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 Colour

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this week I’m just going to expand a little bit on something I’ve briefly talked about in previous posts– autism and sensitivity to colour.

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Yes- I know it sounds like a silly thing, but colour sensitivity in autism is real!

Thankfully I have no such issues with colour (I’m all about that rainbow! 😀 ), but many autists actively gravitate towards a particular colour and/or actively avoid other colours. Autists have been known to eat only white coloured foods, or to only play with toys of one particular colour for example.

You can see this avoidance behaviour quite comically in the film ‘My Name Is Khan’ where the title character sees a man in a yellow top and awkwardly turns around to walk in the opposite direction to him! 😂

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But is there a scientific reason for such an unusual behaviour?

Due to some of the structural abnormalities in an autists’ brain, difficulties in sensory processing and the integration of this sensory info can cause colour sensitivity, as autists will often detect colours with higher intensity than neurotypicals.

The colour yellow has been particularly known to trigger this behaviour in boys with autism as studies show that they really struggle to process this colour. Scientists think that this may result from a sensitivity to luminance in autists. Alternatively this may occur as yellow is one of the most heavily sensory loaded colours (it’s the brightest colour in the visible spectrum), as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye. Furthermore yellow has been known to be the most fatiguing colour to the eyes which could explain why sensitive autists avoid it.

From a psychological perspective, yellow has been known to increase a persons temper, and babies who are exposed to yellow rooms tend to cry more (will have to find another gender neutral colour when the time comes so! 😛 😂). Yellow is also associated with danger/acts as a warning in the animal kingdom (i.e. bees and wasps). This is also true for fluorescent vests and street signs, which could also potentially trigger avoidance behaviour in the autistic brain!

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Hope you enjoyed this ‘colourful’ post dear Earthlings! 🙂

Have a great weekend! 😀

Aoife

Lesser Known Signs of Autsim

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this week I wanted to briefly put together a post about some of the lesser known autistic traits. I’ve discussed most of these before, but I wanted to put them all in the one place 🙂

Fecal Smearing– yep, really diving in at the deep end on this one! 😛 As disgusting as this is to talk about, fecal smearing or scatolia, can be one of the earliest signs of autism. Reasons for smearing are generally thought to be either behavioural (attention seeking) or sensory. Scatolia in particular seems to be linked to periods of under-stimulation in autists and so the behaviour appeals on a textural and olfactory level… This is in actual fact a pretty common autistic behavaiour, but the vast majority of people are unaware of it- because let’s face it, who wants to talk about poo! 😛

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Skin Picking–  As we’ve previously discussed, skin picking, or neurotic excoriation, is a pretty common autistic behaviour (an estimated 14.8% of autists may exhibit this behaviour). Autists may pick, scratch and squeeze their skin as a physical expression of emotional/psychological distress to relieve their discomfort through self- stimulation.

Regulation of Tone– Another common but lesser known behaviour is that of autists’ struggles to regulate their tone of voice. Impairments in audio processing and prosody in the autistic brain can make it difficult for an autist to accurately gauge the tone and volume of their voice, so try not to judge too harshly if they accidentally shout in quiet conversation 🤫

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Digestive IssuesPerhaps one of the most common but equally unknown challenges of autism is that of co-morbid digestive issues. 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)- the associated pain from which can exacerbate behavioural symptoms.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have fun this weekend! 🙂

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 Taste

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As we have discussed in previous posts (such as sensory issueslight sensitivity and sound sensitivity), people with autism are highly sensitive on a sensory level, so naturally, taste is no exception.

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Many autists have highly sensitive taste buds wherein we find a number of flavours and foods too strong and overpowering to tolerate. This sensitivity to tastes can make life very difficult when it comes to taking medicines, food selection (which we will discuss in greater detail at a later stage) and maintaining a somewhat neutral expression when put in awkward public tasting scenarios (perhaps one of my biggest personal challenges 😛 ).

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On the other hand, some autists can in fact be hyposensitive to taste, often preferring foods with stronger flavours

So what’s causing these alterations in tongue sensitivity?

The research into this aspect of autism is currently quite limited, however, some neurological studies indirectly suggest that there is evidence of taste dysfunction in autism.

Many studies have shown evidence of brainstem dysfunction in the neurodiverse brain such as hypoplasia, or under development of the facial nerve nucleus (a collection of neurons in the brainstem that innervate the face). This nerve network carries taste information from the tongue and relays it to the brain. Any dysfunction or damage to this pathway can affect a persons ability to detect tastes.

Furthermore, the ability to identify tastes and flavour perception is controlled by a complex nerve network involving several different brain regions such as the thalamus, insula/operculum, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and our old friend the amygdala. Many of these regions have been implicated in autism, suggesting that dysfunctions in these regions may influence an autists taste buds.

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Recent evidence also suggests that autists may be more sensitive to bitter tastes due to genetic mutations in the TAS2R38 taste receptor. Alterations in the TAS2R38 gene can cause autists to perceive bitter tastes differently to their neurotypical peers which could explain why our taste buds are so sensitive (and why alcohol makes me gag 😛 )

Finally, an increased sensitivity to smell also feeds into these alterations in taste which I will examine next week 🙂

Until next time Earthlings! 🙂

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 and Nail Trimming

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So this post might seem a little unusual, but as the difficulties faced by autists when it comes to haircuts has been doing the rounds on social media of late (for the record- I LOVE getting my hair cut! 😀 ), I thought I’d write a quick post about something small that I find a sensory challenge- trimming my nails.

My friends have been complimenting my nails a lot this week, which is a little odd seeing as I have not cut them since 2002! 😲

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Yep- nail trimming freaks me out that much! 😂

Once my mother stopped trimming them for me, I have refused to put a nail scissors or file anywhere near them (save for a manicure in 2005- an experience I have not sought to repeat! 😛 )!

Don’t worry they aren’t freakishly long- I use my hands so much with my hobbies that they never seem to make it past a certain length!

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Trimming/filing my fingernails has always freaked me out. It’s really hard to describe, but for some reason it feels really wrong to me! There’s just something unnerving about nail scissiors cutting so close to the skin that it sends unsettling shivers up and down my spine. Nail filing in particular sends me into cringing convulsions-my hands are tensing up into balls just now at the thought of that abrasive piece of cardboard against my skin! 😂

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Oddly enough I’m fine with toenails, unless I cut too close to the skin 😛

I know I shouldn’t be unnerved by such an innocuous every day process, buuuuttt my brain just doesn’t seem to want to deal with this type of stimulus! 😛

Nail trimming issues are actually quite common among autists. This can be particularly troublesome if an autist is prone to skin picking or self injurious behaviours.

But there are some tricks that can help:

  • Trim your/your childs nails after a bath– this can soften the nail to make the task more comfortable
  • Pressing down on the nail before trimming– this application of deep pressure can temporarily reduce sensitivity
  • Distraction and Bribery– if you are cutting nails for an autistic person, try using bribes or distracting the person with something (particularly their specialist interest) to get the job done
  • Try not to keep the nail too short– aside from the weirdness of cutting my nails, if they were cut too short, or if I sustained a bad break, I found (and still sometimes find) this particular sensation quite unsettling (for want of a better term)

And if all that fails, you can always allow life to trim your nails for you like me (just maybe try to steer clear of your siblings if your nails are a little bit on the long side…😬)

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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