Autism and Trust

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

This week I’d like to briefly talk about the issue of trust and autism.

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Trust is something that we all struggle with from time to time. In an increasingly disingenuous world, it can be tough to tell friend from foe. This is even more problematic for the autistic community.

Studies have shown that autists struggle to read facial cues for signs of trustworthiness in others. As an autist is so often transparent in their words and actions with their black and white thinking, it’s a struggle to comprehend that others may not be. For example, if an adult tells an autistic child a lie, they will usually believe them without question- after all, why would a grown up lie to you? Isn’t lying supposed to be bad? This is particularly worrying for an autist coming up against potential bullies and predators.

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I found this to be a problem during my school days. On the surface, my peers seemed nice to me. I thought many were friends, but I was unable to tell from their tones that they were mocking me and my eccentricities. It was only after the damage was done that I saw through the facade, which made it hard to trust my peers for a long time. When you see everything in black and white, it can be hard to discern that a smiling face may be a sarcastic sneer.

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But is there a biological reason for our trust issues?

Studies have shown that changes in the structure of the autistic brain can cause issues with trust. Changes in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the area that assesses social rewards) in people that tended to be more trusting of others, and changes in the amygdala (an area associated with memory and emotional responses) in both those who were more and less trusting of others appear to be linked to trust issues.

Moreover, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to be associated with social behaviour, emotional attachment and trust. Multiple studies suggest that oxytocin levels are dysregulated in autists, which could explain our struggles when it comes to trusting others.

Hope you enjoyed this post dear Earthlings! πŸ˜€

Have a lovely weekend!

Aoife

Discussion: Love and Romance

Greetings Earthlings! πŸ™‚

In continuation from my previous post, today I’m going to expand a little bit more on the social problems autists experience in romantic situations.

We’ve already explored some science on the subject, so now I’m going to try and clue you in a little bit on what it’s like inside my head πŸ™‚

As a person with autism, my life is often governed by rules- don’t tell lies, never go over the speed limit, don’t put raisins in a scone (a serious crime against cake! πŸ˜› )!

Hence when it comes to socializing, things start to get tricky.Β Even trickier in matters of the heart. Rules exist when it comes to love, but these rules are in a constant state of flux- and I just can’t seem to keep up! πŸ˜›

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Social rules are a cornucopia of contradictions- a source of constant frustration for the black and white autistic mind.

Opposite’s attract, but birds of a feather flock together. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is also out of mind. Treat them mean to keep them keen, Β but do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

It’s enough to make your brain explode!

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The majority of autistic people want to love and be loved as much as anyone else, however, when the goalposts keep moving and the game keeps changing, it can be extremely difficult to navigate the battlefield of love.

Growing up, love always seemed so easy on screen. Boy meets girl, boy asks girl out on a date- both know where they stand and so relationships blossom.

Easy peasy right?

Wrong! πŸ˜›

Boy was I in for a shock when I got smacked with the reality stick! I was in no way prepared for the games that teenage boys play with your mind and heart.

Wide eyed and innocent, I believed the boys who said they fancied me, I believed the so called friends who encouraged me- but all along I was being set up for a fall. It was all just a game to mess with the weirdo who’d never been kissed, and I never saw it coming.

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In hindsight when I see pictures of my atrocious hair cut at the time, I really should have seen through them! πŸ˜›

I was in for an even bigger reality check when it came to night’s out.

People grabbing you on the dance floor, stinking of booze and cigarettes, expecting you to just fall into their arms!Β Whatever happened to chat up lines, buying someone a drink, or even just learning their name? I struggle with things as innocent as hugs, how was I meant to cope with this invasion of space, not to mention the sensory fallout?!

This wasn’t the path to romance, this was carnage! πŸ˜›

If you are one of the lucky few who can get past this awkward stage to forge a real connection, communicating one’s feelings can be a real struggle for an autist. Saying the words ‘I love you’, even to family members, does not come naturally for me. I can tell my dogs I love them a thousand times a day, but ask me to say it to my parents and I freeze. It’s not that I don’t love them, I just can’t seem to get the words out…

Advice for family and significant others (SO): Don’t take this struggle personally. Your child/SO does really care about you, they just struggle to show it πŸ™‚

Psychologists are of the opinion that we don’t see a need to repeatedly tell people that we love them, and hence we don’t say the words. Personally, I’m not sure that I’d agree with this explanation. I do want to say the words, they just won’t come out. In their absence, I’ve learned to do what I can through action to show people I care- a cake or a knitted present say more than I ever could πŸ™‚

When it comes to romantic situations, this struggle for words is multiplied tenfold! With so many conflicting rules about showing affection or revealing your feelings, as with empathy, sometimes it’s easier to stay silent. I weigh up all the options, assess every social rule, turn myself upside down and inside out over my feelings- and then do absolutely NOTHING about it by default! πŸ˜› Painful as it is, sometimes it just feels like the easiest option. There’s no drama, no outright rejections, no awkward moments…but also no requited love! As a result, I’ve landed myself in the friend-zone more times than I can count! πŸ˜›

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Over the years I’ve become a little more assertive in this regard. I eventually work up some bit of courage to communicate my emotions, but it’s still a real struggle to get there. I frequently undergo these periods of hyper-analysis prior to opening my mouth!

Advice for SO’s/potential SO’s:Β Be direct and let us know how you feel. We can’t read between the lines, we struggle to comprehend the rules of love and fathom the games- the direct approach is the way to go. The object of your affections may seem aloof, but they might simply not know how to act on their emotions. Just ask them out- their answer may surprise you πŸ™‚

If my future husband happens to be reading this- when you meet me, no games please! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

Discussion-Trust, Intimacy and Sexuality

Greetings earthlings! πŸ™‚

As we are approaching Valentines Day, I thought it would be interesting to explore the romantic side of autism a little bit.

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When it comes to romance and the spectrum, this is what most people think of:

Prior to my diagnosis, I too would have pictured this scene.

Asexuality, or lack of sexual attraction/interest, is often associated with autism. However, whilst asexuality occurs more frequently in the autistic community compared with the neurotypical population, one size does NOT fit all.

Stereotype Alert!!!Β The majority of people with autism are not asexual- we want to experience love just as much as the next person!

In fact, studies have shown no marked differences in sexual interests and behaviours when compared with neurotypicals…we’re just a little bit worse at the whole initiation/communication side of relationships! πŸ˜›

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Our social struggles can make it quite difficult to convey our intentions and feelings in romantic situations. As previously discussed (see empathy), we struggle to identify our own emotions to ourselves, let alone convey them to another person!

According to Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood, there is a tendency among adolescents with AS to seek out the relationship advice we are lacking from rather unreliable sources… Males tend to derive their information from pornography, while girls turn to soaps, rom-coms and books, failing to recognize that these works are not reflective of the real world.

You may think that surely we would be able to tell fact from fiction…. buuuutttt, this is a fairly accurate description. I’ve be been burned this way in the past! Let’s just say that I attempted to apply something I read in a book to reality…and it backfired…spectacularly! πŸ˜›

In addition to these social struggles, the sensation of touch can also be an issue for many people with autism in romantic entanglements. Studies have shown that gene mutations associated with autism can cause hypersensitivity to the sensation of touch. As a result, we oftentimes shy away from physical contact, which can give the impression of romantic indifference.

Advice for friends, family & significant others: If we brush off your touch, it’s generally nothing personal. Just be patient. We can learn to condition ourselves to touch over time πŸ™‚

In my own experience, trust can be especially important when it comes to physical intimacies.

Thankfully, I’m not particularly sensitive to touch, but I don’t like people I don’t trust having physical contact with me.

For example, contrary to common autism stereotypes, I very much enjoy a nice hug- but only if I trust/feel comfortable around that person.

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I’ve always felt that hugs are an intimate experience, so for me to hug someone that I don’t like or trust feels wrong. Over time I’ve conditioned myself to accept unwanted hugs to uphold social etiquette, but my heart’s not in the action.

Many people with autism have issues with trust. In a world that doesn’t make sense , it can be very hard to discern what is trustworthy from what is not. Where black and white thinking is concerned, one bad experience can ruin your trust in an instant.

But ruins can be rebuilt- it just takes a little bit of time πŸ™‚

 

Considering all these challenges that we face in the pursuit of love, might there be any underlying biological factors contributing to our romantic ineptitude?

Few studies have explored sexuality and relationships in autism, however, from my reading of the research one hormone stands out from the crowd- oxytocin.

Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone, has been linked to autism in a number of studies. Research has shown that levels of oxytocin are dysregulated in individuals with autism.

This is basically a fancy science term meaning that our oxytocin levels are out of sync! πŸ˜› πŸ˜‰

Oxytocin is thought to contribute to a human’s ability to effectively socialize. For example, studies correlate oxytocin levels to degree of social functioning whereΒ low oxytocin levels are linked with diminished social functioning and high oxytocin concentrations are associated with augmented social functioning.

Evidence suggests that levels are lower in cases of autism, with the lowest concentrations in low functioning forms and higher concentrations in high functioning cases.

Oxytocin is perhaps best known for it’s role in the formation of emotional bonds, as it is released when we cuddle up to or bond socially with a person. Research suggests that it even plays an important role in emotional bonding with man’s best friend, with levels rising in both owner and pet after several minutes of stroking! πŸ™‚

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Oxytocin has further been shown to increase trust in humans, so it stands to reason that lower oxytocin levels present in autism can make it harder to trust, interact with and connect with a person romantically.

Moreover, recent studies indicate that oxytocin also plays an important role in the strengthening of negative social memories. It appears that following a stressful social encounter, such as bullying or romantic rejection, oxytocin activates a part of the brain which causes the memory to intensify, promoting anxiety and fear in similar situations.

Seeing as oxytocin is dysregulated, this could also explain why autists find romantic situations difficult. I’ve certainly found that previous failures in this area have made me quite hesitant to reveal my feelings to guys for fear of reliving those moments!

Autism, like love, is truly complicated πŸ˜›

In keeping with my Valentine’s theme, I’ll discuss love and the spectrum in greater detail on Monday! πŸ™‚

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Aoife

 

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