Repetitive Behaviours- Skin Picking

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to give you an insight into a particular form of repetitive behaviour- skin picking.

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Ok- I know it sounds disgusting, but it is common for those with autism! The statistics are limited, but as many as 14.8% of autists exhibit this type of behaviour.

Skin picking, also known as neurotic excoriation or dermatotillomania  (I really do like the sound of these terms! 😀 ), is characterized by excessive rubbing, scratching, digging, squeezing and gouging of healthy skin. In chronic cases, the urge to pick and scratch can lead to scarring, tissue damage and infection.

If I were you though I probably wouldn’t look the condition up…some of the pictures of these chronic cases are disgusting!

In my own experience, I have a mild tendency towards skin picking. I prod and poke at bites and burns, pick at cuts and scabs etc., but squeezing my skin would be my biggest issue- I find it so addictive and it can be quite hard to stop! I also have a particular tendency to press hard against injured skin, like pinching an infected finger or pressing a sore toe against a hard surface- for some odd reason I find it comforting! It hurts, but I feel better about the injury after doing it. I suppose it must link back to the calming sensation of deep pressure stimulation or something!

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Now before we call the men in the white coats, let’s see if there’s a physiological reason for all of this! 😛

Research suggests that the dopamine pathway may play a particular role in this behaviour.

Dopamine is involved in reward motivated behaviours in the brain. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine activate dopamine, which is thought to contribute to the sensation of skin crawling and subsequent picking often experienced by addicts. So experts believe that dopamine dysfunction may be at play in this behaviour.

As I’ve discussed in other posts (sleep, ADHD, curiosity, inside the autistic brain etc.) dopamine is often dysregulated in the case of autism, so it stands to reason that this neurotransmitter may play an important role in skin picking behaviour in ASD’s.

Other experts point to a psychological reason for the behaviour as there is a strong link between skin picking and co-morbid psychiatric diseases. Skin picking is thought to act as a form of  communication in times of stress in the case of autism and is believed by some to act as a sensory outlet for sensory stimulation and or soothing.

Furthermore, as I’ve previously discussed, we autists tend to have more sensitive skin than the average person, this too could influence our tendency towards picking and scratching our skin.

Ah- so I’m not crazy after all! 😉

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But is there anything we can do to manage it?

Dermatologists and physicians find this one particularly difficult to treat and often seek drug and behavioural interventions to counter skin picking.

For me personally, this is difficult to advise as the reasons for picking differ from person to person, annnnnnd I tend to indulge the behaviour rather than avoid it 😛

However, I have been making conscious attempts to reduce the frequency in recent years to help protect my skin, and to avoid looking like a weirdo in public! Don’t want people thinking I have fleas if I persistently keep scratching myself!

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The best advice that I can give is to keep your hands busy- if they’re occupied, you won’t pick! Gaming and crafting I find can be useful to keep my hands from wandering 🙂

So there we are Earthlings! 🙂 Hope I didn’t disgust you all with this post! 😛

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

Sleep and Autism

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Did you know that between 40% and 80% of autists reportedly have sleep problems?

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I have spent many a restless night tossing and turning whilst my mind races. Like a washing machine on the highest spin setting, my mind keeps going round and around when I turn out the lights.

This is a fairly accurate (and cute) representation of my efforts to sleep at night:

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I struggle to get comfy and start thinking and stressing about my day, about tomorrow, about that embarrassing time when I got an answer wrong in class and everyone laughed at me…and it keeps rolling on in a similar never-ending loop. The pillow starts heating up (did you know that thoughts produce heat? ), I start stressing about not sleeping and how soon the alarm will go off, get frustrated and inadvertently end up even more awake than before!

Eventually I pass out, and when the sun comes up the next morning…

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….I wake up feeling like death in a tangle of bedclothes, wearing my sheet as a scarf! 😛

It doesn’t happen every night, but on occasion, especially if I have to be somewhere important or catch a bus early the next morning. I spend so much time thinking about needing sleep that I end up chasing away any tiredness! 😛

But why are we prone to disturbed sleeping patterns?

As with many aspects of autism, it’s unclear why exactly we struggle with sleep, but the experts have a few theories on the subject:

  • Melatonin, the hormone which controls sleep and wakefulness, is thought to contribute to sleep issues in autism. The amino acid tryptophan is needed for the body to produce melatonin, an amino acid which research has shown can be either higher or lower than normal in people with autism. Ordinarily melatonin is released in response to darkness (to induce sleep) with levels dropping during daylight hours (to keep us awake). However, studies have shown the opposite in some autists, where higher levels of melatonin are released during the daytime and lower levels at night. So that explains why I’m often inexplicably dying for a nap in the middle of the day!                                                   sleepy.png
  • Sensory issues are also thought to contribute to these sleep problems. Many autists have an increased sensitivity to such stimuli as touch, light, noises, etc. During my first year in college I became somewhat of an insomniac due to city noises, late night fire alarms and paper thin walls…
  • A number of autists, such as myself, are night owls. Recent brain imaging scans have shown that there are physical differences in the brains of night owls and morning larks. Night owls show signs of reduced integrity in the white matter of the brain (fatty tissue that enables brain cells to communicate with each). This compromises the speed of transmission between neurons which can cause insomnia, daytime sleepiness, antisocial personality disorder and interfere with cognitive functioning. Differences in the integrity of white matter have been linked to ASD’s, so this could explain why we struggle to sleep at night. But it’s not all bad- some studies have shown that night owls are more productive, have more stamina and can display greater analytical and reasoning abilities than morning larks! 🙂
  • Anxiety problems are also thought to contribute to troubled sleeping

So what can you do to improve your sleep?bitmoji-330321839.png

Weighted blankets are often recommended to help manage autism. As I’ve discussed previously, autists have higher levels of stimulatory neurotransmitters and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters. Weighted blankets contain metal or plastic beads in the quilted layers to apply deep, calming pressure to the user- like simulating a hug. This pressure is designed to stimulate the release of serotonin (which helps regulate the sleep cycle and temperature) and dopamine to relax and calm the mind and to better help us to sleep.

Some studies have shown that weighted blankets do not noticeably improve sleep for autists, however many people, neurotypical and neurodiverse alike, have found that they get a much better night’s sleep from using them- so it’s worth a try!

I’m dying to try one myself, so I’ll let you know how I find it if I do! 🙂

Personally, I’ve discovered that using screens too close to bed time can make it harder for me to nod off at night. Scientists have found that the blue light emitted by most screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to fall asleep. If melatonin disturbances are indeed contributing to your sleep issues, it would be wise to decrease screen time in the night time.

Aoife’s Top Tip: Ditch the laptop before bed, read a book instead! 😉

Experts also recommend avoiding caffeine, getting more exercise, establishing a routine and taking measures to manage stress.

In my experience, stress management is key to getting a good nights sleep. My memories of being an angsty teenager are littered with sleepless nights spent fretting about everything! Once I got on top of my stress, peaceful sleep was quick to follow 🙂

Sleep will come, you just have to find what works for you.

Goodnight dear Earthlings, I’m feeling a nap coming on 😉

Enjoy the weekend!

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Aoife

Autism Management- Fidget Spinners

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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! 😛

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. 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 😉

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’ve 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! 😛 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 🙂

So by all means, go on! Give it a spin!! 😉

(I have got to stop with these terrible puns… 😛 )

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Aoife

Autism and Phones

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

So a little bit different today- I know the title is unusual! 😛

But the prospect of talking on the phone is something that fills many an autist with dread!

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But why does this seemingly innocuous device strike fear into our hearts?

My relationship with phones is complicated.

On the one hand, I enjoy chatting to my family and friends on the phone; on the other, talking on the phone feels soooo AWKWARD to me!

As if reading a person isn’t hard enough, but when you can’t see them? It really adds to your social anxiety. You can’t tell if they’re bored or if  you’re cutting across them, not to mention dealing with heavy accents, bad signal and awkward silences- the stress is a killer!

Worse still when someone asks you to answer their phone!

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I don’t mind answering too much if it’s someone I already know, but when it’s a stranger….

What do I say?

What if the person on the other end thinks I’m them?

How long will I have to talk until they can take the phone away from me??

AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

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It makes me feel beyond awkward answering someone elses phone!

Not to mention the awkwardness of dealing with telemarketers and scammers…I try to brush them off and don’t want to be rude… but then when they keep pushing their product on you, I feel too awkward not to listen! I just sit there burning up, waiting for an appropriate opportunity to tell them ‘no’ and run! 😛

Sometimes I just want nothing more than to throw my phone at the wall! 😛

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I will do everything that I can to avoid calling someone, if at all possible. I will email, text, Whats App, Facebook etc. before I will ever go near my phone. If the phone rings in the house and I’m closest to it, I have been known to get up and leave the room for the bathroom to force someone else to pick up the receiver! 😛

This meme is a pretty accurate transcription of actual conversations I’ve had with my mother 😛

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Over the years however, I have gotten more comfortable with the phone. When I was younger, I never really knew how to act appropriately on the phone. When someone asked to speak to another member of the house, I would freeze up and throw the phone at that person while the caller was still talking! 😛

Since then, I’ve gradually developed my phone etiquette and learned to relax a little more when answering the phone. Practice makes perfect I suppose 🙂

Making calls can still be a little tricky.

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A lot of it is tied up in the anxiety of not being able to see the person on the other end. When you initiate a conversation in real life, you know if the person is amenable to talking. If I call them however, my brain starts worrying about disturbing them if they’re busy or whether they really want to talk to me or not.

And then there’s the added stress of “I’ll call you back,” and the panic that ensues when they don’t.

“Did they forget?

Did they not want to talk to me?

Oh God, do I need to call them back???!!”

But as you grow older, these worries begin to fade. You just have to take a deep breath, press call and go for it! 🙂

An email is not going to fix your internet (for obvious reasons 😛 ) or secure your hair cut! 😉

Top Tip: It helps to remind yourself when calling strangers that they can’t see you, they don’t know you so they can’t judge you if you say something stupid 😉

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Driving

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Soooo….driving…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how exactly does autism impact our driving?

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

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

Here are some useful links with driving tips for autists:

Click to access Driving1.pdf

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

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

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

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

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Aoife

Autism 101- Shutdowns

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Leading on from the previous post, I’d like to talk to you about shutdowns and autism.

So what exactly is a shutdown?

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A shutdown is basically an episode where the brain briefly stops processing and making sense of information in response to stress or sensory overload.

The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

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These episodes are much more discrete than meltdowns, and can often go unnoticed by the outside world. Sometimes meltdowns can turn into shutdowns and vice versa.

So what does a shutdown feel like?

Like meltdowns, shutdowns can manifest differently among autists. Some people go completely limp and unresponsive, some withdraw completely from those around them, some even become really sleepy and nod off.

For me personally, a shutdown is like entering a state of shock. You might struggle to move (as discussed in my diagnosis story), formulate sentences, or even think. It can be a completely overwhelming experience. When I first started to become aware of them as a teenager, I had no idea what was going on; I just knew that I felt, for lack of a better word, “wrong”.

Like meltdowns, in my experience, shutdowns can be either mild or severe:

Mild shutdowns tend to happen in social situations, especially in confrontation. Someone throws me off or says something that I hadn’t anticipated…aaaannnd my mind freezes up. I go limp and say nothing, whilst the other person talks on oblivious. To an outsider it looks like I’m just listening or defeated by an argument; in reality, my brain can’t formulate the words to respond.

The minute the conversation ends my brain reboots and suddenly all that I could or should have said comes rushing back- great timing! 😛

Severe shutdowns, like meltdowns, are brought on by serious stress, or a shock. Think of your brain like a computer that’s been attacked by a virus. The system get’s overwhelmed by the attack and needs to shuts down to recover. When this happens, it feels as though I’ve been locked out of my own brain.

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However, unlike a meltdown situation, I’m locked out yes, but the brain hasn’t been hijacked. I’m not in a state of total control, but I’m not out of control either- a little bit purgatorial in nature.

It’s a very odd sensation.

I find myself in an overwhelming situation and fail to react. I know that I don’t feel right about the situation, so I try to break down what happened and process. However, when I go to think about the event, it’s as if a firewall has gone up and all of the files in my brain have been encrypted. You keep trying to access your files so you can run a scan to diagnose the problem, but your brain keeps locking you out.

It feels sooo weird, like my mind is flashing this giant ‘NOPE’ sign at me every time I try to think! 😛

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^^^accurate representation of my “access denied” face 😛 😉

During a particularly bad shutdown, I once spent about 5 minutes of going “um…ah… what it is… er…you see…uh” down the phone to my mother before I could coherently form a sentence to tell her what had happened. My mind simply refused to let me go there!

But why do shutdowns happen?

There’s not a lot of information out there as to the biological cause of shutdowns, but experts seem to think that it is the result of an abnormal stress response like the meltdown, possibly linked to the high and persistent levels of stress hormones in autism. Some have theorized that the shutdown is almost a preventative form of meltdown wherein the autist shuts down to prevent further sensory input and injury- like playing dead to avoid a fight.

Shutdowns can be difficult, but you just have to give them time to pass 🙂

Top Tip: Like a meltdown, you can sometimes speed up a shut down through music. Animals are also particularly good to release the hold of a shut down. My dogs always seem to sense when something’s wrong with me- a concerned look from them will often get the waterworks flowing 🙂

Remember- your brain needs time to recover after a stressful incident- there’s a reason you need to leave your computer a few minutes rest after a reboot 🙂 😉

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Enjoy the bank holiday weekend! 🙂

Aoife

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