Autism and Robots

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly discuss a somewhat unusual topic- robots and autism.

Yes, I know what you’re all thinking, Aoife has finally lost it- but just before you call in the men in the white coats, let me tell you about the clinical benefits of using robots for children with autism! 🙂

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Recent technological advances in the field of robotics offer great possibilities in the treatment of autism. As interactive robots are increasingly becoming more human like, this technology can be used clinically to help teach social skills to children with autism.

Whilst the research into the therapeutic benefits of robots is in it’s infancy, several schools across the globe have begun to use social robots reporting very positive results 🙂

So how do these robots work?

The robots engage autists with a specially tailored curriculum. For example, the robot makes a sad face or starts laughing and the child has to say what the robot is feeling, or when interacting with the robot if they do something that could hurt a real person, the robot will cry out so that the child can learn that this  behaviour is not appropriate.

It’s really cool! 😀

You can check out Milo below- one of the many models of social robots helping kids with autism worldwide (try not to let  him creep you out though, Kaspar the robot is way freakier….might have further to go in making these robots more approachable in my opinion 😬).

The benefits of using this technology currently include improved:

  • Engagement
  • Eye contact
  • Vocabulary
  • Attention
  • Self-motivation and regulation
  • Emotional recognition and understanding, and
  • Improvements in appropriate social behaviour

And all of this within just 1-4 months of using a robot like Milo! 😲

All in all the technology looks really promising in the treatment of autism, even if a few tweaks may be needed to improve the appearance of these robots 🙂 😛

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Aoife

 

Autism Management- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to briefly examine one of the most commonly recommended therapies for autism management- cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT.

So let’s all lean back in our chez long as we dive in! 🙂

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First off, what exactly is CBT?

Originally designed as a treatment for depression, CBT is a form of psycho-social intervention (i.e. counselling/psychotherapy) that is widely used to help improve mental health. Unlike other forms of therapy, CBT focuses on developing coping strategies to target our problems and to change unhelpful patterns in emotions, attitudes, negative behaviours,  and thought patterns.

In other words- CBT aims to change negative ways of thinking or cognitions in order to improve behaviour.

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As a result, CBT is widely used to treat anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD and a range of other psychological issues- many of which are co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis. It’s thought that CBT can be a particularly useful tool to treat anxiety and to help develop emotional recognition in autists.

CBT was personally recommended to me following my initial diagnosis in order help me to better understand autism and to conquer my social anxiety.

So what did I make of it?

Well, being honest (as we aspies must be 😛 😉 ), my opinions are slightly mixed regarding CBT. Whilst initially I found it helpful as it taught me a lot about autism and the reasons behind my behaviours, after a time, I felt that I didn’t really need it- especially given that I was in my twenties and had already overcome many of the challenges associated with ASD’s. In many ways, simply knowing and understanding Asperger’s Syndrome was enough to assuage much of the mental anguish I had inflicted on myself for being different 🙂

Nevertheless, I did find it beneficial to have a neutral party to talk to in those first initial months post diagnosis. It’s quite a lot to take on board, so it was nice to have that outlet to help guide me through the fog.

All in all, I felt that perhaps CBT may be better suited for a younger person with autism in helping them to develop lifelong coping mechanisms that will enable them to thrive. Had I better understood myself earlier in life through CBT intervention, many things could have been so much simpler 🙂

So if you think CBT may help you or your child, why not give it a try- get out your phone, book an appointment and take a seat on that couch (it’s surprisingly comfy 😉 )

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and the Benefits of Animals

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

We all love our furry and feathered friends dearly don’t we? Seems hard to imagine the internet without funny animal videos these days!

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Animals are so important to us that they are not just friends, but an integral part of the family.

For autists, an animal in the home can be this and so much more (#specialistinterest 😉 )!

Research suggests that animals can play a very important role in the social, emotional and cognitive development of children and can also aid the development of empathy. Animals such as assistance dogs (which I hope to write a post on at a later stage), cats, horses, guinea pigs, and interestingly keeping chickens is the latest trend to help improve these skills in the autistic community!

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Studies have shown that the social skills of autists who live with an animal are much greater than those who do not have a pet. Pets are often considered “social lubricants” wherein they provide autists with a source of conversation which can encourage better engagement.

Sometimes we find it a lot easier to relate to animals. I’ve often remarked growing up that life would be so much easier if we were all dogs for example. With a dog, life is black and white (fun fact– they aren’t colour blind!). You take care of them, they love you forever-simple. There are no games or tricks (well, unless like my dog yours spins round in circles when you try to brush him to make you dizzy in the hope that you will go away 😛 ), you never have to wonder where you stand with a dog, they’ll make it very clear if they love or hate you!

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Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a measurable biological effect on people with autism! A recent study measured “excitement” levels in children with autism when performing such tasks as reading out loud and playing with a group. The results showed that in these situations, the excitement levels were higher in the brain indicating stress. However, when these levels were measured whilst playing with an animal they  plummeted as stroking the animal induced biological calm.

Finally!

Scientific proof that I should spend more time cuddling my dogs!!! 😉

 

 

However, as beneficial as animals can be, experts advise that the individual needs and sensitivities of the child are taken into consideration when choosing a pet. A dog might seem like a good idea, but whilst many autists may gravitate towards the soft and furry, others may be repulsed by the texture of their hair, the smell or may even be overwhelmed by their energetic nature.

Aoife’s Top Tip– Try to expose your child to different animals to gauge their reactions before making any firm decisions on a pet- they are a big commitment! The research shows that any pet, even a spider, can be beneficial 🙂

There we have it dear Earthlings- another, scientifically proven reason to love animals all the more! 😀

What better way is there to spend the bank holiday weekend than relaxing with your pet? 😉

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Aoife

Bullying and Autism

Greetings Earthlings 🙂

Bullying- neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, we’ve  all been there at some point, but did you know that autistic people are bullied nearly five times as often as their neurotypical peers?

Studies have estimated that as many as 46% of people with autism have been bullied at some point in their life versus 10% of the general population.

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Our issues with social awkwardness and interpretation, hypersensitivity, literal thinking, poor motor skills and trusting nature can make autists quite vulnerable to bullies. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we are being targeting and so the bullying goes unreported.

Navigating school as an un-diagnosed teenager was particularly challenging. My literal thinking meant that I was often unaware that I was being made fun of, simple things said in attempts to fit in were turned into taunts, my expressions of individualism were ridiculed- and I just couldn’t understand why.

When I finally started to realize what was going on, it was devastating. I felt like such a fool that I shoved my emotions down and tried to pretend that I was fine.

Buuuuuttttt there’s only so long you can continue to ignore a full septic tank for before chaos erupts…

Once your peers have seen you have a meltdown, some people will do anything to trigger another one.

So I trudged along quietly everyday blaming myself for the teasing I endured:

Why was I so naiive?

Why did I say that?

Why did I lose it? 

Why can’t I be normal?

I sat back and allowed the storm clouds to gather overhead every time I reached the school doors.

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It wasn’t until I burned out and hit breaking point that I realized I had to find a better way through, began to talk and learned, not just to cope, but to thrive 🙂

So what advice would I give to someone on the spectrum who find themselves in the midst of a bullying situation?

Well, as the bullying game has intensified with the spread of social media since my schooldays (rural Ireland had quite limited access to high speed internet in the noughties), this is a tough one to advise, but here are some of my top tips:

  • Ignore the bullies– An obvious one that’s easier said than done, I know (I pretended to ignore for years- it can take quite a bit of practice to truly let words glide off your back), but when you react or meltdown- that’s what fuels them. My reactions made bullies push my buttons all the harder. If you feel a meltdown coming on, take a moment to go somewhere quiet, get some fresh air and take a deep breath.  Bathroom stalls were a personal favourite of mine to give me some time to regroup (unless someone had been smoking in there… this added further sensory fuel to the fire! 😛 )
  • Find an outlet for your emotions- We autists experience and process our emotions in very different ways. If you shove things down, the end result will not be pleasant. So run, dance, go on a four hour killing spree on your PlayStation (something that I wouldn’t know anything about… 😛 )- do whatever works for you to deal with your frustrations. I know it’s hard, but finding an outlet will help to quell the dragon inside.
  • Try to think before you act/speak– Again this is quite challenging when you don’t have a filter or struggle with impulsivity, but sometimes what may seem like the most simple of sentiments to you can be twisted and misconstrued by bullies. An innocent comment I once passed about the family dog led to years of jeering and implied bestiality…! I still put my foot in it every now and again, but I’ve gradually learned to pause more to assess if my comments will sink or float.
  • Be careful what you post on social media- The online world can be a dangerous, unregulated one. We live so much of our lives online we forget that our peers are always watching. As with your thoughts, take a moment to think through your posts. Something as simple as a picture or throwaway comment could land you in bother both on and offline (a simple lack of an appropriate emoji once caused a rift with a friend). Remember- it’s also perfectly ok to abstain or take some time away from social media. It may seem like social suicide, but we all need time away from our screens- people disable their accounts every day for lots of reasons so don’t worry about what they’ll think at school. Your sanity is far more important 🙂
  • Talk to someone– If you’re being targeted, tell a teacher, confide in a friend or talk to your parents so something can be done. But bear in mind, they can’t always  intervene. Teasing is a natural part of life as much as it may hurt (something that the autistic mind really struggles to comprehend), and not everything can be prevented. What may seem a devastating comment to your mind may mean nothing to an outsider. Intervention aside, by simply talking to someone about how you’re feeling, this will make the load so much easier to bear. Don’t let the quicksand claim you- ask for help!bitmoji2141702869

At the end of it all, just remember what my Biology teacher once taught me- “Whoever said that your school days are the best days of your life lied- college days are the best days of your life!”

So don’t get disheartened Earthlings! It may be hard to see it through the swirling fog in the crystal ball, but life does get so much better (…once you get past the bills, taxes and work-day traffic jams! 😛 😉 ).

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

 

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