Autism and Alexithymia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’d like to briefly elaborate on something that I’ve touched on in previous posts– autism and alexithymia.

So what exactly is alexithymia?

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Alexithymia is a personality trait wherein an autist may struggle to identify and describe emotions in themselves and in others. We feel emotions just like everyone else, we just aren’t always aware of what it is we are feeling. It can be incredibly frustrating (ironically I’ve often struggled to identify this emotion in the past πŸ˜› ) knowing that you feel something but not having a clue how to verbalize it or process it properly. I’ve honestly spent days going “The thing is…it’s just…um..I dunno!” round and round my mind until I can figure out what it is I’m feeling!

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Thankfully as I’ve gotten older this happens less and less frequently.

Aoife’s Top Tip: as I’ve discussed previously, music can be quite beneficial when dealing with alexithymia. If I can’t identify an emotion, I tend to gravitate towards songs that sound like what I’m feeling or a particular lyric that resonates with my experience which can help get you past a rough patch πŸ™‚

As many as 85% of autists may have varying degrees of alexithymia, but is there a scientific explanation for it?

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The science remains unclear, however some neurological studies may provide us with some clues.

Early studies proposed that there is a breakdown in communication along the corpus callosum between the emotional right and the logical left hemispheres of the brain when emotional information is transferred to the language regions of the brain. In one third of autists, the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerves which connect the hemispheres) is either partially or completely missing which could explain the struggles to identify emotions. Another study suggests that dysfunction in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain may contribute to alexithymia, an area of the brain associated with empathy that appears to be weakly activated in social situations in autists.

So try not to judge us too harshly when we struggle to show empathy πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Enjoy the weekend! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Keep the Change

 

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! 😲

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 πŸ™‚

Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ˜€

Aoife

Making Assumptions about Autism

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

I had intended to write a different post this week, however, after watching the most recent episode of ABC’s acclaimed ‘The Good Doctor‘ (a TV show that follows a surgical resident with autism), I’d like to talk a little bit about making assumptions about an autist and their abilities.

Just in case any of you are fans and are not up to date look away now *spoiler alert.*

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*Spoiler* In recent episodes, the new chief of surgery has made the decision to remove Shaun (aka the ‘Good Doctor’) from the surgical program following a minor social miscommunication with a patient, and place him in pathology, refusing point blank to get to know him or give him his job back. Naturally, this did not help Shaun’s mental state and need for routine, which ultimately led to the mother of all meltdowns and his subsequent firing from the hospital.

It was a nice bit of acting by Freddie Highmore if you’d like to see a clip following his firing:

Spoiler over!

Now it’s not often that I really feel a connection with Shaun (as we are very different in a lot of ways- no two autists are the same after all!), but this episode got me right in the feels.

Shaun’s predicament was one that I knew all too well. Shortly after my diagnosis I encountered a similar scenario in my career where assumptions were made about my abilities. Once the ‘A’ word was on the table, my employers opinion of me changed overnight, but alas, not to my benefit. Suddenly I found myself adrift in career limbo because someone jumped straight to the conclusion without stopping to discuss.

This is something that we’re all guilty of, not just employers. We hear the word ‘autism’ and suddenly our brain paints a picture. We see traits that may not be there, we imagine difficulties that may not even exist, we make assumptions on a persons character, interests, idiosyncrasies etc. based on what we know of autism without first taking time to see the person in front of us.

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I’m worn out trying to tell people that no two autists are the same! Yes, there are similarities and common traits, but just because John hates to be touched, doesn’t mean that Mary automatically hates hugs. She may love them- but if the assumption is made you’ll never get to find out.

We cannot make assumptions on an autists ability. We need to educate ourselves, get to know a person, take time to see the person beyond the diagnosis. What I need is different to what Shaun the ‘Good Doctor’ needs; who I am and what I can do are worlds apart from him. Shaun is a skilled surgeon that sometimes struggles with communication, I’m an outgoing sciencey-artsy type who never shuts up, yet most people on hearing the word ‘autism’ would tar us with the same brush.

When it comes to autism, you can never judge a book by it’s cover-but especially don’t make an assumption as stupid as this one πŸ˜› :

https://www.betootaadvocate.com/uncategorized/i-took-my-autistic-mate-to-the-casino-and-lost-17000-in-ten-minutes/

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Until next time!

Aoife

Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Did you know– autistic children have higher levels of depressive symptoms and are 28 times more likely to have thoughts of suicide than their neurotypical counterparts? 😲

bitmoji1256098968In recent years our awareness of and willingness to tackle mental health issues has increased significantly, however, the autistic community is often forgotten in our discussions.

Mental health issues such as OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADD, psychosis, personality disorders and bipolar disorder are frequently co-morbid with ASD diagnoses, but aside from OCD and anxiety, you will rarely hear about these other issues in relation to autism. In fact, such mental health issues can even obscure ASD diagnoses in higher functioning autists as clinicians often diagnose the co-morbid condition without seeing the underlying ASD.

This is a particularly big issue for women on the spectrum as experts have found that we tend to exhibit greater depressive symptoms and higher anxiety levels than our male counterparts as we tend to internalize and ‘mask‘ our struggles. Moreover due to differences between male and female presentation of ASD’s and male bias in the development of the diagnostic criteria, women with autism are often misdiagnosed as having mental health issues, but the root ASD continues to evade.

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But are there any scientific reasons why mental health issues are so prevalent among autists?

A recently published study has suggested that perhaps the gut may influence an autists mental health. As gastrointestinal issues are often co-morbid with an ASD diagnosis, and as the microbes that live in the gut can have an influence on the brain and behaviours, it has been proposed that perhaps a “dysbiosis” or imbalance in gut microbes may have an influence on an autists mental health 😲

Interestingly studies have also identified an overlap between the genes that cause schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism wherein certain points on these genes encode proteins that are involved in the formation and strength ofΒ synapses (which act as chemical bridges between neurons) suggesting that these disorders may act through a similar neurological pathway. Moreover, dysregulation of neurotransmitters (biochemical messengers in the brain) has also been implicated in depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD and autism (as we have discussed in multiple previous posts) indicating further neurological overlaps.

In short, it seems that the biological basis of both autism and mental health issues are intertwined, which could explain why so often the two walk hand in hand.

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism and Handwriting

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! 😎), 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! πŸ˜› ). 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!🀷)

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Climate Change

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! 😲)

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As a scientist, I’m all for finding ways to reverse the impact of climate change,Β  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! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰ ). 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 πŸ˜›

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 πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Have a wonderful weekend!

Aoife

Autism and Catatonia

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So this week I’d like to talk about a rare condition that affects approximately 12-18% of autistic adults- autistic catatonia.

But what exactly is this when it’s at home?

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Autistic catatonia is a neuropsychiatric condition that causes abnormalities in behaviours, speech and motor functions with varying degrees of severity. In other words, it’s a form of autistic breakdown- one that is often misdiagnosed.

There are over 40 symptoms associated with the condition, many of which overlap with autistic symptoms and traits, so it can be quite challenging to diagnose- even for the most experienced professionals in the field. Symptoms may include mutism, hyperactivity, immobility, stupor, agitation, odd repetitive movements and echolalia.Β Due to the overlap in symptoms, it’s thought that this condition may be far more prevalent among autists than we realize.

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But what causes it?

As with autism, it’s cause too remains a mystery, however it is thought that vitamin deficiencies, trauma, infection and co-morbid disorders such as schizophrenia and biopolar disorder may contribute to it.

So how do we treat it?

There are currently no cures for autistic catatonia, however a number of therapies have been used to manage symptoms such as antidepressants, muscle relaxers, benzodiazapines (such as Lorazepam) and anti psychotics. Electroconvulsive therapy (shock therapy), brain stimulation and NMDA receptor antagonists (a class of anesthetic drugs that are often used recreationally e.g ketamine, nitrous oxide, PCP and the heroin substitute methadone) have also been controversially used to treat catatonia.

There is limited research in this area at present as to how best to treat autistic catatonia, however a psychological approach to treat underlying stress and anxieties which may trigger catatonia is thought to be the best.

Whilst there is no cure, as in the case of autism, with early detection and intervention the condition can be managed πŸ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings and that you’re Christmas preparations are coming along nicely πŸ™‚

Aoife

 

Autism and Going Away to College

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ˜€

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 πŸ˜₯ )Β  It’s a great way to meet like minded people, make new friends and give you a break from the books πŸ™‚ 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! πŸ˜› )
  • 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 πŸ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dearest Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

Autism Assistance/Service Dogs

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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

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❀

Just look at him!!! 😍

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! πŸ˜‚).

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, Β 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!! 😍

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 β€œsocial lubricants”.Β 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 €15,000 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! πŸ˜€ I do love it when I get an opportunity to chat about dogs! ❀

Okay- maybe just one more cute pic πŸ˜‰Β πŸ˜

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Have a good weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

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