Sensory Screenings

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ˜› ).

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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! ๐Ÿ™‚

For anyone thinking of seeing the film, it’s not as good as the previous ones- the cast change didn’t really work! ๐Ÿ˜›

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 ๐Ÿ˜€ !)
  • 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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Aoife

 

 

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” ๐Ÿ˜›

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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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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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! ๐Ÿ˜›

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned ๐Ÿ˜› ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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

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

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

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

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

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….I wake up feeling like deathย in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! ๐Ÿ˜›

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! ๐Ÿ˜›

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

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

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, whereย higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day! ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย  ย ย sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! ๐Ÿ™‚
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

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

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

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

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! ๐Ÿ™‚

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

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow ๐Ÿ™‚

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

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on ๐Ÿ˜‰

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Autism and Textures

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Today I’m going to talk about something that you may not be aware of in relation to autism- the issue of texture sensitivity.

During my assessment, I was asked by the psychologist if I had any issues with textures. Caught off guard (as I was unwittingly hoodwinked into attending the assessmentย ๐Ÿ˜› ), I quickly answered no, only to realize hours later that in actual fact, textures influence my life hugely!

In all previous conversations about autism, I had never heard anything about textures, but these are in actual fact a common source of sensitivity for autists.

Rough seat belts, itchy labels and materials, even bras can be extremely irritating to the hypersensitive autist.

There was absolute war between my mother and I when I would refuse to wear a bra as a child! The sensation of the garment against my skin weirded me out and I found it extremely uncomfortable. I would even try wearing it over my thermal vest to place a barrier between me and it, buuuut it didn’t very work well…I was constantly fidgeting! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Weird textures completely freak me out- cornflour (a particular pet peeve), some fruits and veg, yogurts (or most foods) with lumps in them and nail files to name but a few.

Encounters with such textures can lead toย reactions like these…:

(Fun fact about me- I genuinely shake my head like a dog when I shudder! ๐Ÿ˜› )

It’s not all negative though-ย you can learn to adapt and condition yourself to stimuli ๐Ÿ™‚ I never drank a glass of water until I was 11 years old as it felt really weird to me compared with other more flavorful drinks. I gradually conditioned myself to it by taking one gulp water followed by one gulp juice (my family found this hilarious ๐Ÿ˜› ) until the glass was empty- I now drink pints of water daily without issue! ๐Ÿ™‚

Pleasant textures on the other hand pose an entirely different sensory experience, lighting up my brain like a Christmas tree! ๐Ÿ™‚

The creamy texture of ice cream or chocolate melting in my mouth, the strangely irresistible and soothing feel of metal against my skin or the drug-like euphoria that comes from stroking a fluffy puppy-sheer bliss! ๐Ÿ™‚

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As my sister remarked as I was writing this piece, it’s easier to list the textures that I do like than those I don’t! ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜‰

So what’s the scientific reason for this sensitivity?

As we have discussed in previous posts (Autism 101-Sensory Processing;Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality), people with autism are hypersensitive to the sensation of touch. Dysfunctions in brain areas involved in sensory integration, in addition to hyper-connected and hyper-excitable neurons within the autistic brain, can greatly influence our responses to texture.

MRI studies of autistic brains also suggest that there is an exaggerated response to unpleasant stimuli in particular within the limbic system- a set of structures involved in such processes as emotions, behaviours and motivation.

It may seem like we’re consciously overreacting to certain textures, but our response is entirely neurological- so try to keep that in mind next time you see us pull a weird face after encountering an unpleasant texture! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Have a good week everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- My Name Is Khan

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

In the next part of my autism on screen series, I’m going to explore the portrayal of autism in the Indian drama film ‘My Name Is Khan‘ (2010).

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A dual Hindi and English language film, ‘My Name Is Khan‘ follows Rizwan Khan, a Muslim man with Asperger’s syndrome, who set’s out on a journey across America to tell the president that he is not a terrorist following a sectarian attack on his family in the wake of the events of 9/11.

Check out the trailer below! ๐Ÿ™‚

So how does this film measure up in it’s portrayal of the realities of AS?

The film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film makers have endeavored to depict AS as authentically and sensitively as possible, however, as this is a work of fiction, they acknowledge that certain creative liberties were taken in the portrayal of autism- so as with ‘Rain Man‘, take the film with a grain of salt!

That being said, I found this film to be generally quite accurate from a symptomatic perspective. Granted, Khan appears slightly weirder than the average person with AS and many of his symptoms are exaggerated, but overall I felt that this was a solid onscreen portrayal of autism.

In particular I felt that this film gave a good representation of repetitive behaviors and sensory sensitivity.

Throughout the film, Khan can be seen fiddling with some stones in a repetitive manner.

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I may not carry stones around with me, but I am constantly fiddling with my jewelry in a similar manner. It’s a compulsive action- I have this constant need to reach out and feel my chain between my fingers. There’s something incredibly soothing about the motion, especially when you’re particularly stressed. Actions such as these are referred to as stimming or self stimulation. I’ll dedicate a post to stimming at another stage ๐Ÿ™‚

As regards sensory sensitivity, I thought that the film presented more of a normalized and subtle reaction to sensory stimuli than most films featuring autism, particularly in relation to Khan’s sensitivity to the colour yellow (there’s a particularly funny moment where he changes direction on the street to avoid looking at someone wearing a yellow top!).

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When I first watched this film, I thought that this had to be an exaggeration, but in actual fact, as I mentioned in the last post, boys with autism really struggle to process the colour yellow! 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, as it engages multiple colour detection cells (called cones) in the eye.

Comparing this film to ‘Rain Man‘, there is quite a difference in how autism is portrayed. There was a far greater focus on everything that is good about Khan rather than areas of disability in his life, which can often be exploited in film for dramatic effect. Unlike ‘Rain Man‘, modern films about autism, such as this, haveย the added benefit of over twenty years of research and observation of the autistic condition, leading to more accurate depictions/attitudes to difference on screen.

Unfortunately however, Khan is depicted as quite intelligent (even called a genius), with superb memory and a savant-like ability to fix any mechanical item known to man, further promoting the stereotype of the autistic savant. These traits however, are somewhat muted in comparison to ‘Rain Man‘, giving a slightly more realistic portrayal of autism.

So there we are- hope you all enjoyed this piece ๐Ÿ™‚ I would highly encourage you all to watch this film at some stage. Autism aside, this is an amazing film- one of the best I’ve seen in a long time! In the latter half of the film, you start to forget that Khan is in any way different, finding yourself swept up in this powerful story of love, loss and acceptance.ย Having watched only the trailer to re-jog my memory, I really want to see this film again myself! ๐Ÿ˜€

Weekend plans sorted! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Aoife

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

So today I’m going to briefly introduce you to the issue of sensory processing for people on the spectrum. This is a very broad topic, but I’ll expand on the issues in more detail at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Many individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle to process every day sensory information. Sounds, textures, smells, lights, even colours (boys in particular struggle to process the colour yellow) can overload the nervous system and greatly upset us, effect our behavior or even trigger a meltdown.

But why?

In autism, our senses can be either hyper or hypo sensitive (sometimes even both) to stimuli at different times. Our senses are heightened- smells are stronger, sounds are louder. As a result of this, stimuli reverberate all the more intensely in our brains.

Think of the brain as a computer server at exam time where everyone is logging in at once. Too much information has been entered into the system, but the server can only cope with so much. The entire system becomes overwhelmed and the server crashes.

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Here’s just a quick video simulation of sensory overload.

Warning for those on the spectrumthis video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises

For me personally, I have many (mild) issues with sensory processing. Smells, tastes and textures are a daily struggle. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a salad as the smell alone makes me want to throw up- I’m dreading what pregnancy may one day bring! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

Loud or irritating ย noises, (especially repetitive ones), too can be a challenge. Don’t get me started on the shock I get when a passing bus makes that giant hiss/woosh sound or a car honks the horn unexpectedly!! ๐Ÿ˜›

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Most days, you’re lucky and the offending stimulus passes quickly, but other times it can get the better of you. I recently had a near meltdown on holiday from a cocktail of excessive heat, hunger, exhaustion and social frustration.

Top Tip– Keep on top of your hunger/thirst. I’ve discovered this past year that an excess of either will make me act really loopy! ๐Ÿ˜›

When you’re hit by sensory overload, it feels as though your head is caught in a vice grip. Your mind is screaming, unable to focus on anything else but the source of discomfort.

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The worst part of it I find is coming across as a complete basket case when overloaded. You don’t get the most sympathetic of looks when you complain about a persistent noise- few can understand how it’s making your brain hurt.

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So what does science have to say about sensory processing?

Sensory integration involves three basic sensory systems:

  • The tactile system (touch)- comprises a series of nerves passing information from the skin to the brain
  • The vestibular system (sound)- comprises a series of structures in the inner ear involved in movement detection
  • The proprioceptive system-a series of receptors in the muscle (proprioreceptors) which feed information to the brain about the body’s position

These three systems share a close but complicated relationship which allow us to experience, process and respond to different stimuli. Dysfunction in this network can cause hyper/hypo sensitivity, in addition to problems with coordination, behavior and academic issues.

Evidence from brain imaging studies has also shown that autists experience stronger responses in the brain to sensory stimuli in areas that process sensory information and the amygdala- an area that is involved in attention, emotional reactions and threat response.

But why is this?

Several studies have found evidence of hyper-excitability and hyper-connectivity in the autistic brain.

Evidence shows that in many cases of autism, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain are more sensitive and excitable than others. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

The autistic brain has also shown signs of hyper-connectivity, where regions of the brain are excessively connected- like an overloaded plug!

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This amplifies memory formation, sensory processing and causes an autist to be hyper-emotional, which can make the world painfully intense. Scientists have theorized that autists prefer safe, controlled and predictable environments as a coping mechanism to actively avoid this pain.

Finally, studies have indicated that sensory issues, in addition to a number of other autistic behaviors, may be linked to neurotransmitter (chemical messengers between body and brain) levels in the body. As previously discussed, some neurotransmittersย are dysregulated in autism. Evidence suggests that in cases of autism, there are higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, and lower levels of inhibitory (i.e. calming) neurotransmitters. These high levels of excitatory neurotransmitters cause neurons to fire excessively, which can influence sensory perception and processing.

I’ll expand a little bit more on the individual sensory issues at a later stage ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy your week everyone ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

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