Autism on Screen- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to discuss the portrayal of autism in the 1993 comedy-drama film ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ starring Johnny Depp, a young Leonardo Dicaprio and Juliette Lewis (who ironically portrayed an autistic character in ‘The Other Sister‘ a few years later).

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The story follows Gilbert Grape (Depp) a young man living in a rural town in Iowa as he takes care of his obese mother and autistic brother Arnie (Dicaprio). The film explores Gilbert’s life and struggles to take care of his family whilst trying to forge a life of his own.

If you haven’t seen this classic, here’s the trailer:

So how does the film fare in it’s depiction of autism?

Autism is not explicitly mentioned as such in this film, but most experts agree that Arnie’s traits align with those of autism. His repetitive movements, echolalia, self injurious behaviours, use of atypical speech, preference for routine, his childlike nature, mind-blindness and lack of danger perception (he has a fondness for climbing the town water tower) all indicate that Arnie is on the spectrum. This is also one of the few films where the autist is not portrayed as a savant so that’s a refreshing change!

Leonardo Dicaprio’s acting is, as always, sublime- he even received his first ever Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Arnie in this role. In particular I felt that the depiction of meltdowns was quite good, however, the most striking aspect of the film, as in Atypical, was how it highlights the struggles that the wider family often experiences with autism, particularly where siblings are concerned. Gilbert loves Arnie dearly, but taking care of him and his entire family takes it’s toll.

The film also takes a more lighthearted approach at times to Arnie’s eccentricities. Arnie’s lack of filter delivers some of the more humorous moments in the film, which like Atypical, allows us to see the funnier side of autism- yes autism can be challenging, but it’s not all doom and gloom.

All in all ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape‘ gives a fairly decent representation of autism, but either way- the film is worth a watch just for Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance. This film really was a sign of things to come for him! ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Keep the Change

 

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

As it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, this week I decided to check out the 2017 indie film ‘Keep the Change‘ a quirky rom-com about 2 autists who meet at a support group and fall in love.

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David is an aspiring film maker that has been required by court order to attend a support group (after an inappropriate joke get’s him into a spot of bother) wherein he meets the bubbly Sara, an enthusiastic singer with perfect pitch. After a rocky start, the two fall in love, their differences and families push them apart but ultimately they get back together again.

Nothing particularly original there, it’s a similar premise to ‘Mozart and the Whale‘, however, the unique thing about this film is that the principal cast are all on the spectrum in real life! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

I know!

What’s more, the story is based on Brandon Polansky’s (the actor that plays David) first serious relationship in real life, which sadly ended before filming.

You can check out a trailer for the film here:

This film actually originated as a 15 minute short film in 2013 which you can see in it’s entirety below:

So what did I make of the film?

Well, for the first time I won’t be complaining about the lack of accuracy in the portrayal of life with autism as the actors themselves are living the experience every day! Similarly, there are no savant stereotypes portrayed, just regular people navigating life on the spectrum. It’s refreshing to see a film keeping it real and true to the autistic experience (although that being said, some of the romantic interactions seemed to me to be more exaggerated and cringe worthy than I’d imagine the true story was!).

However, as authentic and well researched as this film is, I personally found the film a little bit lackluster for my tastes. Moreover, I would have loved to see more diversity in the support group as we saw in the most recent series of ‘Atypical‘. We didn’t get much of a look a the different personality types, interests and traits of the supporting characters, so they all sorted of blended into one “happy-clappy” entity.

As I’ve said before, it would be great to see more diversity in the portrayal of higher functioning autists. Yes, a lot of the characters we see on screen are high functioning, but these characters are still quite dependent on their families and each other to navigate the world. It would be nice one day to see the ‘lost generation’ of autists on screen- those of us who travel through life undiagnosed, undetected and struggling in silence.

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All in all, if you’ve an interest in films about autism, this one’s a must add to your list ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Handwriting

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week I’d like to talk about something that you may not be aware is an issue for autists- handwriting.

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Experts have noted that a large number of autists have difficulties with handwriting skills and in particular tend to have worse quality in forming letters than their age matched neurotypical peers.

Seems a trivial issue I know, but the affliction of “doctor’s scrawl” can be incredibly frustrating, and particularly challenging for written examinations.

In my childhood I picked up handwriting itself fairly easily (I was so proud that I was one of the few who could write their name before they started school! ๐Ÿ˜Ž), however, when it came to learning joined writing- that was an entirely different kettle of fish!

I was ABYSMAL (still am to be fair, unless I try hard! ๐Ÿ˜› ). Everyone else in my class had no issue with handwriting, but just as with knitting, skipping, cycling and tying my shoelaces, I fell way behind. My mother even bought me loads of special inky/gel pens to try to encourage and improve my technique. Granted, I got there in the end (well sort of…it’s still an untidy scrawl, but it is joined up!), however, it was extremely frustrating to develop this skill.

So why is handwriting such a struggle?

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Based on the research it seems that the difficulties autists experience with handwriting are related to hand muscle strength and poor control of finger movements. Moreover, many of the regions of the brain associated with handwriting such as the superior frontal sulcus and the cerebellum, are altered in the autistic brain.

Some autists may also suffer from a co-morbid condition known as dysgraphia- a neurological condition that impacts handwriting and coherence (I’ll write a separate post on this at a later stage) which would explain why some autists struggle with handwriting tasks more than others.

So is there anyway to improve handwriting issues?

Time, practice and patience are key when it comes to handwriting difficulties, however encouraging an autist to use their hands more for such activities as colouring or working with play doh will help to improve finer motor skills, which will in turn help to improve issues with handwriting.

I also found in my experience, as simple as it was, that the pens my mother bought were quite useful in helping me to develop my joined writing skills. Although the inkier pens can be a little messy, there was far less resistance as they moved across the paper, allowing me to develop and better control my handwriting.

If however handwriting is proving particularly challenging, from an academic perspective it may be helpful to look into getting a scribe for exams or to ask your teacher if they will accept typed homework (I’ve strangely never had the same coordination issues with typing as I’ve had with handwriting!๐Ÿคท)

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Climate Change

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

I know what you’re all thinking, she’s lost it- what on earth has autism got to do with climate change?!

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Well, nothing really, but what I’m referring to is the impact of the recent Lancet report about the need to change our eating habits to stave off climate change and it’s potential impacts for the autistic community. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard about the report you can check out the paper here:

https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673618331799

or alternatively here’s a handy little summary news report:

https://www.irishtimes.com/business/agribusiness-and-food/meat-consumption-must-drop-by-90-to-avert-climate-crisis-report-warns-1.3760363

The bottom line of the report- we need to reduce our meat consumption by 90% and significantly increase our consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans to achieve our daily recommended caloric intake (18 times as much dry beans, soy and nuts in fact! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ)

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As a scientist, I’m all for finding ways to reverse the impact of climate change,ย  however, I have found this report quite infuriating!

I haven’t really talked about food too much as an issue on this blog (mainly because it’s a subject that’s going to take some time to write about!), but food issues are perhaps my biggest struggle. Troubles with textures, tastes, smells- it can be a nightmare sometimes; but if the Lancet report is to be taken seriously, my nightmare has only just begun!

I’m a real meat lover, and vegetables for me mainly consists of baked beans and the old Irish favourite potatoes (some stereotypes are based in fact after all! ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). If this report is to be seriously considered, this would restrict my daily intake of chicken (my staple) to 29g or the equivalent of one and a half chicken nuggets. Worse still for my beloved potato the Lancet recommends 50g or 39 calories of potatoes per day- roughly a quarter of a medium-sized potato!

So basically if we start to crack down on these foodstuffs, I’ll be living on fresh air and sugar- I’ll have a killer figure for sure, albeit with a side of diabetes ๐Ÿ˜›

What I am most concerned about is the larger autistic community. My food issues are mild in comparison to other autists-what about the poor struggling parents who’s child will only eat the same meal day in day out, or will only eat McDonalds or foods of a particular colour? Has no one stopped to consider the struggles that these recommendations will bring?

Don’t even get me started on the implications for those with food and nut allergies, of which a high percentage of the autistic community suffer from!

The agricultural industry in Europe is responsible for a mere 10% of our carbon footprint whereas our energy consumption stands over a whopping 80%! Why must our food habits change when our energy consumption is so staggeringly high?

It beggars belief that the medical community would think that such a radical overhaul of our eating habits is our best option in the fight against climate change.

What we really need are cleaner fuel alternatives, better range of and services for hybrid cars, and better public transport systems for rural communities (a huge issue here in Ireland- if you don’t have a car, rural life is extremely isolating. Where I live one would have to walk for 45 minutes to get a bus to the nearest town!) to cut down our carbon footprint. Or if someone could invent apparition from Harry Potter that would also work pretty nicely too ๐Ÿ˜› ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Have a wonderful weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Going Away to College

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

This week I’m going to to talk about perhaps one of the biggest challenges for a teenage autist- going away to college.

Ah college, some of the best years of your life- but years that can be difficult to adjust to for people on the spectrum. Granted, going away to college is a huge step for anyone, but considering an autists’ difficulty with change the stress can be tenfold. Living away from home, living with new people, finding your way around campus, the lack of routine, social expectations etc.- it can be completely overwhelming!

When I think about preparing for college, it always put’s me in mind of this Blink-182 song:

I haven’t been this scared in a long time, and I’m so unprepared…

This is exactly how it felt for me when I went away to college- sure, I was sick of school and excited to learn new things, but it is still one hell of a transition! I definitely cried a LOT those first few days/weeks settling in.

But never fear- here are some tips that I found helpful for starting out in college:

  • Register with the university disability service– If you think you need a little extra support when starting out, don’t be afraid to ask. Even if you don’t currently need any of the disability support services the college offers, it’s always good to have the safety net there when academic problems related to autism arise
  • Join a club/society– I know it can be really scary and overwhelming at first, but you won’t regret it! There’s loads of societies to choose from, and surely one that will suit your interests- they even have Harry Potter societies and Quidditch teams in colleges now (which sadly didn’t come to my university until after I had graduated ๐Ÿ˜ฅ )ย  It’s a great way to meet like minded people, make new friends and give you a break from the books ๐Ÿ™‚ And if there isn’t a society that you like, why not set one up?
  • Get to lectures early– This is one that could really have helped me out during my first few weeks in college (but sadly I tend to me a tumble out of bed, last-minuter in the mornings). Give yourself plenty of time to get to the right room/building; universities aren’t always designed well and can be an absolute maze to navigate (which won’t help your stress levels). But more importantly, this can help you to keep an eye out for people you know. In my first month in college, sitting in a lecture hall with 300+ science students, I found it very difficult to get to know people, and when I did get chatting, I found it even harder to physically find the same person to chat to a second time among the masses. In getting to class early, you can pick a prime seat to watch out for familiar faces so you can flag them down to sit with you
  • Get a head start on your assignments– An obvious one I know, but a critical one if you tend to be a last minuter. College life is stressful enough coursework aside; don’t risk needlessly stressing yourself out and melting down

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  • Invest in scented candles/air fresheners– If you’re anything like me, the smell of some unfamiliar dishes cooked by your roommates can turn your stomach! Find a scent that you’re comfortable with or something that reminds you of home when offending odors threaten your senses. But make sure you test it out before you buy it- some odors can be even worse than the offending stimulus (I had a bout of nausea from a Christmas Yankee Candle last year- although that could have been a side effect of the antibiotics I was taking! ๐Ÿ˜› )
  • Buy a decent pair of earplugs/noise cancelling headphones– the night time activities of the average student can often impact sensitive ears (I went through a few weeks of insomnia in my first year due to late night partying, fire alarms and drunken doorbell ringing), so plan ahead to ensure you get your full nights sleep
  • Google, Google Google– When navigating a new city, Google is your best friend, Google Maps, Google Street View, Google everything! When you’re not feeling confident about your directions, where to find shops, college facilities, timetables for public transport etc., pull out your smart phone and within a few clicks you’ll have everything you need. I would not have gotten through college without Google Street View. It really helped to put my mind at ease when travelling to unfamiliar parts of the city/university and kept me from getting overwhelmed
  • Make use of video chats– Video chatting has become far more accessible than it was when I started out in college, but nevertheless having the comfort of Skyping my family every evening really helped me to settle in during my first year (after that I rarely needed this crutch). Seeing my sisters in the familiar office at the Desktop after they came home from school every day really helped the transition from my old routines to my new college life

Going away to college can be a very scary experience, but try not to stress it- everyone finds it tough at first, but before long you’ll wonder why you ever resisted this change ๐Ÿ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dearest Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism Assistance/Service Dogs

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

This week we’re taking a cuteness break to take a look at autism assistance dogs!

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โค

Just look at him!!!ย ๐Ÿ˜

Sooo cute- but, they also provide a very important service to children, and adults, with autism (some days I wish I could justify getting one to have an official reason to always have a dog around! ๐Ÿ˜‚).

To state the obvious, an autism assistance dog is a service dog that has been trained to help autists to navigate the world and allow them to gain some independence. Some service dogs have been trained to keep their human from leaving the house unattended, ย alert children/adults with autism of dangerous situations, prevent self injurious behaviours and even induce calm by applying pressure to the foot or lap of their charge!

So smart!!ย ๐Ÿ˜

Ever since the first autism assistance dog was trained 21 years ago back in 1997, these cuddly canines have made a world of difference to the lives of their owners.

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But what does the research have to say about these benefits?

There is limited research data to show the specific/scientific impact of service dogs as of yet, however the glowing reports from assistance dog owners speaks for itself.

As I discussed in a previous post, some 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 as they act as โ€œsocial lubricantsโ€.ย Studies have also shown that animals in fact can have a noticeable biological calming effect on people with autism as stroking animals has demonstrated a measurable drop in anxiety levels! So just by being there, autism assistance dogs are having a huge impact to the mental and social wellbeing of their human.

These dogs do however cost around โ‚ฌ15,000 to raise over two years, so if you’re thinking about applying for one, really consider yours/your childs needs first as there are many out there who could really benefit from their assistance.

Hope you enjoyed this post Earthlings! ๐Ÿ˜€ I do love it when I get an opportunity to chat about dogs! โค

Okay- maybe just one more cute pic ๐Ÿ˜‰ย ๐Ÿ˜

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Have a good weekend everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

Aoife

Levels of Autism

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Leading on from my previous posts about the different forms of autism (lesser known ASDs; Asperger’s Syndrome (AS); Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP) etc.), I’d like to talk about some changes in the classification of autism that have taken place since the introduction of the all encompassing ASD in 2013.

To recap- an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term to describe a range of neurodevelopmental disorders (such as AS, classic autism, PDD-NOS etc.).

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In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders orย DSM-5 as it is more commonly known, changed the previous diagnostic criteria to effectively subsume all previous separate diagnoses under the one term- ASD. As such, these separate diagnoses no longer exist in the eyes of psychologists.

However, in using the umbrella term without these separate diagnoses, it is difficult to determine levels of functionality among autists.

So how do we break it down?

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Autism is now classified using 3 different levels:

  • Level 1 Autism:ย Requiring Support-ย These autists have noticeable issues with socializing and communication skills. This level is characterized by:
    • decreased interest in social interactions or activities
    • capable of social engagement but may struggle with conversational give-and-take
    • difficulty with planning and organizing
    • struggles with initiating social interactions, such as talking to a person
    • obvious signs of communication difficulty
    • trouble adapting to changes in routine or behavior
  • Level 2 Autism:ย Requiring Substantial Support- Symptoms for these autists are similar to level 1, but more severe as they often lackย both verbal and nonverbal communication skills which can make daily activities difficult. These autists may also exhibit a number of behavioural problems
  • Level 3 Autism:ย Requiring Very Substantial Support- This level is where you will find the most severe cases of autism. These autists experience extreme difficulties with communication and also exhibit more signs of restrictive and repetitive behaviours than may be observed in the other levels.

The behaviours at each level can be broken down a little further than this, but these are the nuts and bolts of how autism is classified under this system.

Until recently, these updates have mainly applied to the American classification system, however in the last few weeks the global updated version of the “International Classification of Diseases” (ICD-11) now mirrors it’s US counterpart, dissolving all separate diagnoses of autism in favour of the all encompassing ASD.

So how do I feel about the dissolution of my own diagnosis?

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In many ways, this new classification system is a good thing as it will greatly benefit autists who experience greater challenges. It also allows clinicians more flexibilityย in that the clinician determines if a patient is on the spectrum using their best judgement rather than the patient fitting a specific combination of traits/reaching a set number of traits, which may benefit borderline/masking autists who are highly functioning enough to pass just under the diagnostic radar.

However, I am concerned for higher functioning autists. I would classify as Autism 1 under the new system, however, whilst I fit some of the bill for this level in my childhood, it does not describe me as well as my original diagnosis. In fact instead of benefiting an aspie, to my mind, it could in fact disable them further as the very word ‘autism’ infers a greater level of need than Asperger’s Syndrome.

Yes AS is a form of autism, but it is worlds apart from many of the lower functioning forms. If an employer for example were to hear the word’s ‘autism level 1’ or ‘high functioning autism’ rather than Asperger’s, this could have a serious disabling effect in their perception of the autist before them. Indeed, in recent years we have become a more inclusive society and are better educated about the spectrum, but for many the ‘A word’ still rings trouble.

On the other hand, the vagueness as to what classifies as support is concerning for autists at each level. Sure, this generalized approach widens the spectrum net, but we also cannot ignore the finer details and traits that ultimately determine the needs of the autist- every case is unique after all.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings- enjoy the weekend! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

Autism and Robots

Greetings Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 thisย  behaviour is not appropriate.

It’s really cool! ๐Ÿ˜€

You can check out Milo below- one of the many models of social robots helping kids with autism worldwide (try not to letย  him creep you out though, Kaspar the robot is way freakier….might have further to go in making these robots more approachable in my opinionย ๐Ÿ˜ฌ).

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!ย ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

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 ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ˜›

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Aoife

 

Non-Verbal Autism

Greetings Earthlings,

Leading on from my recent post about voice control and autism, this week I’d like to briefly talk about non-verbal autism.ย bitmoji-39779843

Granted, I cannot provide any personal insight into the matter,ย (I could never be described as non verbal ๐Ÿ˜› ), but I’ll do my best to explain it! ๐Ÿ™‚

So first things first, what is non-verbal autism?

Affecting approximately 25-50% of autists, non-verbal autism is pretty self explanatory- the autist is unable to speak.

So what causes non-verbal autism?

Again, as with most aspects of the spectrum, the cause is unclear. Non-verbal autism is highly under-researched and therefore poorly understood. However, one particular study does indicate that there may be differences in the structure of the brains of verbal and non-verbal autists in areas associated with language. Brain imaging analysis of toddlers indicated that autists who grew up to be verbal showed similar signs of activity in these areas to their neurotypical peers. Toddlers who grew up nonverbal however displayed signs of reduced brain activity in the same areas which would likely explain their struggles to formulate speech.

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With early intervention and improved techniques, many nonverbal children can now learn to speak, however, a minority of autists will remain silent. But don’t despair, technological advancements in speech generating devices are now helping to reveal the inner voice of nonverbal autists.

Take the inspirational Carly Fleischmann for example. As I have discussed previously (lesser known ASDs), Carly is a non-verbal autist…and talk show host! :O Carly never let her inability to speak to keep her from her dreams of being a talk show host ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a video of Carly in action ๐Ÿ™‚ :

 

That’s all for this week dear Earthlings! ๐Ÿ™‚

Enjoy the bank holiday weekend!! ๐Ÿ˜€

Aoife

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