Autism and Music

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to be exploring the benefits of music for people with autism.

We all know that feeling we get when we listen to our favourite songs- the rush, the rippling chills, the feeling that the music is physically running up and down your spine.

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But what if I told you that music can do so much more than just entertain us?

Research has shown that music therapy can greatly benefit people with autism by helping to improve social behaviours and interactions, focus and attention, coordination and spatial awareness in addition to reducing stress and anxiety. Music therapists aim to improve the wellbeing of their patients through music by encouraging singing, listening to, moving to and discussing music among other actions.

So how does music benefit the brain in this way?

The simple act of learning to play an instrument can greatly improve brain processing, fine motor skills and non-verbal reasoning skills. Interestingly, physical changes are taking place in your brain when you learn to play an instrument. As children grow up, the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) can grow thinner in certain regions which can lead to such issues as anxiety, depression and attention difficulties. Evidence suggests that learning to play an instrument however thickens the cortex in areas associated with emotional processing, executive functioning, and impulse control– functions that are affected in many people on the spectrum.

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Studies have also shown that the vibration of music can help to stimulate and improve brain and muscle function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s!

Recent evidence suggests that dopamine plays a role in the brains response to music. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, dopamine regulates emotions and mood. Researchers have found that music encourages dopamine release and positive mood changes, whereas noise exposure negatively impacts mood. As dopamine levels are out of sync in people with autism, music could really help our brains to better control mood swings and improve emotional processing.

In my own life, music has been highly beneficial to help process my emotions.

I have had a lifelong passion for music. The riffs, the vocals, the lyrics- there’s nothing quite like it! Music has always held a special place in my heart, but especially the lyrics from my favourite songs.

As I’ve discussed previously, many autists struggle to identify and/or describe what they are feeling, a condition known as alexithymia (from the Greek meaning “no words for mood“). Many years ago, long before my diagnosis, in times of strife I found myself intensely drawn to music. The lyrics soothed my soul and calmed my mind allowing me to process the storm of emotion passing through. Whenever I could not make sense of my emotions, I could always find a song that would verbalize my struggles, and after a time, everything became a little clearer 🙂

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There we have it Earthlings! We’ve all felt the power of music, and the science shows it’s potential.

So grab your ipod and dust off your guitar this bank holiday weekend- your brain will thank you! 😉

Aoife

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Soooo….driving…

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Wouldn’t be high on my list of favourite activities I’ll admit! 😛 Stressful roundabouts, merging onto busy roads, idiot drivers, getting lost, the noise of hitting a pothole- it can be a lot for an aspie to handle!

My coordination issues did not make it the easiest of tasks to get the hang of, that’s for sure!

Coordinating pedal movements and gear changes, difficulties with spatial awareness, not to mention the stress and anxiety of learning to drive on country roads (Irish country roads tend to be narrow, winding, and full of potholes! 😛 ) made this a highly frustrating experience!

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I never could understand why I found it so hard to get the hang of driving when my sisters took to it so easily, but after I got my diagnosis, my struggles began to make a world of sense!

Driving would not be the first thing to come to mind when someone pictures the struggles an autist faces. In fact it’s a requirement in some countries that your ASD diagnosis be listed on your drivers licence if it impacts your ability to drive safely– you can even be fined in the event of an accident if it’s not stated on your licence!

Studies among autists actually report more traffic violations than in neurotypical groups, however, this may relate to our tendency to be more honest than our neurotypical peers 😛 😉

This doesn’t mean that autists shouldn’t drive, but it’s something to be aware of.

So how exactly does autism impact our driving?

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  • Impulsivity Autist’s are naturally more impulsive than neurotypicals. This can impact our driving by causing us to make poor driving decisions on impulse. It has also been reported that this impulsivity may influence speeding behaviours
  • Sensory integration/processing issues– Driving involves a huge amount of sensory input. Listening to the engine, watching the road, spatial awareness, not to mention unexpected road noises and unpleasant smells from the outside- it can be a lot for the autistic brain to process when moving a vehicle
  • ADD & ADHD- Autists can get distracted quite easily…on busy roads where lot’s of things are happening, your focus can sometimes waver. If there’s a cute dog nearby, I have been known to take my eyes off the road…raw (2)
  • Spatial Awareness & Coordination Autists often have issues with these which can make it difficult in positioning the car on the road, parking and navigating gear changes. Spatial awareness was one of my greatest obstacles when first learning to drive. I always seemed to be veering towards the nearest hedge…When I first got my car, I was practicing driving around the house with no problems, aaannd then I decided to change direction- BIG mistake! My poor spatial judgement caused me to nicely scratch the car on the edge of the dog house…before getting it stuck on some cement blocks at the oil tank! Caused a mini shutdown which made my sister think I had run the dog over I was so incoherent!! 😛                                                                           fghd.png

Top tip for parents and instructors: PATIENCE!!!! Learning to drive is much more difficult for autists so don’t be too hard on us for when we don’t get it straight away. We’re already beating ourselves up for our slow progression; getting frustrated or annoyed with us will only make it worse.

Here are some useful links with driving tips for autists:

Click to access Driving1.pdf

https://sellmax.com/driving-with-autism/

Aoife’s Top Tip- Get a Sat Nav. They really help to take the edge off when stressed about driving to new and unfamiliar locations. If you mess up, it will recalculate and send you right in the end 🙂

Having autism may initially make learning to drive difficult, however, you will get there in the end 🙂 After two years of stressful practice, I passed my test first time and drive everywhere now.

The freedom you gain from this skill is worth the fight 🙂

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Aoife

Autism 101- Coordination

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk to you about coordination difficulties and the spectrum.

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Did you know: Roughly 80% of autists have issues with motor coordination?

And I am no exception! 😛

To be honest, I needn’t even write anything for this post- a host of gifs would fairly accurately sum up my experiences of coordination! 😛

 

I drop things more easily, I fall over a LOT, bump into things, walk sideways into people I’m walking alongside, fumble a little longer with buttons, laces, hair clips etc. People have often thought I’ve been drunk on nights out (although I don’t drink) when coordination trouble presents itself- giddyness has a habit of rendering me less coordinated for some reason! 😛

These incidents happen so often it becomes another part of daily life- you trip over your feet for no reason, laugh and keep walking! 😛

You might think I’m exaggerating but it happens all the time! Even my dogs have noticed- I once fell flat on my face on a walk and my normally attentive German Shepherd just stood and laughed, waiting for me to get back up! 😛

I’ve always been a little slower than my peers when it comes to mastering my finer motor skills. From my very first skip I’ve struggled with my coordination issues.

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My mother often reminds me of how I used to screw my face up in concentration after dance classes in my attempts to master the skill. I would try and try and try to skip around the room, but kept falling over my own two feet!

Don’t get me started on the struggle to add in a skipping rope! 😛

But nevertheless, each time I fell, I got back up again and persisted until I mastered it- and then you couldn’t keep me from skipping!

This has always been my experience of coordination. I struggle a little bit longer than my peers to develop my motor skills, but with persistence, master them I will. Tying my shoelaces, riding a bike, learning to drive, knitting- all these skills took time to master, but I got there in the end 🙂

Now if I could just master walking in heels, I’d be flying! 😛 😉

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Top tip– Keeping on top of sleep, thirst and hunger can really help to keep your coordination in check. In addition to acting loopy if I fall victim to these, I find that my equilibrium can also be affected.

But what do scientists have to say about these coordination issues?

The underlying cause of these issues is poorly understood, however, recent studies suggest that motor coordination issues in autism are likely linked to abnormal neural connections in the brain. Remember the synapse (or connecting junction point between two neurons) which we discussed last week? Autist’s have an overabundance of these bad boys compared with normally developing peers.

So how does the synapse affect motor coordination?

Motor learning and control is influenced by a specific group of neurons known as purkinje cells. Purkinje cells, (located in the cerebellum- an area heavily involved in motor control), receive signals from climbing fibers- a type of neuron which carries information from the body to the brain. These climbing fibers detect changes or disturbances in our environment, such as changes in space or the position of nearby objects, and relay this information to the purkinje cells. Purkinje cells then emit inhibitory signals at synapses so to modify motor movements accordingly.

In autism however, the efficacy of purkinje cells to influence motor change is greatly reduced.

Normally, each purkinje cell receives input from a single climbing fiber. Autists have too many synapses connecting the brain, and so the purkinje cell receives signals from multiple climbing fibers. This confuses the purkinje cell, which in turn alters the efficacy of corrective signals. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the more people involved (i.e. synapses and climbing fibers), the more the message get’s lost in translation.

To give an example, if you were walking along and someone threw a ball at you, climbing fibers will alert the purkinje cells to tell the body to move out of the way. In autism….well, the signal to do this get’s scrambled on route to the brain, aaaaand… you’ll likely get hit in the face! 😛

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^^^^Story of my life right here! 😛

At the end of the day, whilst coordination problems can be incredibly frustrating, persist and you will get there 🙂

Never give up- ride that bike, drive that car, skip like there’s no tomorrow!! Autism only limits us if we allow ourselves to be limited 🙂

Aoife

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