Autism on Screen- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

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! πŸ™‚

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Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Enjoy the weekend!

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Pablo

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

Today I’m going to take a look at the latest live-action/animation sensation, the acclaimed children’s TV show ‘Pablo‘.

Pablo is a five-year-old boy on the autistic spectrum in a new TV show (BBC/PA)

So what’s so special about it?

Co-produced by RTΓ‰jr and CBeebies in Ireland and the UK, ‘Pablo‘ is a unique kids TV show about a 5 and a 1/2 year old boy with autism who with the help of some magic crayons, creates an elaborate world of animals to help him to cope with and make sense of the world around him.

Here’s a quick video about the show:

The really cool thing about ‘Pablo‘ is that the stories are based on the real life experiences of several people on the spectrum, and not only that, but all of the characters in the show themselves have autism! πŸ˜€

52 10-minute episodes have been created thus far, and several countries have expressed interest in broadcasting the show. Even Netflix wants to broadcast it!

So what’s the show like?

Granted I’ve only caught a few episodes of the show, but I found it to be an excellent and lighthearted show that both educates and entertains.

One of the things I really liked is that the show highlights the diverse nature of spectrum traits by personifying them as animal characters in Pablo’s imagination. Each character possesses different autistic traits as narrated in the catchy theme tune:

I really liked how in one particular episode the writer took literal thinking and turned it into something fun. Pablo spilled a bag of crisps which his mother said “went everywhere.” Following this, Pablo embarks on an adventure to locate the crisps in such far reaching places as the moon and at the bottom of the ocean! A new and inventive way to spin autism! πŸ™‚

All in all this is an excellent show for the youth of today which should help to educate the next generation and make them more accepting of autism πŸ™‚

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings!

Have a great weekend!

Aoife

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

 

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