Autism and “Stimming”

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’d like to touch on one of the most commonly observed autistic behaviours- “stimming”.

So what exactly is “stimming?”

Self-stimulatory behaviour, (also known as stereotypy or “stimming”), refers to many of the repetitive behaviours often exhibited by autists. Examples of these behaviours include scratching or rubbing the skin, noise making, smelling objects and the classic examples of rocking and  hand flapping, although in my experience it’s a lot more like ‘Jazz hands’ than flapping!

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There are two psychological theories as to why autists stim:

  • As a response to overwhelming sensory stimuli
  • As a means of relieving stress and anxiety

From a physiological perspective, there are a number of possible biological reasons.

Some researchers believe that stimming provides the autist with sensory stimulation. Contrary to common belief, many people with autism have a reduced sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli. Dysfunctions in the circuitry of the brain mean that the body craves sensory stimulation, and so we adapt repetitive behaviours in order to stimulate and excite our nervous system.

Deficits in dopamine levels in the brain can also interfere with our reward pathways, leading autists to engage in behaviours, such as stimming, which will provide the extra hit of dopamine that the brain needs.

So that’s why I’m drawn to fluffy things! 😉

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Aside from being drawn to stimulatory texures, I have a particular tendency to fidget with the silver chain around my neck. I just find something oddly soothing about the rough sensation of the metal against my skin! 😛

In my experience, I also find that stimming isn’t always a response to stress, but born from a need to keep my hands busy.

As I’ve discussed previously, research shows that autists have higher levels of excitatory neurotransmitters such as glutamate, and lower levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, we are often hyper-stimulated. Stimulation of the brain’s reward system, i.e.  dopamine release through “stimming” behaviour, causes a decrease in glutamate levels, effectively calming the brain!

This would explain why I’ve often found that stimming sometimes helps me to concentrate and clear my mind by channeling any excess energy into a physical action. I find this particularly helpful when I’m studying, or writing, and for some strange reason while I’m waiting for the microwave to ping! 😛 #excitedforfood

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Stimming can also be considered a form of self injurious behaviour, but I’ll write a separate post on this topic at a later stage 🙂

So is there anything that can be done to control this type of behaviour?

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  • Try replacement behaviours– if the stim is not socially acceptable or harmful, as in the case of biting behaviours, attempt to replace the stim with another one such as a fidget toy or chewing rubber
  • Exercise– there is evidence to suggest that exercising can decrease the frequency of stimming behaviours, although the research is unclear why
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)– is thought to be useful as self stimulatory behaviour operates in a similar way to OCD tendencies which are often managed through CBT techniques
  • Medication– Seems there’s a pill for everything these days! Medications can be used to help modify compulsive behaviours such as stimming, but I personally would not advocate this route

So there we have it Earthlings, a brief insight into stimming behaviours in autism! 🙂

Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism and Illness

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

As we head into flu season, I thought I’d explore some of the challenges that face autists when it comes to feeling unwell.

We all know the glorious sensations that accompany common illnesses, the coughing, the vomiting, aches and pains and that delightful swollen head feeling that makes it hard to remember what breathing feels like! 😛

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Now imagine you have autism- you are hypersensitive to stimuli such as temperature changes, struggle with change, and do not cope well with discomfort. On top of this, your struggles to communicate might make it difficult to convey that something is wrong. Most children will tell their mother that their tummy hurts; an autist may struggle to identify or describe a medical problem to a parent or doctor, especially in nonverbal cases.

It might just be a simple cold or bug to a neurotypical, but to an autist, it may be an entirely overwhelming experience.

One of the biggest challenges that I faced growing up was not so much coping with illness, (I have been known to go out clubbing whilst suffering from a bug or the flu!) but treating it.

I HATED taking medication!

Taste aversion was a big issue, mostly because medication came in foul tasting liquid form! Here’s a fairly accurate representation of my face after swallowing medicine:

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Every year my mother and I would go to war to get me to take my cough bottle or antibiotics. I would try it once, discover it tasted rancid, aaaaannnd then do everything my twisted sense of logic would come up with to avoid taking it. I would often pour out the medication when she wasn’t looking, or pretend I was old enough to dose myself so I could get away with not taking it! 😂

Didn’t work out so well though when things got worse… 😛

I know! I should have know better- but don’t  judge me too harshly, seven year olds are not well versed in the concept of antibiotic resistance! 😛 😉

Tablets were a little easier, but tricky to get used to the sensation of swallowing them at first. Once I discovered that antibiotics came in tablet form as an adolescent however, I became far more amenable to knocking them back! As the guys from Pringles say- “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” 😉 Although I may still recoil as the tablet slips down on occasion, especially if it has an unfortunate taste, or even worse, a powdery texture…!😬

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Getting an autist to take medication can indeed be quite a daunting task, but here are some of my top tips for parents struggling with this problem:

  • Mix liquid medications into another drink or yoghurt– Ok, I know this feels a little bit like wrapping tablets in meat to get your pet to take them, but there is method in the madness! My mother used to mix antibiotics or antihistamine in with my juice or flat coke when I would refuse to take them. For the most part this worked, but sometimes I found the combination tasted just as bad- so trial and error! Just make sure that they consume the whole thing to get their full dose.
  • Ask for tablets not liquids– Granted, you can’t get tablets before the age of 12, but if given the choice- take the tablets. There is far less chance of taste related rejection!
  • Bribery- My mother was always particularly fond of this approach. To first encourage me to take propolis tablets, I was promised a fun-size bag of Malteasers if I swallowed them without complaint! Needless to say- it worked! 😉
  • Make a game of it- Why not try and use a specialist interest to encourage them to take their medicine? ‘It’s a magic potion to make you feel better!’, ‘This is what makes the Hulk strong!’ ‘See- it’s pink like Barbie; her favourite drink!’ My mother tried something like this by writing a note on a box of meringues to say that she had cast an engorgement spell on them to keep me from eating them! I was a bit older at the time, so I mostly ignored it, but I got a chuckle out of it at least! 😛 😉 Had I been a stubborn 6 year old however, I definitely would have fallen for it.

Failing all that- try to stay healthy folks! Wear your warm jumpers, take your multivitamins (although the scientific jury is out on whether or not these are actually useful!) and your apple a day and hopefully you will keep the doctor away 😉

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! :)`

Aoife

Autism and Skin Sensitivity

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

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

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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! 😉

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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! 😛

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 🙂

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

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Enjoy the weekend everyone! 🙂

Aoife

Autism on Screen- Sesame Street: Meet Julia

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Earlier this week, popular children’s TV show Sesame Street officially debuted a new puppet with a twist- a puppet with autism! 😀 The character of Julia was introduced as part of Sesame Street’s autism initiative, first appearing on Monday to rave reviews from fans, experts and parents everywhere.

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Whilst only making the news in recent months, Julia has in actual fact been around since 2015, having first appeared in an online storybook about autism as part of ‘Sesame Street’s’ autism initiative- ‘Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children’.

The creators of Sesame Street established this initiative in 2015 in order to promote better understanding of the condition after a study revealed that children with autism are more than five times more likely to be bullied than their peers!! This initiative was developed in partnership with autism workers, advocates, parents and autists themselves in order to ensure that the topic is handled in the best possible way.

You can find out more about the initiative here:

http://autism.sesamestreet.org/

It’s a nifty little website providing videos for kids, videos for parents, daily routine cards and loads of other useful materials for children and adults alike 🙂

So what is Julia actually like?

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Julia first appears onscreen quietly painting with her friends Elmo, the fairy Abby Cadabby and Alan. When Big Bird comes on the scene, Julia largely ignores him, completely engrossed in her painting. The other puppets are engaging in finger painting, but Julia makes noises of disgust and uses a paintbrush instead, with Abby remarking that Julia hates the feeling of paint on her fingers.

With their paintings finished, Abby gives Julia’s painting huge praise (it was easily better than Abby and Elmo’s efforts), remarking that she is very creative- casually demonstrating the talents that autists possess without veering into savant stereotypes. Big Bird tries to hive five Julia for her efforts, but still she ignores him, making no eye contact. When Julia hops off to play tag with the other puppets, Big Bird questions whether Julia likes him or not. This leads Alan to explain autism to Big Bird so that he understands that Julia does things a little differently, “in a Julia sort of way“- but she’s also lots of fun! 🙂

Later in the episode, Julia hears nearby sirens and covers her ears in response to the noise, needing to go somewhere quiet for a bit, subtly demonstrating how an autist can struggle with sensory sensitivity. Julia also carries around Fluster, a rabbit toy which she strokes to help her calm down, showing the audience ‘stimming’ in action.

The primary focus of this segment is to demonstrate that although Julia has autism, she can play and be your friend just like everyone else. After Big Bird remarks that Julia is not like any friend he’s ever had before, Elmo and Abby point out that none of them are exactly the same, bird, monster, fairy- they are all different, but are friends regardless. Julia talks a little differently, repeats sentences, flaps her arms when she gets excited- but she’s just another playmate, however different, at the end of the day 🙂

You can watch Julia’s debut in full in the video below  🙂 :

My school life would have been so much easier had other children been better able to understand and accept me as the other puppets accept Julia, but with initiatives like this at work I have great hope for the next generation 🙂

This episode was handled both sensitively and intelligently to provide children everywhere with an insight into autism. All behaviours are explained, little is left for the audience to guess at. Julia is different to the other puppets yes, but the episode normalizes her differences so that when children encounter real people like Julia, they will be treated with acceptance and understanding 🙂

Here’s a behind the scenes look at how the character was brought to life:

Fun Fact: Julia’s puppeteer (who can be seen in this video thumbnail) is a mother to an autistic son in reality!

This was a pleasure to watch and I look forward to seeing all of Julia’s future adventures in the show! 🙂

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Aoife

Autism and Textures

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk about something that you may not be aware of in relation to autism- the issue of texture sensitivity.

During my assessment, I was asked by the psychologist if I had any issues with textures. Caught off guard (as I was unwittingly hoodwinked into attending the assessment 😛 ), I quickly answered no, only to realize hours later that in actual fact, textures influence my life hugely!

In all previous conversations about autism, I had never heard anything about textures, but these are in actual fact a common source of sensitivity for autists.

Rough seat belts, itchy labels and materials, even bras can be extremely irritating to the hypersensitive autist.

There was absolute war between my mother and I when I would refuse to wear a bra as a child! The sensation of the garment against my skin weirded me out and I found it extremely uncomfortable. I would even try wearing it over my thermal vest to place a barrier between me and it, buuuut it didn’t very work well…I was constantly fidgeting! 😛

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Weird textures completely freak me out- cornflour (a particular pet peeve), some fruits and veg, yogurts (or most foods) with lumps in them and nail files to name but a few.

Encounters with such textures can lead to reactions like these…:

(Fun fact about me- I genuinely shake my head like a dog when I shudder! 😛 )

It’s not all negative though- you can learn to adapt and condition yourself to stimuli 🙂 I never drank a glass of water until I was 11 years old as it felt really weird to me compared with other more flavorful drinks. I gradually conditioned myself to it by taking one gulp water followed by one gulp juice (my family found this hilarious 😛 ) until the glass was empty- I now drink pints of water daily without issue! 🙂

Pleasant textures on the other hand pose an entirely different sensory experience, lighting up my brain like a Christmas tree! 🙂

The creamy texture of ice cream or chocolate melting in my mouth, the strangely irresistible and soothing feel of metal against my skin or the drug-like euphoria that comes from stroking a fluffy puppy-sheer bliss! 🙂

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As my sister remarked as I was writing this piece, it’s easier to list the textures that I do like than those I don’t! 🙂 😉

So what’s the scientific reason for this sensitivity?

As we have discussed in previous posts (Autism 101-Sensory Processing;Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality), people with autism are hypersensitive to the sensation of touch. Dysfunctions in brain areas involved in sensory integration, in addition to hyper-connected and hyper-excitable neurons within the autistic brain, can greatly influence our responses to texture.

MRI studies of autistic brains also suggest that there is an exaggerated response to unpleasant stimuli in particular within the limbic system- a set of structures involved in such processes as emotions, behaviours and motivation.

It may seem like we’re consciously overreacting to certain textures, but our response is entirely neurological- so try to keep that in mind next time you see us pull a weird face after encountering an unpleasant texture! 😛 😉

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Have a good week everyone! 🙂

Aoife

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