Autism and Light Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! πŸ˜› ), 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 andΒ sleep disturbances, and of course, sensory overloadΒ andΒ 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!πŸ˜‚

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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!! πŸ˜› )

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! πŸ˜› 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! πŸ˜‚)!
  • Install a dimmer switch– A useful tool to help optimize light levels to suit the individual (and loads of fun to play with! πŸ˜‰ )
  • 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! πŸ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a great weekend! πŸ˜€

Aoife

 

 

Autism and Nail Trimming

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! πŸ˜€ ), 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! πŸ˜‚

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! πŸ˜› )!

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!Β πŸ˜‚

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

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! πŸ˜›

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! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism Management- Sound

Greetings Earthlings πŸ™‚

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! πŸ˜€ Added Bonus– it can also discourage unwanted conversations πŸ˜‰Β 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:Β  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! πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ˜‰ ); 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 πŸ˜€

 

  • 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! πŸ˜›

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 πŸ˜€

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

Aoife

Autism and Sound Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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 πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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! πŸ˜›

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

Mortified! πŸ˜›

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! πŸ˜›

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A neurotypical mayΒ 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! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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Aoife

Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Ah the cinema- giant screens, surround sound, confectionery counters, reclining chairs; a perfect treat in many respects (until you need to dash for the loo, or eat too much sugar! πŸ˜› ).

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But for many people with autism, a trip to the cinema can present a number of sensory challenges- the brightness of the screen and overly loud audio can be quite distracting for example.

In recent years, a number of cinemas have begun to host special sensory screenings for children with autism.

In case you hadn’t noticed from all of the autism on screen posts I write, I’m a bit of a film buff, so naturally when I saw that my local cinema was hosting a sensory screening of ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul‘ I had to give it a try! πŸ™‚

For anyone thinking of seeing the film, it’s not as good as the previous ones- the cast change didn’t really work! πŸ˜›

So what’s different about a sensory screening?

A sensory screening differs from the average cinema experience in the following ways:

  • A special sheet of acetate (it reminded me of a giant plastic pocket) appeared to cover the usual backdrop to reduce the screen brightness
  • There are no trailers (woohoo πŸ˜€ !)
  • Sound levels are reduced
  • The lights remain on throughout at a dimmed level

This last part was quite nice actually as I did not emerge from the cinema with the usual vampire-esque response to daylight! πŸ˜‰

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So what did I make of the experience?

Well, to be honest it was a little weird for me at first as someone who frequents the cinema quite regularly. I wasn’t expecting the lights to stay on, but you adapt pretty quickly. It was quite a pleasant transition to go from dark to light scenes without feeling blinded! πŸ™‚

This did however, make it a little bit harder to see any of the night-time scenes which I found a tad distracting.

But all in all I found the experience quite nice and would highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with sensory issues πŸ™‚

However, I would have a slight critique to make in the choice of sensory films that are shown. Any films that I have seen advertised as sensory friendly here in Ireland fall into the family friendly/childrens category. While it is brilliant that many children with autism are afforded the opportunity to attend these screenings, we often forget that children with autism grow into adults with autism, adults who may want to watch the latest Marvel or James Bond movie, or a racy rom com in sensory comfort.

As they say- a lot done, more to do.

Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” πŸ˜›

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This is a fairly common complaint for autists when it comes to clothing.

A single sharp fiber in your skinny jeans, an irritating label on your neck, a twisted bra- the niggling is a killer to the autistic brain!

When my skin is irritated, I find it very difficult to concentrate on much else until the offending stimulus is removed. It drives me insane- especially if I’m not in a position to remove or adjust the offending item of clothing. I’ve often had to find creative ways to navigate clothing irritation when out in public such as well placed blister plasters (I did this to the irritating clasp of a lanyard once!) and toilet roll to create barriers against the fabric!

Needs must after all! πŸ˜‰

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But is my skin really this sensitive?

According to science, the answer is yes!

Research suggests that gene mutations cause problems for the sensory nerves in our hands, legs, arms, fingers and of course, the skin covering them. Mutations cause these nerves to be excessively sensitive- described by scientists as having the volume turned up to the max setting. When these nerves relay sensory information back to the brain, the brain feels the touch of certain stimuli at a heightened, exaggerated level.

Hence my internal screams! πŸ˜›

Another study, which tested the response of autists and neurotypicals to sensory stimuli (e.g. a scratchy wool jumper) in a brain scanner, found that the autistic brain reacts more strongly. The primary cortex of the brain (involved in sensory processing) and the amygdala (involved in emotional regulation) were both hyperactive during this experiment, suggesting that autists a) process sensory input differently, and b) struggle to regulate their emotional response to stimuli.

So what can you do to help an autist with sensitive skin?

This is a tough one to advise. Sensitivities vary from person to person. Some may favour loose clothing, others enjoy the comfort of tight clothes which provide calming deep pressure. In my experience, the best tip that I can offer is to use a seam ripper to properly remove labels (the remnants of the tag can be just as irritating). After that, trial and error is the best way to find out what works for you/or your child πŸ™‚

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned πŸ˜› ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Soooo….driving…

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Wouldn’t be high on my list of favourite activities I’ll admit! πŸ˜› Stressful roundabouts, merging onto busy roads, idiot drivers, getting lost, the noise of hitting a pothole- it can be a lot for an aspie to handle!

My coordination issues did not make it the easiest of tasks to get the hang of, that’s for sure!

Coordinating pedal movements and gear changes, difficulties with spatial awareness, not to mention the stress and anxiety of learning to drive on country roads (Irish country roads tend to be narrow, winding, and full of potholes! πŸ˜› ) made this a highly frustrating experience!

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I never could understand why I found it so hard to get the hang of driving when my sisters took to it so easily, but after I got my diagnosis, my struggles began to make a world of sense!

Driving would not be the first thing to come to mind when someone pictures the struggles an autist faces. In fact it’s a requirement in some countries that your ASD diagnosis be listed on your drivers licence if it impacts your ability to drive safely– you can even be fined in the event of an accident if it’s not stated on your licence!

Studies among autists actually report more traffic violations than in neurotypical groups, however, this may relate to our tendency to be more honest than our neurotypical peers πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

This doesn’t mean that autists shouldn’t drive, but it’s something to be aware of.

So how exactly does autism impact our driving?

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  • Impulsivity Autist’s are naturally more impulsive than neurotypicals. This can impact our driving by causing us to make poor driving decisions on impulse. It has also been reported that this impulsivity may influence speeding behaviours
  • Sensory integration/processing issues– Driving involves a huge amount of sensory input. Listening to the engine, watching the road, spatial awareness, not to mention unexpected road noises and unpleasant smells from the outside- it can be a lot for the autistic brain to process when moving a vehicle
  • ADD & ADHD- Autists can get distracted quite easily…on busy roads where lot’s of things are happening, your focus can sometimes waver. If there’s a cute dog nearby, I have been known to take my eyes off the road…raw (2)
  • Spatial Awareness & Coordination Autists often have issues with these which can make it difficult in positioning the car on the road, parking and navigating gear changes.Β Spatial awareness was one of my greatest obstacles when first learning to drive. I always seemed to be veering towards the nearest hedge…When I first got my car, I was practicing driving around the house with no problems, aaannd then I decided to change direction- BIG mistake! My poor spatial judgement caused me to nicely scratch the car on the edge of the dog house…before getting it stuck on some cement blocks at the oil tank! Caused a mini shutdownΒ which made my sister think I had run the dog over I was so incoherent!! πŸ˜› Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β  Β Β fghd.png

Top tip for parents and instructors: PATIENCE!!!! Learning to drive is much more difficult for autists so don’t be too hard on us for when we don’t get it straight away. We’re already beating ourselves up for our slow progression; getting frustrated or annoyed with us will only make it worse.

Here are some useful links with driving tips for autists:

Click to access Driving1.pdf

https://sellmax.com/driving-with-autism/

Aoife’s Top Tip- Get a Sat Nav.Β They really help to take the edge off when stressed about driving to new and unfamiliar locations. If you mess up, it will recalculate and send you right in the end πŸ™‚

Having autism may initially make learning to drive difficult, however, you will get there in the end πŸ™‚ After two years of stressful practice, I passed my test first time and drive everywhere now.

The freedom you gain from this skill is worth the fight πŸ™‚

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Aoife

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Leading on from the previous post, I’d like to talk to you about shutdowns and autism.

So what exactly is a shutdown?

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A shutdown is basically an episode where the brain briefly stops processing and making sense of information in response to stress or sensory overload.

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

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These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world.Β Sometimes meltdowns can turn into shutdowns and vice versa.

So what does a shutdown feel like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns can manifest differently among autists. Some people go completely limp and unresponsive, some withdraw completely from those around them, some even become really sleepy and nod off.

For me personally, a shutdown is like entering a state of shock. You might struggle to move (as discussed in my diagnosis story), formulate sentences, or even think. It can be a completely overwhelming experience. When I first started to become aware of them as a teenager, I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that I felt, for lack of a better word, “wrong”.

Like meltdowns, in my experience, shutdowns can be either mild or severe:

Mild shutdowns tend to happen in social situations, especially in confrontation. Someone throws me off or says something that I hadn’t anticipated…aaaannnd my mind freezes up. I go limp and say nothing, whilst the other person talks on oblivious. To an outsider it looks like I’m just listening or defeated by an argument; in reality, my brain can’t formulate the words to respond.

The minute the conversation ends my brain reboots and suddenly all that I could or should have said comes rushing back- great timing! πŸ˜›

Severe shutdowns, like meltdowns, are brought on by serious stress, or a shock. Think of your brain like a computer that’s been attacked by a virus. The system get’s overwhelmed by the attack and needs to shuts down to recover. When this happens, it feels as though I’ve been locked out of my own brain.

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However, unlike a meltdown situation, I’m locked out yes, but the brain hasn’t been hijacked. I’m not in a state of total control, but I’m not out of control either- a little bit purgatorial in nature.

It’s a very odd sensation.

I find myself in an overwhelming situation and fail to react. I know that I don’t feel right about the situation, so I try to break down what happened and process. However, when I go to think about the event, it’s as if a firewall has gone up and all of the files in my brain have been encrypted. You keep trying to access your files so you can run a scan to diagnose the problem, but your brain keeps locking you out.

It feels sooo weird, like my mind is flashing this giant ‘NOPE’ sign at me every time I try to think! πŸ˜›

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^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

During a particularly bad shutdown, I once spent about 5 minutes of going “um…ah… what it is… er…you see…uh” down the phone to my mother before I could coherently form a sentence to tell her what had happened. My mind simply refused to let me go there!

But why do shutdowns happen?

There’s not a lot of information out there as to the biological cause of shutdowns, but experts seem to think that it is the result of an abnormal stress response like the meltdown, possibly linked to the high and persistent levels of stress hormones in autism. Some have theorized that the shutdown is almost a preventative form of meltdown wherein the autist shuts down to prevent further sensory input and injury- like playing dead to avoid a fight.

Shutdowns can be difficult, but you just have to give them time to pass πŸ™‚

Top Tip: Like a meltdown, you can sometimes speed up a shut down through music. Animals are also particularly good to release the hold of a shut down. My dogs always seem to sense when something’s wrong with me- a concerned look from them will often get the waterworks flowing πŸ™‚

Remember- your brain needs time to recover after a stressful incident- there’s a reason you need to leave your computer a few minutes rest after a reboot πŸ™‚ πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Sesame Street: Meet Julia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Earlier this week, popular children’s TV showΒ Sesame Street officiallyΒ debuted a new puppet with a twist- a puppet with autism! πŸ˜€ The character of Julia was introduced as part of Sesame Street’s autism initiative, first appearing on Monday to rave reviews from fans, experts and parents everywhere.

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Whilst only making the news in recent months, Julia has in actual fact been around since 2015, having first appeared in an online storybook about autism as part of ‘Sesame Street’s’ autism initiative- ‘Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children’.

The creators of Sesame Street established this initiative in 2015 in order to promote better understanding of the condition after a study revealed that children with autism are more than five times more likely to be bullied than their peers!! This initiative was developed in partnership with autism workers, advocates, parents and autists themselves in order to ensure that the topic is handled in the best possible way.

You can find out more about the initiativeΒ here:

http://autism.sesamestreet.org/

It’s a nifty little website providing videos for kids, videos for parents, daily routine cards and loads of other useful materials for children and adults alike πŸ™‚

So what is Julia actually like?

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Julia first appears onscreen quietly painting with her friends Elmo, the fairy Abby Cadabby and Alan. When Big Bird comes on the scene, Julia largely ignores him, completely engrossed in her painting. The other puppets are engaging in finger painting, but Julia makes noises of disgust and uses a paintbrush instead, with Abby remarking that Julia hates the feeling of paint on her fingers.

With their paintings finished, Abby gives Julia’s painting huge praise (it was easily better than Abby and Elmo’s efforts), remarking that she is very creative- casually demonstrating the talents that autists possess without veering into savant stereotypes. Big Bird tries to hive five Julia for her efforts, but still she ignores him, making no eye contact. When Julia hops off to play tag with the other puppets, Big Bird questions whether Julia likes him or not. This leads Alan to explain autism to Big Bird so that he understands that Julia does things a little differently, “in a Julia sort of way“- but she’s also lots of fun! πŸ™‚

Later in the episode, Julia hears nearby sirens and covers her ears in response to the noise, needing to go somewhere quiet for a bit, subtly demonstrating how an autist can struggle with sensory sensitivity. Julia also carries around Fluster, a rabbit toy which she strokes to help her calm down, showing the audience ‘stimming’ in action.

The primary focus of this segment is to demonstrate that although Julia has autism, she can play and be your friend just like everyone else. After Big Bird remarks that Julia is not like any friend he’s ever had before, Elmo and Abby point out that none of them are exactly the same, bird, monster, fairy- they are all different, but are friends regardless. Julia talks a little differently, repeats sentences, flaps her arms when she gets excited- but she’s just another playmate, however different, at the end of the day πŸ™‚

You can watch Julia’s debut in full in the video below Β πŸ™‚ :

My school life would have been so much easier had other children been better able to understand and accept me as the other puppets accept Julia, but with initiatives like this at work I have great hope for the next generation πŸ™‚

This episode was handled both sensitively and intelligently to provide children everywhere with an insight into autism. All behaviours are explained, little is left for the audience to guess at. Julia is different to the other puppets yes, but the episode normalizes her differences so that when children encounter real people like Julia, they will be treated with acceptance and understanding πŸ™‚

Here’s a behind the scenes look at how the character was brought to life:

Fun Fact: Julia’s puppeteer (who can be seen in this video thumbnail) is a mother to an autistic son in reality!

This was a pleasure to watch and I look forward to seeing all of Julia’s future adventures in the show! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

So let’s get down to some science! πŸ™‚

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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 Β 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! πŸ™‚

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain πŸ™‚ 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! πŸ™‚

Aoife

 

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