Auitsm and Echopraxia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from my previous post on echolalia, this week I’d like to briefly discuss the phenomenon echopraxia.

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Yes I know, it’s another mouthful, but what exactly is echopraxia?

Echopraxia (also known as echomotism or echokinesis) is a type of tic disorder characterized by involuntary imitation of another persons actions e.g. waving a hand, touching your nose, kicking something, even facial expressions. Echopraxia is one of the core features of Tourette’s syndrome, however it has also been found to occur in ASD’s. It is often paired with echolalia, but it has been known to occur independently in autists.

I know what you’re thinking- imitation of actions is critical to early development in childhood and perfectly “normal” behaviour, so it seems like echopraxia might be reading into things too much. However, when this behaviour persists and becomes reactionary rather than a learning tool, then it can be viewed from a pathophysiological  perspective. As such, it can be very difficult to diagnose this behaviour in children. 

So what does the science have to say about echopraxia and autism?

There’s very limited research in this area, however experts believe that echopraxia is related to damage or dysfunction within the frontal lobe known as the action cortex of the brain- an area that is often implicated in autistic behaviours. Other’s have theorized that abnormalities in the mirror neurons located here may be responsible.

Nope, I’m afraid mirror neurons are not quite this exiting- mirror neurons are in fact a particular type of nerve cell that fires when a person or an animal acts and witnesses another person complete the same action. This type of behaviour has been particularly observed in primates, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘monkey see, monkey do’.

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In general, echopraxia is considered harmless, however if it starts to interfere with social functioning, then behavioural modifications, medications and psychotherapy are possible treatment options 🙂

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! 😀

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

 

Autism and Echolalia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week we’re going to talk about something that effects approximately 75% of autists- Echolalia.

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I know, I know, it’s a mouthful- but echolalia is actually quite simple:

Echolalia is the meaningless repetition of noises, words or phrases immediately after their occurrence (although sometimes this can be delayed).

Derived from Greek echo, “to repeat,” and laliá, meaning “talk” or “speech,” Echolalia is an automatic and unintentional behaviour.  In most cases Echolalia is used in an attempt to communicate, practice or even learn language. In fact, Echolalia is part of normal development- every child experiences Echolalia when they learn a spoken language.

However, whilst “normal”, this behaviour can persist for longer in autists.

But why might this be?

Psychologically speaking, Echolalia is considered by some to simply be a repetitive or self-stimulatory behaviour in autists (as some experience this behaviour only when they are stressed), however, the general school of thought is that it is a communicative behaviour. Imitative behaviour is an essential part of social learning. As autists struggle so much socially, this imitative behaviour can act as a tool to help improve their social skills.

I’ve certainly exhibited such imitative behaviour during my formative years. For example, I somehow got it into my head that in my final year of primary school I needed to practice my swearing so that I would better be able to fit in when I made the jump to secondary school! 😬🙈 Wasn’t especially successful- sure I could swear like a sailor, buuuuuut it didn’t do much to improve my social skills or status (but I suppose I sounded a little less like a walking thesaurus for a change! 😛 ).

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On the biological side of things, much of the physiology of Echolalia remains to be explored, however, one study indicates that the ITGB3 gene (which carries the information for β3 integrin- a cell membrane protein that will interact with other proteins to trigger a number of biochemical reactions in our cells) seems to link autism and echolalia.

There we have it now Earthlings I hope you enjoyed this post! 🙂

Have a lovely weekend everyone! 😀

Aoife

Autism and Masking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

This week I’d like to discuss something I’ve briefly touched upon in previous posts (women and autism, ‘Please Stand By‘)- autism and masking.

So what is masking?

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Masking is a common behavioural trait within the autistic community wherein social mimicry is used to “mask” other autistic behaviours in social settings.

Basically this means that autists consciously employ techniques from social observation (such as forced eye contact and rehearsed conversations) in order to better blend into the social landscape to prevent their autistic traits from sticking out. You may not see the autism, but it’s still there behind the mask. Some autists even carry multiple masks to be used for different audiences.

Masking mainly tends to happen among girls with autism rather than boys (boys have also shown signs of masking but not to the same extent). Studies have shown that autistic women are generally better at recognizing emotions than their male peers (almost as good in fact as neurotypicals) and show greater social attentiveness which feeds into our ability to mask.

For example, take a quick look at this video I shared in my previous post where a group of autistic women go speed dating with an oblivious group of neurotypical men:

For me personally, social masking kept me under the ASD radar for many years. Without realizing it, I had been giving an Oscar worthy performance for most of my life.

I figured out how I was “supposed” to act from observing those around me, reading books and watching films (though sadly the amount of rom coms/romance films/novels I consume led to some unfortunate learning curves! 😛 ). I forced myself to make eye contact and to watch my mouth more, I even devised a sort of mental go-to phrase card with acceptable answers to such tricky questions as ‘How are you?’ or how to appropriately answer the phone (which I still dread by the way 😛 )

In one of my more extreme forms of masking, I somehow developed the ability to cry only out of my right eye when I would experience mini meltdowns in school so that the tears would roll down unseen behind a curtain of hair! 😬

I became really good at being invisible….well, at least between meltdowns! 😛 😉

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Social masking in girls is thought to be one of the primary reasons that women with autism often go undetected into adulthood, if at all. Research suggests that the ability to mask may even prevent those who have been flagged for assessment from getting the formal diagnosis that they need. In addition to this, a recent survey of autistic adults reported universal exhaustion from their masking exertions which is why it is so important that we develop better diagnostic tools for women on the spectrum.

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Making Friends

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today we’re going to talk about something that many autists find difficult-making friends.

When it comes to making friends there is no exact science, something which can trip up many a logically thinking autist.

It’s not that we don’t want to make friends, but we often struggle to navigate the social playing field, sometimes choosing our own company to avoid the various trials and tribulations of social interaction.

There are no set rules when it comes to friendship, and we just can’t seem to wrap our brains around it.

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In my own experience, I found that connecting with my peers was a real barrier to formulating friendships in school. We had different tastes in music and film, were interested in different hobbies, wanted different things, held opposing beliefs etc. I found it really challenging to find common ground to converse on.

Making friends isn’t the easiest of tasks, but there are some things that I’ve learned over the years to make the process a little less challenging :

  • Take classes- I found that dance classes were a great social outlet as a child. I partnered up with different children, got invited to a lot of birthday parties (although I have many memories of wandering off to be by myself! 😛 ) and it helped with my coordination. Speech and drama classes can also be very useful in helping to build your confidence and social skills.
  • Try to find common ground with your peers. When in conversation, ask the other person about TV shows, bands, films, sports etc. you may be surprised at what you have in common.
  • Don’t be discouraged if you’re struggling to connect with your peers- I was 11 before I truly made a lasting friendship, and it wasn’t until college that I finally felt that I belonged socially. The average school-goer can often be small minded when it comes to befriending people who dare to be different. While some amazing efforts are being made to de-stigmatize and embrace autism in the younger generation, there will always be some who rebel against difference. Forget the haters- there are so much better people out there who are worthy of your friendship 🙂

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  • Try not to compare yourself to your neurotypical peers- We all make friends in different ways, prefer different types and sizes of social groups. What seems to work for others may not work for you. Social mimicry may seem logical, buuuutt, it doesn’t always work.
  • Be yourself- As cheesy as it sounds, it’s true! 😛 I have spent many a year feigning interest in matters that I thought my peers would respond to, but when I stayed true to myself, that’s when I discovered true friendship. True friends love you for you 🙂

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  • And if that all fails, you can always do what I do- bake to make friends! Nothing like a plate of home made sugary goodness to create a lasting impression 😉 Even if you burn it, you’ll still get a funny story out of it! As I’ve grown into adulthood, the stories of my many mishaps have become quite the conversation starter 😛 😉

If things don’t work out, don’t be so hard on yourself about it. Not all friendships are built to last. One of the biggest mistakes that I make is to hyper-analyse why a friendship breaks down in my efforts to understand where I went wrong to avoid future problems. Whilst yes, social lessons can be taken from past experiences, there’s no use in torturing yourself about it- you may not even have made a misstep.

Sometimes, these things just happen.

But that does not mean that you should not try again. The social complexities of formulating friendship can be overwhelming, but the reward is great 🙂

I have been so blessed in the friends that I have made in my lifetime, people who love and accept me as I am- even embracing my quirks.

Sometimes people are not always the most accepting of those who dare to be themselves, but that doesn’t mean that you do not belong socially. It took me years to find my pack, but in the end, I found my place 🙂

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Have a great week everyone! 😀

Aoife

Eye Contact and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to discuss one of the most common autistic traits- difficulty with eye contact. This can be particularly troublesome when it comes to situations such as job interviews where good eye contact is important to success.

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Growing up, I was often told by my family that I had trouble with eye contact, but I never really noticed much myself until I was older. On some level I knew that making eye contact made me feel uncomfortable, but I never really gave much thought as to the reason. We just sort of assumed that I cast my eyes away for lack of self confidence.

In my experience, making eye contact just feels awkward and weird to me. I’ve never really been able to explain why, it just does.

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Over the years, at my family’s insistence, I gradually learned to force myself to make eye contact. There are still times when I find eye contact uncomfortable (if I’m mid or teetering on the edge of a meltdown, any attempt to lock eyes goes out the window!), but I’ve found ways to get through it.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that I seem to have automatically adopted a coping system for making eye contact in close quarters. I make the contact, hold the gaze for an appropriate amount of time, then look away briefly before returning to centre. Other times, I move my gaze around to focus on different group members, breaking the contact just enough to remain comfortable without coming across as weird (I hope 😛 😉 )!

It kind of looks something like this:

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Top Tip: If you feel uncomfortable making eye contact as you’re walking along the street, I find that wearing sunglasses (provided the weather is somewhat appropriate 😉 ) can be a great help 🙂

So what does the scientific community make of our struggles with eye contact?

One study suggests that the reason we avoid eye contact is actually related to how we process visual information. In this study, children with autism were shown images in both the centre and periphery of their vision. In a neurotypical brain, a large portion of the brain’s cortex is dedicated to processing information in the centre of your visual field. In the autistic brain, a larger portion of the cortex was engaged when the image was shown in the child’s peripheral vision.

In other words, we have more neurons dedicated to processing peripheral visual information, hence why direct, central eye contact is often avoided.

We’ve known for a while that autists perceive the world in a unique way, now we know that we actually see the world differently too! 😉

Have a good weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Phones

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So a little bit different today- I know the title is unusual! 😛

But the prospect of talking on the phone is something that fills many an autist with dread!

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But why does this seemingly innocuous device strike fear into our hearts?

My relationship with phones is complicated.

On the one hand, I enjoy chatting to my family and friends on the phone; on the other, talking on the phone feels soooo AWKWARD to me!

As if reading a person isn’t hard enough, but when you can’t see them? It really adds to your social anxiety. You can’t tell if they’re bored or if  you’re cutting across them, not to mention dealing with heavy accents, bad signal and awkward silences- the stress is a killer!

Worse still when someone asks you to answer their phone!

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I don’t mind answering too much if it’s someone I already know, but when it’s a stranger….

What do I say?

What if the person on the other end thinks I’m them?

How long will I have to talk until they can take the phone away from me??

AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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It makes me feel beyond awkward answering someone elses phone!

Not to mention the awkwardness of dealing with telemarketers and scammers…I try to brush them off and don’t want to be rude… but then when they keep pushing their product on you, I feel too awkward not to listen! I just sit there burning up, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to tell them ‘no’ and run! 😛

Sometimes I just want nothing more than to throw my phone at the wall! 😛

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I will do everything that I can to avoid calling someone, if at all possible. I will email, text, Whats App, Facebook etc. before I will ever go near my phone. If the phone rings in the house and I’m closest to it, I have been known to get up and leave the room for the bathroom to force someone else to pick up the receiver! 😛

This meme is a pretty accurate transcription of actual conversations I’ve had with my mother 😛

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Over the years however, I have gotten more comfortable with the phone. When I was younger, I never really knew how to act appropriately on the phone. When someone asked to speak to another member of the house, I would freeze up and throw the phone at that person while the caller was still talking! 😛

Since then, I’ve gradually developed my phone etiquette and learned to relax a little more when answering the phone. Practice makes perfect I suppose 🙂

Making calls can still be a little tricky.

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A lot of it is tied up in the anxiety of not being able to see the person on the other end. When you initiate a conversation in real life, you know if the person is amenable to talking. If I call them however, my brain starts worrying about disturbing them if they’re busy or whether they really want to talk to me or not.

And then there’s the added stress of “I’ll call you back,” and the panic that ensues when they don’t.

“Did they forget?

Did they not want to talk to me?

Oh God, do I need to call them back???!!”

But as you grow older, these worries begin to fade. You just have to take a deep breath, press call and go for it! 🙂

An email is not going to fix your internet (for obvious reasons 😛 ) or secure your hair cut! 😉

Top Tip: It helps to remind yourself when calling strangers that they can’t see you, they don’t know you so they can’t judge you if you say something stupid 😉

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Does Autism Make Me A Bad Person?

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So today I’m going to share with you something that I’ve been musing on a lot lately:

Does autism make me a bad person?

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When it comes to autism, there is a very fine line between bad behaviour and autistic behaviour.

To an outsider, meltdowns appear like temper tantrums. Inappropriate statements and behaviours seem to hint at a naughty child.

It can be very hard to discern the difference.

As a child, I spent much of my time being branded as naughty. Growing up in an Irish household, I was no stranger to the dreaded wooden spoon…

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I was notorious for my “temper tantrums”, I always seemed to say and do the wrong things, and I consistently found myself fighting with those around me. In short, I was a nightmare!

Worse still was the nightmare I lived on the inside.

I never could understand why I said or did bad things back then. My sisters never seemed to find themselves in the trouble that I always did. Something simple would just set me off like a rocket and there would be no turning back. After the smoke had cleared, sitting in a pool of tears surrounded by the wreckage of a meltdown, I felt like the worst person in the world.

“Why did I say that?”

“Why did I throw lego at my parents?”

“Why was I so violent?”

I was always left shocked and appalled my behaviour, crying for hours afterwards at the consequences I faced.

Oftentimes I felt as though I were little more than a criminal. My parents even threatened my bad behaviour with the police on a number of occasions- once going so far as to put my PJs in a plastic bag after telling me that they were coming to take me away! 😛

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I tried so hard to behave, but I never could seem to keep it up for more than a few weeks. As I’ve told you before, I even tried running away because I couldn’t be good and felt obliged to leave.

But none of this behaviour was ever intentional.

Autists have no control over meltdowns; the brain is completely overwhelmed. In this state, literally anything can happen. Like Elvis, any trace of rationality has left the building. I’ll explore meltdowns next week in greater detail.

My tendency towards mimicry and my twisted sense of logic also impacted my bad behaviour.

I graffiti-ed a desk in school after perceiving previous samples around me to be the norm, I practiced swearing like a sailor and flipping the bird (I struggled with the dexterity of it) before secondary school to blend in – I even forced the habit of chewing pens as I thought that I needed a “bad” or “cool” habit when I went there!!!! Don’t ask me how I rationalized that one! 😛

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Not good for your teeth kids!

Over the years I’ve better learned to control and prevent public meltdowns and restrict my social faux pas’, but on occasion I will wind up in a spot of bother just like everybody else.

Autism has huge influence over my behaviour, but do my actions make me a bad person?

This is a tricky one.

I’m not perfect. I often say or do things that can rub people up the wrong way, but for the most part, I don’t intend to do people wrong. Having been wronged many times in my own life, the thought of hurting another person greatly upsets me. When I unintentionally put my foot in it, I’ll torture myself for hours, weeks, even years afterwards for my missteps.

But I’ll always try my hardest to make amends and be better.

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Even before I received my diagnosis I made serious efforts to try to modify my negative social behaviours. I oftentimes find that I overcompensate with my friends for fear of being perceived as bad like my childhood all over again. I’ll proofread your project at 2 in the morning, I’m always baking and making gifts, I even overcompensate with emojis for fear of the wrong sentiments coming across. I forever spend my days worrying how others may take me up wrong.

I’m constantly in a state of high alert that I’ll do something bad. In many ways I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to be the sort of person that I couldn’t seem to be as a child, as if by being good now somehow undoes the wrongs, or acts as a safety net in case I meltdown or lodge my foot in my mouth.

Yes, there are times in my life when I can be bad, say or do the wrong things or lose control; but that doesn’t make me bad. Autism can make me act badly sometimes, but it doesn’t mean that the person is bad.

I’m by no means Mother Teresa, but I’d like to think that I’m a good person 🙂

That being said, just because a person is autistic, does not mean that they are entirely blameless if they act badly. Indeed, much of my poor behaviour as a child can be attributed to autism, but there were also times where I knowingly chose to be bad, just like any other child.

Autism can’t always be used as an excuse for my actions.

Some psychologists for example, have theorized that Hitler likely had Asperger’s syndrome, but we couldn’t give him a free pass now could we?

Autism is a spectrum– there are both good and bad among us. We are human, we make mistakes- we just tend to make a few more of them than others 😉

Having autism doesn’t make a person bad, it merely makes us human 🙂

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Aoife

 

 

Discussion:Women & Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today, I’m going to discuss a very important issue within the autistic community- gender bias and the misdiagnosis of women with autism.

If I asked you to close your eyes and picture a person with autism, the majority of you will have pictured a man (most likely Dustin Hoffman! 😛 ).

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The current ratio for male to female diagnosis of autism is estimated at 4:1 as the condition is thought to be rarer in women; however, many experts now believe that this figure may be as low as 2:1.

So why the discrepancy?

Did you know: Women with autism present differently to males on the spectrum?!

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Yep- as neurotypical men are from Mars and women from Venus, so too are autistic men and women from entirely different planets (maybe Krypton and Daxam for the DC nerds out there 😉 )!

So how do women with autism differ from men?

For starters, several neurobiological studies have shown distinct anatomical differences between the male and female autistic brain (which I will explore in a separate post at a later stage 🙂 ). Girls with autism are thought to have more active imaginations than boys and participate more in pretend play, often creating elaborate fantasy worlds (I had a particular penchant for this. My sister and I created an elaborate world for our teddies each night, so elaborate that our star couple had their own imaginary portable mansion when we went on holidays!! 😀 ). Reports also indicate that women have lower levels of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than men.

Evidence has also shown that women are better at recognizing emotions than males, almost as well as their neurotypical peers in fact, and demonstrate signs of better attentiveness in social situations.

As a gender, women are more socially inclined than men, and so female autists feel a greater need to make an effort socially.It is expected that women should be more social than men when it comes to communication, and as a result, we are often held to greater social standards. I can’t count how many times a teacher/my mother pulled me aside to advise or chastise me for my social ineptitude! 😛 It was thought that I struggled, not because something was wrong, but that I simply didn’t try hard enough socially. Had I been a boy this would not have been the case.

One of the biggest differences between men and women with autism is the tendency among women towards social mimicry. Girls are particularly adept in masking their symptoms through observation of their peers, obscuring them from the view of parents, teachers and medical professionals.

I’m particularly guilty of doing this. For example, when someone asks ‘How are you?’, I honestly don’t know how to respond! Should I just say fine? Should I reciprocate the sentiment? Should I detail the many ways my life sucks at present?! Three of the simplest words in the English language and I struggle to respond! I eventually developed a mental phrase card in my head for common questions like these so that I would have a standard answer when called for, and 90% of the time you pass for a functioning human being! Other times you get caught off guard and situations like this happen 😛 :

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My life is full of these little social coping mechanisms, which I’ll expand on separately at a later stage 🙂

Finally, as previously discussed, when it comes to specialist interests, female autists tend to have interests resembling those of their neurotypical peers (horses, Harry Potter, soap operas, Justin Bieber etc.), which can additionally hide them from view. Psychologists have also noted a ‘mothering’ tendency among peers of autistic girls, taking autists under their wing and adopting them into a social group. This further creates an illusion of social functioning for teachers, allowing these women to further slip beneath the radar.

As a result of all these differences, women are diagnosed much later than men, (men on average are diagnosed in childhood (~7 years); women as teenagers or adults)  if at all.

But why it it only now that these gender differences are emerging?

Gender bias in autism can trace it’s lineage to the original observations of both Leo Kanner (described autism) and Hans Asperger (described Asperger’s syndrome) in the 1940’s. In Kanner’s work, ‘Autistic Disturbance of Affective Contact’ (1943), Kanner observed a group of 8 boys, but only 3 girls with autism. Hans Asperger on the other hand, exclusively observed groups of boys, believing that AS was uniquely male! As a result, AS was not described in women until the 1990’s!!

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I know!

Consequently, the diagnostic criteria for autism has been largely based on the male model of the condition, and as such, many women like me have slipped under the diagnostic radar.

Due to our inherent talent for social mimicry, women with autism unknowingly find themselves hidden from view. The warning signs that are obvious in males are not always visible, and as a result thousands of women go un-diagnosed, or worse still are misdiagnosed.

Mental health issues such as OCD, eating disorders, ADD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression are frequently linked with ASD’s and are particularly prevalent among women.
Experts believe that women with autism tend to internalize their autistic symptoms, leading them to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and experience higher levels of anxiety than male autists.

Women are frequently mis-diagnosed with mental health issues, whilst the underlying root ASD goes unnoticed.

The internet is filled with stories of these women who spent years in mental anguish without receiving the one diagnosis they needed. I recently came across an article where it took “10 years, 14 psychiatrists, 17 medications and 9 diagnoses” before a 21 year old girl got her autism diagnosis! You can read the article here: (https://spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/the-lost-girls/).

Researchers and clinicians have in recent years begun to adapt the diagnostic criteria to better serve autistic women, but there is much work still that needs to be done.

Rain Man‘ has dominated for too long- we need now to focus on “Rain Woman”.

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Aoife

 

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