Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I spent much of my time screaming inside my head- “Why does this outfit itch so much???!!!” πŸ˜›

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This is a fairly common complaint for autists when it comes to clothing.

A single sharp fiber in your skinny jeans, an irritating label on your neck, a twisted bra- the niggling is a killer to the autistic brain!

When my skin is irritated, I find it very difficult to concentrate on much else until the offending stimulus is removed. It drives me insane- especially if I’m not in a position to remove or adjust the offending item of clothing. I’ve often had to find creative ways to navigate clothing irritation when out in public such as well placed blister plasters (I did this to the irritating clasp of a lanyard once!) and toilet roll to create barriers against the fabric!

Needs must after all! πŸ˜‰

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But is my skin really this sensitive?

According to science, the answer is yes!

Research suggests that gene mutations cause problems for the sensory nerves in our hands, legs, arms, fingers and of course, the skin covering them. Mutations cause these nerves to be excessively sensitive- described by scientists as having the volume turned up to the max setting. When these nerves relay sensory information back to the brain, the brain feels the touch of certain stimuli at a heightened, exaggerated level.

Hence my internal screams! πŸ˜›

Another study, which tested the response of autists and neurotypicals to sensory stimuli (e.g. a scratchy wool jumper) in a brain scanner, found that the autistic brain reacts more strongly. The primary cortex of the brain (involved in sensory processing) and the amygdala (involved in emotional regulation) were both hyperactive during this experiment, suggesting that autists a) process sensory input differently, and b) struggle to regulate their emotional response to stimuli.

So what can you do to help an autist with sensitive skin?

This is a tough one to advise. Sensitivities vary from person to person. Some may favour loose clothing, others enjoy the comfort of tight clothes which provide calming deep pressure. In my experience, the best tip that I can offer is to use a seam ripper to properly remove labels (the remnants of the tag can be just as irritating). After that, trial and error is the best way to find out what works for you/or your child πŸ™‚

Some days, sensitive skin can be a pain (especially where undergarments are concerned πŸ˜› ), but hey- it also makes puppies all the fluffier! πŸ˜‰

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! πŸ™‚

Aoife

Autism Management- Fidget Spinners

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to take a look at the latest craze- Fidget Spinners. I couldn’t take more than 50 steps in Dublin the other day without someone trying to sell me one! πŸ˜›

So what exactly are they?

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In case you’ve been living under a rock, Fidget Spinners are a handheld device where the centre is held between your fingers and you spin the device. They come in all shapes and sizes and are designed to relieve stress.

Here’s a video discussing them and some of the crazy things that people have been using them for:

But what have Fidget Spinners got to do with autism?

Whilst they may have only surged in popularity in recent months, Fidget Spinners were actually invented in the 1990’s to help people who have trouble focusing, such as those with ADHD, anxiety and autism, to channel excess nervous energy and stress into the spinning device. The thinking is that by diverting the excess energy into a physical action, this frees up certain areas of the brain from distraction, allowing you to better pay attention. It is also thought that fidgeting can relieve the brain of negative and obsessive thoughts.

But do they really work?

Opinions are polarizing as to whether or not they actually help. There is very little scientific evidence to support these claims. Of the studies that are out there, most focus on general fidgeting such as foot tapping, where it has been shown that movement can help to maintain alertness and improve working memory, but there are no studies specific to the Fidget Spinner itself.

Some experts warn that these toys may actually prove to be even more of a distraction for people with attention disorders.Β In theory, the toys occupy the hands so that you can focus your mind on the lesson (like stress balls), however, experts believe that the visually pleasing spin of the blades could add a further element of distraction.

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For teachers, they are proving to be a distracting nightmare in the classroom with many banning the device.

As opinions are divided, I decided to get one for myself and, pardon the pun, give it a whirl πŸ˜‰

There is definitely something oddly satisfying about holding the device between your fingers as it whirs into life, and there have been several moments where I’veΒ felt the addictive urge to spin it throughout the day.

However, I did not find it soothing from an anxiety perspective. In fact it actually really annoyed me when it would stop spinning and I would have to get the rotors spinning again! πŸ˜› I also found that it didn’t substitute as a calming “stim” and that I still reached to fidget with my necklace whilst I was using the Fidget Spinner!

That being said, autism is a spectrum where no two are alike. The Fidget Spinner may not work for me, but it could still be a nifty little tool to help manage ADHD and anxiety in another autist πŸ™‚

So by all means, go on! Give it a spin!! πŸ˜‰

(I have got to stop with these terrible puns… πŸ˜› )

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Aoife

Autism 101-Sensory Processing

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

So today I’m going to briefly introduce you to the issue of sensory processing for people on the spectrum. This is a very broad topic, but I’ll expand on the issues in more detail at a later stage πŸ™‚

Many individuals on the autistic spectrum struggle to process every day sensory information. Sounds, textures, smells, lights, even colours (boys in particular struggle to process the colour yellow) can overload the nervous system and greatly upset us, effect our behavior or even trigger a meltdown.

But why?

In autism, our senses can be either hyper or hypo sensitive (sometimes even both) to stimuli at different times. Our senses are heightened- smells are stronger, sounds are louder. As a result of this, stimuli reverberate all the more intensely in our brains.

Think of the brain as a computer server at exam time where everyone is logging in at once. Too much information has been entered into the system, but the server can only cope with so much. The entire system becomes overwhelmed and the server crashes.

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Here’s just a quick video simulation of sensory overload.

Warning for those on the spectrumthis video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud, sudden noises

For me personally, I have many (mild) issues with sensory processing. Smells, tastes and textures are a daily struggle. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat a salad as the smell alone makes me want to throw up- I’m dreading what pregnancy may one day bring! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Loud or irritating Β noises, (especially repetitive ones), too can be a challenge. Don’t get me started on the shock I get when a passing bus makes that giant hiss/woosh sound or a car honks the horn unexpectedly!! πŸ˜›

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Most days, you’re lucky and the offending stimulus passes quickly, but other times it can get the better of you. I recently had a near meltdown on holiday from a cocktail of excessive heat, hunger, exhaustion and social frustration.

Top Tip– Keep on top of your hunger/thirst. I’ve discovered this past year that an excess of either will make me act really loopy! πŸ˜›

When you’re hit by sensory overload, it feels as though your head is caught in a vice grip. Your mind is screaming, unable to focus on anything else but the source of discomfort.

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The worst part of it I find is coming across as a complete basket case when overloaded. You don’t get the most sympathetic of looks when you complain about a persistent noise- few can understand how it’s making your brain hurt.

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So what does science have to say about sensory processing?

Sensory integration involves three basic sensory systems:

  • The tactile system (touch)- comprises a series of nerves passing information from the skin to the brain
  • The vestibular system (sound)- comprises a series of structures in the inner ear involved in movement detection
  • The proprioceptive system-a series of receptors in the muscle (proprioreceptors) which feed information to the brain about the body’s position

These three systems share a close but complicated relationship which allow us to experience, process and respond to different stimuli. Dysfunction in this network can cause hyper/hypo sensitivity, in addition to problems with coordination, behavior and academic issues.

Evidence from brain imaging studies has also shown that autists experience stronger responses in the brain to sensory stimuli in areas that process sensory information and the amygdala- an area that is involved in attention, emotional reactions and threat response.

But why is this?

Several studies have found evidence of hyper-excitability and hyper-connectivity in the autistic brain.

Evidence shows that in many cases of autism, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain are more sensitive and excitable than others. This is kind of like how a person can be more ticklish in some parts of the body than another- the nerves in the underarm are more excitable than those of the arm.

The autistic brain has also shown signs of hyper-connectivity, where regions of the brain are excessively connected- like an overloaded plug!

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This amplifies memory formation, sensory processing and causes an autist to be hyper-emotional, which can make the world painfully intense. Scientists have theorized that autists prefer safe, controlled and predictable environments as a coping mechanism to actively avoid this pain.

Finally, studies have indicated that sensory issues, in addition to a number of other autistic behaviors, may be linked to neurotransmitter (chemical messengers between body and brain) levels in the body. As previously discussed, some neurotransmittersΒ are dysregulated in autism. Evidence suggests that in cases of autism, there are higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters, and lower levels of inhibitory (i.e. calming) neurotransmitters. These high levels of excitatory neurotransmitters cause neurons to fire excessively, which can influence sensory perception and processing.

I’ll expand a little bit more on the individual sensory issues at a later stage πŸ™‚

Enjoy your week everyone πŸ™‚

Aoife

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