Autism and Mental Health

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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 of 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! 🙂

Until next time!

Aoife

 

 

Autism 101- Coordination

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk to you about coordination difficulties and the spectrum.

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Did you know: Roughly 80% of autists have issues with motor coordination?

And I am no exception! 😛

To be honest, I needn’t even write anything for this post- a host of gifs would fairly accurately sum up my experiences of coordination! 😛

 

I drop things more easily, I fall over a LOT, bump into things, walk sideways into people I’m walking alongside, fumble a little longer with buttons, laces, hair clips etc. People have often thought I’ve been drunk on nights out (although I don’t drink) when coordination trouble presents itself- giddyness has a habit of rendering me less coordinated for some reason! 😛

These incidents happen so often it becomes another part of daily life- you trip over your feet for no reason, laugh and keep walking! 😛

You might think I’m exaggerating but it happens all the time! Even my dogs have noticed- I once fell flat on my face on a walk and my normally attentive German Shepherd just stood and laughed, waiting for me to get back up! 😛

I’ve always been a little slower than my peers when it comes to mastering my finer motor skills. From my very first skip I’ve struggled with my coordination issues.

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My mother often reminds me of how I used to screw my face up in concentration after dance classes in my attempts to master the skill. I would try and try and try to skip around the room, but kept falling over my own two feet!

Don’t get me started on the struggle to add in a skipping rope! 😛

But nevertheless, each time I fell, I got back up again and persisted until I mastered it- and then you couldn’t keep me from skipping!

This has always been my experience of coordination. I struggle a little bit longer than my peers to develop my motor skills, but with persistence, master them I will. Tying my shoelaces, riding a bike, learning to drive, knitting- all these skills took time to master, but I got there in the end 🙂

Now if I could just master walking in heels, I’d be flying! 😛 😉

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Top tip– Keeping on top of sleep, thirst and hunger can really help to keep your coordination in check. In addition to acting loopy if I fall victim to these, I find that my equilibrium can also be affected.

But what do scientists have to say about these coordination issues?

The underlying cause of these issues is poorly understood, however, recent studies suggest that motor coordination issues in autism are likely linked to abnormal neural connections in the brain. Remember the synapse (or connecting junction point between two neurons) which we discussed last week? Autist’s have an overabundance of these bad boys compared with normally developing peers.

So how does the synapse affect motor coordination?

Motor learning and control is influenced by a specific group of neurons known as purkinje cells. Purkinje cells, (located in the cerebellum- an area heavily involved in motor control), receive signals from climbing fibers- a type of neuron which carries information from the body to the brain. These climbing fibers detect changes or disturbances in our environment, such as changes in space or the position of nearby objects, and relay this information to the purkinje cells. Purkinje cells then emit inhibitory signals at synapses so to modify motor movements accordingly.

In autism however, the efficacy of purkinje cells to influence motor change is greatly reduced.

Normally, each purkinje cell receives input from a single climbing fiber. Autists have too many synapses connecting the brain, and so the purkinje cell receives signals from multiple climbing fibers. This confuses the purkinje cell, which in turn alters the efficacy of corrective signals. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the more people involved (i.e. synapses and climbing fibers), the more the message get’s lost in translation.

To give an example, if you were walking along and someone threw a ball at you, climbing fibers will alert the purkinje cells to tell the body to move out of the way. In autism….well, the signal to do this get’s scrambled on route to the brain, aaaaand… you’ll likely get hit in the face! 😛

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^^^^Story of my life right here! 😛

At the end of the day, whilst coordination problems can be incredibly frustrating, persist and you will get there 🙂

Never give up- ride that bike, drive that car, skip like there’s no tomorrow!! Autism only limits us if we allow ourselves to be limited 🙂

Aoife

Inside the Autistic Brain

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to dive into the physiology of the autistic brain to explain what’s actually going on at the neurological level. I’ve touched on aspects of the science in previous posts, but I wanted to give you a quick overview post where the main points in the one place 🙂

So let’s get down to some science! 🙂

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Hyper-connected Neurons:

Scientific evidence suggests that neurons in the autistic brain are hyper-connected. Specifically, studies indicate that autists have too many synapses in the brain. The synapse is basically a gap or a junction between two neurons where chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) carry information like a ferry from one neuron to the next. It looks a little bit like this:

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During normal brain development, about half of the synapses we are born with are “pruned” off. In autism, this process is slowed down, and so autistic children have an excessive amount of synapses compared with their neurotypical peers. As these connections are essential to communication between neurons, this can greatly effect how the brain works and processes information.

Dysfunction at the Junction:

In addition to possessing an excessive number of synapses, communication at these neuronal junctions is also impaired in the autistic brain.

Animal studies have indicated that synapses function differently in the autistic brain as a result of genetic mutation. Mutations cause certain proteins to be absent in autism- proteins that are essential to the normal functioning of the synapse. As a consequence of this, the transmission of information between neurons is affected, resulting in a number of social and behavioral issues.

Think of physical junctions on a busy road- if something goes wrong at the junction, a chain of chaos will ensue!

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Hyper-excitable Neurons:

Research shows that in many cases of autism, neurons in certain regions of the brain are more excitable than others. This means that these neurons are more sensitive to stimulation. For example, the neurons located in the sensory cortex of the brain (which processes sensory information such as smell), are more sensitive and excitable than other neurons. 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.

This sensitizes the autistic brain to all kinds of stimuli as discussed here.

Dysregulated Neurotransmitter levels:

As previously mentioned, information travels across the synapses in the brain via chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters. In the autistic brain, the levels of these neurotransmitters are dysregulated- or out of sync. Research indicates that individuals with autism tend to have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g. glutamic acid) and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters (e.g. GABA, serotonin) causing neurons in the autistic brain to fire excessively. In addition to this, levels of the neurohormone (a chemical that acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter) oxytocin, which plays an influential role in trust and social behaviours, are also out of balance. Moreover, dopamine (a neurotransmitter which can both calm and excite) is also dysregulated in autism. Together, the action of biochemicals like these influences a number of autistic behaviours and issues such as ADHD, mood, appetite, sleep, anxiety, sensory processing, social behaviours, learning, memory and emotional responses.

Male vs Female Brain

Perhaps one of the most fascinating  things that I have discovered about autism are the anatomical differences between the brains of the male and female autist. Brain imaging studies have revealed that autistic women have brains that are anatomically similar to neurotypical male brains, and the brains of male autists share anatomical similarities to those of neurotypical female brains.

In short- this indicates that men with autism have feminine brains, and women with autism have masculine brains!!!

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I know!!!!

It sounds weird, but it makes a world of sense. Oftentimes I’ve felt like I had a male brain growing up- my tomboyish interests, my fashion sense, my preference for male company, my inability to walk in heels; it all fits!

Strange but true! 🙂

There we have it Earthlings- hope you enjoyed this brief insight into the physiology of the autistic brain 🙂 There is no clear mechanism through which autism acts, these are just some of the likely pathways involved. I’ll explore other possible mechanisms in a later post.

Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

 

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