have a great weekend! 😀

Aoife

 

 

Autism Management- Sound

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

So leading on from my recent post about sound sensitivity and autism, today I’m going to expand a little bit more on the subject.

Fun Fact: Did you know that an estimated 65% of autists are sensitive to sound?

Being sensitive to sound can be quite challenging for those on the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be managed.

So here are some of my top tips for managing sound sensitivity:

  • Earplugs/Noise Cancelling Headphones- I know, it’s the obvious one, but it has to be said! Using these can really help to take the edge off for many autists in noisy environments. These can be especially helpful if you are a fan of live music, but find gigs too loud- I have genuinely seen people wear noise canceling headphones, earplugs and cotton wool to gigs, you will not be alone! 😀 Added Bonus– it can also discourage unwanted conversations 😉 Image result for headphone memesIf you’re in the market for a pair, the nice folks at reviews.com have a really good article comparing the best on the market:  https://www.reviews.com/noise-canceling-headphones/
  • Listen to music– if you don’t appreciate the sound of silence like Simon and Garfunkel, then hooking a set of headphones up to a music player is another great way to manage sound sensitivity. You can control what sounds you will hear, drown out potential triggers and have some fun while doing so! 🙂 This is particularly useful in the workplace to help focus your mind on your work whilst keeping distracting sounds out.

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Top tip– headphones for leisure (comfier for long journeys, seal in the sound better, and will stop your parents complaining about the volume 😉 ); earbuds for the workplace (drown out sound whilst still allowing you to hear if you’re needed by colleagues).

 

  • Try a silent disco- If sound sensitivity is keeping you from partying the night away in the club, why not go to a silent disco (as seen in the final episode of Atypical)? These are quiet, but loads of fun- and they enable you to control both the volume and choice of music. As an added bonus, you can take off your headphones at any time and have a conversation without the need for shouting 😀

 

  • Move away from the offending stimulus– I know it sounds a little silly, but sometimes you just need to take a step away from offending sounds.

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We can’t always walk around wearing noise cancelling headphones -they can really irritate your ears if you wear them for too long, especially if you happen to be wearing earrings at the time! 😛

Top Tip- If you’re feeling overwhelmed by an irritating sound, especially on a night out, take a few minutes to go outside or to the bathroom, or try stepping out to the quiet of the smoking area (although this may result in a different kind of sensory assault…)

 

  • Ask if an offensive sound can be stopped– Naturally, we can’t go around demanding that someone chew less loudly or ask the DJ to turn the music down (can’t commit social suicide!), but it doesn’t hurt to ask a friend/family member to turn down the car radio volume, not to pop balloons around you or to stop playing with that sonic app that makes your ears bleed (remember people playing with those in school as the teachers could never hear the frequency?)!

 

  • Magnesium supplements– Now this one is a little weird. Some people believe that magnesium deficiency attributes to our sensitivity to sound…this smells a bit like pseudoscience to me… but hey- if it works for you, who am I to question it!

So there we have it Earthlings, my top tips for managing sound sensitivity on the spectrum 😀

Have a good weekend everyone (unless you’re back to school next week- in that case, my condolences! 😛 😉 )

Aoife

Autism and Sound Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post on sensory processing, today I’m going to expand a little bit on sound sensitivity.

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Many autists have a higher sensitivity to certain volume ranges and frequencies of different sounds. Also known as hyperacusis, this sound sensitivity can make encounters with seemingly innocuous every day noises a struggle.

For many, the wrong sound can even cause physical pain!

Sometimes autists can also be hyposensitive or under sensitive to sound, meaning that they may not react to certain sounds, or may even enjoy noisy environments- which would explain my preference for rock music 😛 😉

Luckily, I am only mildly sensitive to sounds, but I have my moments. Popping balloons, the unexpected blare of a drivers horn, a sudden change in the music I’m listening to- I may overreact to such sounds juuuuuust a teensy bit! 😛

I recently physically jumped at my desk after an unexpected change in the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera!

Mortified! 😛

Sometimes it’s not just the volume of the noise, but the frequency or how it sounds to me. A person was recently whispering a rosary behind me at mass and the pitch of that whisper nearly drove me insane- inside my head I was silently screaming! 😛

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A neurotypical may be able to ignore irritating noises like these, but I just cannot keep from focusing on it- it’s like I can’t concentrate on anything else.

For the most part I can keep my screams on the inside, but if a particular sound persists it can be quite upsetting, especially if I’m already stressed and on edge. A piece of lab equipment that kept backfiring with a giant pop one afternoon triggered a meltdown for example.

But why are our ears really so sensitive?

One study suggests that autists experience stronger autonomic reactions to noise (these are unconscious reactions triggered by the autonomic nervous system which controls a number of bodily functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate and digestion- i.e. “rest and digest”).

Another study, which examined the brains response to different sounds, found that certain areas are hyperactive in children with autism versus their peers. For example, there was increased activity in the Amygdala- an area of the brain associated with social and emotional behaviour, in addition to the cortices which process sensory information.

In other words, the autistic brain has an entirely different physiological response to sound!

So try to bear that in mind the next time you sneak up behind us to whisper in our ears! 😛 😉

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Aoife

Autism Management- Concerts

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Ah, live music! There’s nothing I love more than a decent rock concert!

“But wait- wutt?! 

You’re autistic! Surely you can’t enjoy a loud, flashy, crowded rock concert?!”

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Plleeeeeeeeeeeeeeease! 😛

What do I always say? No two autists are alike!!!!

Sure, sudden noises can make me jump, but in actual fact I love the noise! I relish the chaos of alternative rock! The vibration of the music through your body, the bright lights, the pyrotechnics, the showmanship- it’s really hard to beat a decent concert.

That being said, my love for gigs has not come without it’s challenges.

At my very first gig (Paramore’s Brand New Eyes tour, 2009), I suffered both a meltdown AND a shutdown! The crowd made me very unsettled and uncomfortable moshing during Paramore’s opening number, so I spent the remainder of the concert on the sidelines crying and alone! 😛 We subsequently almost missed our bus home, the stress from which brought on a shutdown.

Certainly a memorable and eventful night! 😛

Indeed, concerts can be overwhelming for both neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, but that does not mean that a concert can’t be an enjoyable experience. It’s all about finding what works for you 🙂

Here are my tips for finding comfort at a concert:

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  • Outdoor vs indoor venues: This is one that I’m learning the hard way. Outdoor gigs, whilst a little easier on the ears than indoor venues, can be a real mixed bag in terms of enjoyment. Crowds are bigger, snagging a good vantage point can be tricky and security have far less control over crowd behaviour. I spent much of my last gig being kicked in the back by a girl sitting on her boyfriends shoulders. Take my advice- choose indoor gigs for your favourite artists.
  • Choose seating– After my first “pit” experience, I have made a point of always choosing to pay a few euros more for a decent seat in large arenas. This way you avoid strangers touching you, claustrophobia, tall people, reduce exposure to potentially unpleasant odours (outdoor gigs are a real pain if you hate smoking as I do) and prevent being unexpectedly hit by stray “balloons”, flying glasses of beer and, on one random occasion, black nail varnish! Don’t you just miss the emo kids of the mid noughties? 😛

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Alternatively, if you’d rather be closer to the action, smaller venues (< 2000 capacity) generally offer more comfortable standing experiences. Crowds are spaced out more and are better behaved with security always close at hand 🙂

  • Sunglasses-Not as crazy as it sounds I promise! Sunglasses are my best friend as they really help to take the edge off bright lights. I’ve even been known to wear them on a night out in the club on occasion! Don’t worry about what other people think- it’ll be dark and everyone will be too focused on the stage to notice 🙂
  • Earplugs– This one may seem a little bit counter productive, but lot’s of people do it. Loud music is part and parcel when it comes to gigs, but sometimes the noise can be a little excessive. Take my most recent concert just last week. I was standing in front of a girl who insisted upon screaming every 5 seconds for 2 and a half hours- not like your average fangirl, but a murder victim (the kind of piercing scream that makes you jump every time you hear it)! Quite frankly, she’s lucky she wasn’t my murder victim! 😜😂 I was rather envious of a nearby concertgoer for having had the sense to bring a pair!

So there we have it, my top tips for managing autism at a gig!

As I always say, you should never allow an autism diagnosis to hold you back- if you can’t climb the mountain, there’s always a way around it 🙂

So rock on dear Earthlings! 😉

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Aoife

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