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Posts tagged ‘Autism’

Getting a Good Night’s Rest: Autism & Sleep

Ah, the joys of a good night’s sleep. When we’re lying awake in bed at night, we want nothing more than to stay up just a little bit longer. Then as soon as we wake up in the morning, prying ourselves up from bed can be the most difficult thing in the world. Sleep is part of being alive, and it’s something that comes so naturally to many, but for people on the autism spectrum, it can be a constant struggle. This problem seems to be magnified with children. Personally, I’ve had difficulties with sleep bordering on insomnia for a great deal of my life. My family is well aware of how unhealthy my sleeping habits have always been (though in the past year I have improved greatly), and I’m sure that, for many parents out there reading this, it has been a major issue they’ve had to deal with. I want to outline some shocking facts and realities about sleep-related issues when it comes to ASD.

I figured the number would be high, but I have to admit, I didn’t expect it would be this bad. According to Autism Speaks, as much as 80% of children with ASD suffer from poor sleeping. Now here’s the thing: as far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly unique about the effects of a sleep deficit on those with autism. It can result in increased aggravation, hyperactive behavior, lingering drowsiness, etc. This is consistent for all children. However, the issue is the exponentially higher rate at which these things occur for people with autism. Live Science states that in the neurotypical population, “Studies estimate that between 10 percent and 33 percent of children and 40 percent of adolescents experience sleep problems,” a far cry from the 80% with autism.

So why is this? What causes these issues to be so prevalent in the autism demographic? The truth is, we don’t know. Researchers have never been able to pinpoint an exact reason, though there are theories. These ideas range from decreased melatonin levels at night when they should be higher to aid sleep, to heightened sensitivity to various stimuli which distract from falling asleep, to the high levels of anxiety typically experienced by those with autism, which I have gone into depth with in previous blogs. No matter the root cause, there are fundamental challenges which prevent many from experiencing the proper rest they need to stay healthy.

There has to be some solutions to all this, right? Of course, though patience will most likely be required; there is no quick fix that’s effective. Autism Speaks and WebMD both have some suggestions for parents on maximizing their child’s “sleep efficiency.” These include avoiding any caffeine or sugar, providing a relaxing environment with soft music, dim lights, etc., turning off stimuli such as TV or video games, get melatonin (NOT sleeping pills), have the kid exercise during the day, early afternoon naps, and coming up with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. That last one, once I finally implemented it after 21 years on this Earth, was the one that finally worked for me. Now I sleep a consistent 7-8 hours on work nights, and 8-9.5 on weekends. Follow those tips, keep at it, and eventually sleep will come as naturally to you or your children as anyone else.

 

 

 

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Autism & College

A large number of children growing up with autism have a difficult time thinking about what “comes next.” Because of the difficulties that come naturally with childhood and adolescence, along with the unique challenges presented by ASD, many parents are more focused on simply getting their child through high school, and who knows what comes next. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but everyone has to leave the nest sometime. I’ve previously discussed the possibility of jumping straight into the working world, which is a perfectly acceptable path to take. College isn’t for everyone. However, there are many advantages associated with going to college, whether it be for an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree. Currently, I am attending Hillsborough Community College, earning my AA degree, before I transfer to USF for my bachelor’s. I couldn’t be happier with my decision, and I’m proud to say that I know I’m going places; making something of myself. That sense of validation and self-worth is one of the many reasons going to college is a positive thing for those on the spectrum. But there are others as well!

Let’s not beat around the bush here. A college degree makes for a happy and healthy bank account. While it is more than possible to be successful in life without a higher education, the numbers don’t lie. This article paints college in a very favorable light, but I’d like to focus on the chart included herein. The more school you complete, the more you make and the lower your chance for unemployment. And as we see here, the autism demographic has a major unemployment problem, unparalleled in almost any other group out there. If you can find your passion, something you’re talented at and enjoy doing, then go for it and you can make a fulfilling career for yourself. And best of all, you won’t have to worry about financial strain while doing it.

As we all know, however, money can’t buy happiness. Love, family, friends, etc. are the true path to a satisfying life, and one of the most important aspects of that is love for what you do. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Like it or not, getting a college degree opens up the door for so many different career paths that are unavailable to those without a higher education. Those on the spectrum often have a wide array of quirky and creative interests; luckily, there’s a major/degree out there for just about anything you can think of. Take well-known and outspoken autism advocate Temple Grandin for instance who, according to her Wikipedia page, got her bachelor’s degree in human psychology, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in animal science. Now there’s someone who’s really made something of themselves.

Perhaps most importantly is that, simply put, having a degree correlates strongly to increased happiness. As shown in every source I’ve found, such as this one, a college educated population is a content population, and considering the depression epidemic common throughout the autism community, this can only be a good thing. Personally, ever since I started my journey towards a degree, I’ve been feeling much better about myself, and I’ve never been happier!

_ G. Sosso

Loneliness & Autism

Image result for lonely picture

 

We’ll be shifting gears this time around to talk about something a bit more serious. There’s been a trend in my blogs to write about subjects which hold significance to me for one reason or another, as I find it much easier to write when you can personally relate to the topic at hand. This week is no different, as I’ll be discussing loneliness and how it affects people on the autism spectrum. Due to the socialization issues faced by those with autism, making and (perhaps most importantly) keeping friends can be a daunting task, despite our pure intentions. This lack of companionship can be highly damaging to anyone, let alone individuals on the spectrum. However, I promise if you just keep at it, and stay true to yourself, eventually good friends will come along. But I digress, let’s get into it.

From what I could find, apparently there used to be an idea that people with autism didn’t feel lonely or, at the very least, weren’t as severely impacted by it as others. I find this idea dubious at best. One study from the University of Missouri measured “loneliness, number and nature of friendships, depression, anxiety, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.” It was discovered that among this demographic, a lack of close friends increased depression and anxiety, while lowering self-esteem and satisfaction with life. This holds true for myself and everyone else I’ve ever known with autism.

It is possible that many people, mostly children, with ASD may not understand the connection between loneliness and real friendship. Making acquaintances is one thing, but having a true friend who’ll be there for you through thick and thin is difficult for so many of us. According to Tony Attwood, a well-known figure in the autism community in Australia, children with autism have weaker friendships than their neurotypical peers and don’t understand that their loneliness stems from that. “Whereas typical children define and understand loneliness as being alone (with no one to play with) and feelings of sadness, the majority of autistic children define loneliness as only one dimension of being alone. They tend to not attribute an emotional feeling (e.g. sadness) to their loneliness.” That degree of sadness that they don’t quite understand leads to intense feelings of depression and loneliness which is almost impossible to break out of.

As I’ve alluded to, the true cure for the devastating effects of loneliness is to forge strong friendships. A few years ago, I made 2 friends who are the best I’ve ever had, and for the first time I feel truly happy in my life. I feel better about myself than ever before. And this idea is definitely supported. From the first study I referenced, it was found that a “greater quantity and quality of friendships were associated with decreased loneliness among adults with autism spectrum disorders.” Interacting with the social world we live in can be challenging, and even scary at times, but as I said before, just keep being you and one day the right people will notice, and make a great friend in the process.

  • G. Sosso

Video Games & ASD

In my previous blog, I wrote about some of the reasons why people on the autism spectrum might be attracted to anime, or Japanese animation. This time around, I would like to talk about something comparable: why video games are so appealing to us. Video games are not as niche of an interest as anime, and they are massively popular among plenty of demographics. However, every single person I’ve ever met with ASD, myself included, has been a huge fan of video games. Why is this? Many of the reasons are similar to those of anime, such as the presence of a wide, accepting community, but there are some unique reasons as well that make video games stand out. I will attempt to explain this appeal with a combination of research, as well as my own personal experiences and anecdotes.

Video games offer a wide variety of different ways to play, and there’s a genre for just about anyone. There’s single player, local co-op and online multiplayer, depending on what you’re looking for. As discussed in this article, video games can provide a level of escapism from the confusing real world, and into one where you, the player, control everything. You have the ultimate authority over what happens, and there’s an element of certainty and security. But security and comfort can’t last forever, and eventually you’ve got to deal with the harsh reality that sometimes things aren’t going to go your way. Video games are highly competitive and can be difficult, and if you play against other players, you’re going to lose. It may be hard to comprehend for people who have never played, but these games are high intensity and can get pretty heated. But if you stick with it, you’ll learn to not be a sore loser and accept defeat, a good lesson to learn for those with autism who always want things to go exactly according to plan.

Those are some of the main reasons that I personally agree with wholeheartedly, but there are other factors as well. One is the development of fine motor skills. It is well known that people on the spectrum often have issues in the development of motor skills (once again, I’m no exception), but video games can certainly help with that. Chief among these skills is hand-eye coordination, which video games teach you. I know that gaming helped me in that regard, as well as practicing typing. I overcame things I couldn’t do naturally through practice, and others can too.

One more important thing I’d like to mention is the element of problem solving. Games present a challenge much like that of a puzzle, where the solution is something you have to figure out on your own. As we’ve discussed before, many individuals with ASD have wonderful amounts of creativity, and can come at problems from unique angles. Video games are a perfect outlet for this, where the solution is always there, but it’s up to the player to figure it out. There is a terrific sense of accomplishment you feel when you overcome a challenge in a game; it instills you with confidence which is often lacking from those with autism, and that confidence can even carry over into real life.

For all their negative press, video games have a lot of draw to them, especially those with autism. And now, we’re discovering that they could even be an effective tool for teaching!

  • G. Sosso
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Autism & Anime Connection

For those who may not be familiar with the term “anime,” I will provide a brief overview for reference. Simply put, anime is at its core, animated material originating from Japan. Think of them as Japanese cartoons, though there are some differences such as story structure and animation style.

But that’s not the purpose of this blog post; instead, I would like to focus on something that, while mostly anecdotal in nature, is something that I’ve always noticed and hits close to home with me. I am referring to the wide appeal anime typically has to people with autism spectrum disorder. It was difficult to find hard data or research on this topic, but with what little I could find, along with my own experiences, I’ve compiled some reasons as to why anime is as popular as it is among those with autism.

First and foremost is the element of escapism. Of course, this could be said of most mediums, not just anime. However, anime has a few advantages that separate it from many of its contemporaries. In anime, many main characters are social recluses; outcasts who have yet to find their own niches in life. Suddenly, they’re thrust into a magical world full of wonder and adventure where everyone accepts them. Almost every anime in existence has a bit of the classic “power of friendship” trope where the once-timid hero saves the day through the unbreakable bonds he’s forged with the rest of the cast. Most reading this can see why such a thing would be so appealing to someone on the autism spectrum. Many of us are awkward in social situations, and dream of having tons of friends who accept us for who we are. The presence of such things in anime is very alluring.

Reading non-verbal cues and noticing subtlety is not a strong suit for those with ASD. It’s one of the few nearly universal traits in fact. Fortunately, anime’s got that covered! Japanese animation does not focus on subtle movements and gestures in the same way Western cartoons do, and in order to compensate, a character’s emotions are put on full display using extremely obvious visual cues. For example, if a character is in love, hearts will appear over them. If they’re nervous, sweat drops will envelop them. If they’re angry, they’ll start heating up and their eyes will get cross, etc. Here is a great example:

Anime storytelling does a good job of always letting the audience know what is going on and how characters are feeling, which is good for those of us who cannot always easily discern such things.

Finally, is a pretty simple reason actually. The anime community is one of the most welcoming, tolerant groups out there. People with autism are often afraid of what the general population will think of them, and the thought of socializing is terrifying. Interest in anime is generally looked down upon by those who aren’t familiar with the medium, and as a result, are very warm towards those few who do share their interests. Those on the spectrum who’d ordinarily be afraid to express themselves, can find acceptance among those who share a common passion.

> G. Sosso

Personal Tales: Gage’s Autism Speech

I’ve been taking a Public Speaking class lately at Hillsborough Community College. Recently, I had to do an informative speech, and I chose to speak about autism. My speech, like every other, was broken up into 3 parts: what autism is and is not, autism prevalence and its rise in recent years, and what various organizations are doing to help individuals and families on the spectrum. I would like to share a rough transcript of my speech for you all today.

“Hello, my name is Gage Sosso and I will be talking to you today about autism spectrum disorder, or autism. I myself have been dealing with this condition my entire life, only being diagnosed at the age of 15. Since August of 2015, I have been working at the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at USF, doing blog writing for them which requires me to do further research on autism. First, I would like to discuss what exactly ASD is, and what it is not.

Autism is, at its base, a neurological developmental disorder which affects social, non-verbal communicative and sometimes linguistic/verbal skills. Autism manifests differently for everyone, as it is a spectrum. There are two common terms in autism diagnosis: high-functioning and low-functioning. High-functioning people struggle in social situations, suffer from anxiety, and have trouble with non-verbal clues, amongst others. Low-functioning has all that, plus an inability, or at least extreme difficulty, to communicate at all.

Autism has an interesting reputation. Let me explain to you what it is not. As confirmed by mentalhelp.net, it is not mental retardation, as some would believe it to be. In fact, there is no correlation between autism and lack of intelligence. Many people on the spectrum actually have above average IQs. The other common portrayal, especially popular in Hollywood films like Rain Man, is the ‘autistic savant.’ While savant syndrome does stem from neurodevelopmental disorders, only 10% of savants are on the autism spectrum, as confirmed by the Wisconsin Medical Society in a study.

Our understanding of, and how we diagnose autism has changed drastically over the years. According to the Autism Science Foundation, as recently as the late 1980s, the diagnosis for autism was 1 in 10,000. Since then, it’s rose to 1 in 2,500, then 1 in 1,000, and so on. This rise has been astonishing to many psychologists and sociologists. It should also be noted that the rate of autism is higher in males than females.

A number that stuck for a while was 1 in 68, but the current number is 1 in 45. So why the meteoric rise? Is it an epidemic? Possibly, but there are other theories. One that I personally subscribe to comes from scientificamerican.com, which posts that autism rates have not increased; rather, the diagnosis has changed along with greater understanding in the field of neurosciences. What was once thought of as mental retardation, schizophrenia, or just outright insanity, is now understood to be ASD.

There is much being done in the area of autism awareness. Some organizations, such as the well-known Autism Speaks, focus primarily on research and figuring out what autism is on a fundamental level, where it comes from, why it happens, and potential ‘cures.’ They (and other, similar groups), have even delved into research on the vaccines cause autism theory, which is an entirely different can of worms that I won’t get into here. Essentially, they want to understand autism on a scientific level.

Then there are groups like CARD who take a more active approach in the lives of individuals and families with autism. They focus on community outreach, highlighting positive contributions people on the spectrum have made, as well as striving for inclusion and accessibility for those with disabilities. CARD, for example, has Autism Friendly Business, where a company can contact them and receive free training on how to better assist with customers or clients with autism. Essentially, these groups seek to improve the day-to-day lives of people with autism.

Autism is often symbolized by a puzzle piece. This came about in the 1960s for a very simple reason: the condition was considered puzzling by psychologists at the time. Maybe, just maybe, if we strive for inclusion and understanding, one day we’ll discover the missing piece to this mysterious puzzle.”

> G. Sosso

Link between Autism and Genius?

 

Hollywood has an odd history when it comes to portraying autism spectrum disorder in its movies. Autism is a wide spectrum, with many different behavioral traits exhibited, but Hollywood seemingly only ever portrays the “autistic savant.” With movies such as Rain Man, Adam, Mercury Rising, etc. people whose only exposure to autism comes through movies may be inclined to believe that everyone with autism is a genius with an IQ of 120+. This is obviously not the case, but the phenomena known as the autistic savant is certainly a real thing. In fact, there may be a link between ASD and having genius-level intellect or creativity.

Some of history’s greatest composers, scientists and innovators have been suspected of being on the autism spectrum. Although impossible to verify, according to several sources, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emily Dickinson all showed strong signs of having autism during their lives. These men and women changed the world, in part due to devoting their lives to their pursuits. All were incredibly talented individuals.

One of the hallmarks of geniuses who leave their impact on the world is an utter devotion to what they do. This often requires shutting off other people completely in order to focus all your effort on your passion. As this article says, “Whether it is Edison inventing the electric light bulb, or Beethoven writing a symphony, the capacity to transcend prodigious challenges requires a keen ability to screen out distractions, whether social, or practical.” The same article goes in depth about the new film, Magnus, about the world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, who denies being on the autism spectrum, but his claims are treated with skepticism. Carlsen absorbs himself in chess so much he shuns his family in the process.

While not every individual on the autism spectrum is of the savant variety, there is definitely evidence that points to a correlation between ASD and being classified as “genius.” Savant or not, people on the spectrum continue to make impacts on the world today, with several talented people like Temple Grandin being great role models in the community, and shining beacons to the rest of the world that we can do great things.

 

  • G. Sosso

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