Autism and Stress Management

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post, this week I’d like to briefly discuss stress management and autism.

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As highlighted previously, it’s very important for autists to manage their stress levels for our long term mental and physical health due to our higher levels of biological stress.

To an autist, life and the world can be quite overwhelming so it can be very difficult to manage stress when surrounded by stressors.

So here are a couple of tips and tricks for managing stress with autism:

Weighted blankets- these 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 and dopamine to relax and calm the racing mind.

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“Stimming”- Self stimulatory behaviours such as hand flapping or noise making can help to calm down the brain using a similar biological mechanism to weighted blankets. Glutamate is one of the excess excitatory neurotransmitters that is released in the autistic brain. When we “stim” it triggers the brain’s reward system to release the pleasure hormone dopamine which causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain! Items such as stress balls and fidget spinners can be useful tools for stimming to channel excess neurological energy in this way 🙂 

Specialist interests- specialist interests can be one of the most effective ways of coping with stress. They often provide a safe haven, a way to switch off and escape from the pressures of life which can help autists to manage stress. Hobbies are great dopamine and serotonin boosters- both of which are dysregulated in autism. I doubt I’d have survived my teenage years without the escape that Harry Potter gave me! 

Exercise– the old adage of healthy body, healthy mind really rings true here. There’s nothing like working up a good sweat or going for a nice walk to release endorphins and lower your stress levels.

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Preparedness– one of the most stressing aspects of autism is navigating and coping with the unknown. Nothing get’s my stress levels up more than finding myself in a situation that I don’t know how to navigate- like getting lost on the road in an unfamiliar area; driving in general is one of my largest stressors 😛 Plan routes, study timetables, look up menus- all these little things add up to reduce your stress in the long run. You can’t prepare for everything, but every little bit helps 🙂

At the end of the day, everyone has their own methods for minimizing stress and as with autism, stress management is not one size for all. Try and find what works for you or your child and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Anxiety

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know: People with autism are five times more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder?

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Autists are highly strung individuals. Our brains move faster than 10 speeding trains as we process the world around us; so naturally, we have a greater capacity for worrying. Imagine you are in the car approaching a straight road- you would just drive straight on without much further thought right?

In the autistic mind, you’re thinking about future bends that may (or may never) pop up, the condition of the road, idiot drivers you may encounter, stray animals or pedestrians, road works and diversions. What if I get lost? What will I do about parking? What if I get caught behind a tractor (a legitimate reason for being late for anything in Ireland! 😛 )?

What if this, what if that!

We over-analyse every single aspect of the most routine of ventures, twisting ourselves into anxious knots about an array of ‘what ifs‘ that may never come to pass.

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In my experience, social anxiety can be quite an issue. Most of the time, everything is hunky dory when I’m socializing- I listen, I engage, I laugh, no problem at all.

Buuuttt sometimes, if I’m in a particular group or struggling to get to grips with the topic of conversation, I feel so awkward that I start to get anxious.

“Am I talking enough? Am I saying the right things? Oh no that came out wrong! Aggggghhh!!!”

Annnnnd then I sort of slip back into my shell… 😛

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Most of the time, it won’t get much worse than this, but other times…I start to burn up, I can feel the sweats, my mind starts going into overdrive “Oh God everyone is staring!! They think I’m a saddo! What is wrong with me?”

My chest tightens up and it can be difficult to breathe.

Taking deep breaths usually helps to calm me down long enough to snap out of it…but sometimes it all starts to crumble in on top of you an then….

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MELTDOWN!!!! (^^^usually the flight instinct kicks in for me!)

Other times, anxiety has been known to wreak havoc with my digestive system. I once threw up on my own shoes from the stress of minding a drunken friend (who ironically did not get sick! 😛 )

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But I did get some new shoes following my gastric excursions, and some entertaining stories out of it! 😛 Oftentimes my anxiety incubates into productivity to force me to get things done so every anxious cloud has a silver lining! 😉

So what does the scientific community make of our anxious antics?

Remember how I’ve discussed Alexithymia in previous posts (Discussion-Emotions and EmpathyAutism and Music)? Researchers believe that our struggles to correctly identify and understand our emotions (and those of others) to be one of the driving forces behind anxiety disorders in the autistic community. A desire for emotional acceptance and an intolerance for uncertainty are also considered key players in the anxiety debate.

In addition to this, a number of biological factors have been identified in the development of anxiety. Some people are thought to have a higher biological response to stress for example- something that is quite likely in the case of autism, as we are known to have higher levels of stress hormones.

Dysregulation of levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain are also thought to contribute to anxiety such as GABA, dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. As I’ve discussed in numerous posts- many of these bad boys are indeed dysregulated in the autistic brain. Changes in activity levels within the amygdala or “fear centre” of the brain may also contribute to anxiety- and yes, you’ve guessed it! Similar changes in the amygdala have been linked to a number of autistic issues (skin sensitivity, sound sensitivity). 

So it all links back to a few simple physiological changes in our brain! 🙂

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Hope you enjoyed this weeks post Earthlings! 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend! 😀

Aoife

 

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 death in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! 😛

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! 😛

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, where 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!                                                   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! 🙂
  • 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! 🙂

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! 😉

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 🙂

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

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on 😉

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 🙂

So let’s get down to some science! 🙂

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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  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! 🙂

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

Aoife

 

Autism 101- Digestive Problems

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to discuss the issue of digestive problems for people on the spectrum- but don’t worry, I’ll stick to the science! I won’t regale you with any personal tales on this occasion 😛 😉

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are among the most commonly associated conditions with autism.

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Evidence suggests that 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).

I know- not the most pleasant of subjects, but we can all be adults right? 😉

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Joking aside- these are serious issues for people with autism, especially for children. Autists are already sensitive to such stimuli as sound and touch. Adding GI discomfort to the mix can make things so much more difficult. The associated pain from these conditions can worsen behaviors, and in some cases, trigger regressions.

So what does science have to say about all of this?

As with autism, it’s another game of Cluedo- research is ongoing to determine ‘who-dunnit’. There are many suspects, but the culprit remains unclear.

Bacterial Abnormalities & Carbohydrate Digestion-The gut is home to trillions of bacteria naturally living in harmony with us.  Our gut provides them with food and shelter, and in return they digest certain dietary substances and produce vitamins B and K for us to absorb. This forms what is known as the gut microbiome. Ordinarily bacteria and host exist in harmony, however, if there is an overabundance of certain bacterial strains, this can lead to a number of GI problems. Studies have shown that such overabundance exists in children with autism.

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Abnormalities in carbohydrate digestion have also been reported in cases of autism. The cells of the intestines appear to have difficulty in breaking down and transporting carbohydrates in the gut causing malabsorption of these vital nutrients.

It’s been suggested that these issues with carbohydrates may be connected to the high level of bacteria present in the autistic gut as digestive alterations may influence nutrient availability within the microbiome, but further investigation is needed.

Furthermore, in recent years, evidence is emerging that gut microbes can influence brain development and behavior!

Wuttttttt???!!!

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I know!!!

In particular, there is evidence to suggest that people with autism are missing one specific bacterium- Lactobacillus reuteri.

One study in mice showed that following the addition of this bacterial strain to their diet,  the natural microbiome of the was gut restored AND further restored some behaviors associated with ASD’s! Interestingly, L. reuteri promotes the production of oxytocin, which as previously discussed, is essential for human bonding and social behavior.

Who knew that bacteria could control our brains this way?!

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Brain-Gut Communication and the Role of Serotonin-As in the picture below, the brain and the gut share a very close relationship in the human body.

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The gut in actual fact has it’s own complex nervous system (the enteric nervous system) which regulates the activity of the gut- kind of like a second brain. Together, the gut and the brain form what is known as the brain-gut axis, a two way street where each can influence the other. For example, signals travelling from gut to brain can influence satiety, whereas stress/anxiety signals from the brain to the gut affect gut sensitivity.

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter (chemical messengers that allow neurons to communicate) within this axis. For example, serotonin plays an important role in the control of intestinal motility. As such, alterations in serotonin levels have been implicated in a number of GI problems.

But how does this relate to autism?

Yep- you guessed it, serotonin levels, like oxytocin, are dysregulated in autism, and therefore likely contribute to associated GI issues.

Further to this, there is also evidence to suggest that certain gut bacteria are involved in the production of serotonin in the body by interacting with serotonin producing cells (enterochromaffin cells). So perhaps alterations in these serotonin producing bacterial colonies may also contribute to these GI issues.

Diet-As people with autism often have restrictive eating habits, it was proposed that perhaps diet may contribute to GI issues. However, studies have shown that although autistic diets may differ, overall nutritional intake does not. On the other hand, many people report improvements in both GI and autistic symptoms following gluten (a protein found in grains like wheat) and casein (a protein found in dairy) free diets, but there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this.

Genetics- Finally, scientists believe that as with autism, genetic abnormalities likely contribute to these GI issues. Moreover, as autism and GI problems are so frequently linked, researchers have suggested that perhaps they both share the same underlying genetic mutation or may be caused by some other unknown biological mechanism.

So there we have it! 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this ‘alimentary’ introduction to digestive issues and the spectrum! 😉

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Aoife

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