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

 

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

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

Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😛 ).

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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! 🙂

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

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 😀 !)
  • 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! 😉

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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! 🙂

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 🙂

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! 🙂

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Aoife

 

 

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