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Fading into the background

A new study published here – Distinct Patterns of Neural Habituation and Generalization in Children and Adolescents With Autism With Low and High Sensory Overresponsivity – on pubmed.com explores how the brain can fade repetitive or familiar sounds in order to allow concentration in neurotypical persons and compares the workings of the same function in neurodiverse individuals.

For most of us, sensory stimuli such as noises or unusual textures trigger activity in the part of our brain which processes sensory information. The more we are exposed to this stimuli, the more our brain is able to recognise it as familiar and tamp or manage our response to it. This process, called habituation. It helps us tune out background noise/sensations so that we can pay attention and process new information. Let’s take a fan as an example – you hear it when it’s turned on at the start of the day, you feel it every time it turns towards you, but you don’t keep hearing that buzz or noticing the gust every second throughout the day, unless you choose to.

The article’s objective is to explore sensory overresponsivity (SOR), which is an atypical negative reaction to sensory stimuli prevalent in autism spectrum disorder. The study monitored responses in three stages of sensory processing:  initial response, habituation (i.e., change in response over time), and generalisation of response to new but familiar stimuli.

The new study, by lead investigator Shulamite Green  (assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles), found that some autistic children don’t show signs of habituation. This means that their brain does not fade out the sound of a fan, the gust of wind, a stray hair that tickles their neck but their brain keeps trying to understand the stimuli over and over again – which is overwhelming and exhausting.

You can read the very interesting findings at length through the link above. The summary is:

  • The team studied brain responses to sensory stimuli in 42 children with autism and 27 non-autistic children, ages 8 to 18 years, who have average or above-average intelligence.
  • The autistic children into two groups: highly responsive to touch and sound and those less responsive. 
  • Each child’s brain was scanned while it experienced a series of stimuli, each lasting 15 seconds: white noise, a scratchy sponge rubbed along the left arm, and then both at once. The sequence looped six times.
  • The team monitored the regions of the brain which process sound and touch, and the amygdala, which filter sensory information.
  • During the first two rounds of repetition, all children showed increased brain activity. The group with the less responsive children had a noticeable brain activity drop during the third and fourth rounds and remained low for the fifth and sixth.
  • The brain activity of autistic children with high sensory reactivity veered towards high for all six repetition rounds.

The team also exposed the children to one more round of stimuli using similar sensations but with a slight difference in texture and frequency. The brain activity for the group with the low sensory reactivity indicated that they recognised the stimuli as new but also that they were similar enough to tune them out. Whereas, the other group had high brain activity which may indicate that their brains were processing the stimuli as completely separate and new. It was also interesting to read that some children with autism showed no brain response to the new stimuli at all. This may mean that they could not tell that the stimuli were new, or that their brains had faded the response to the original stimuli so much that they couldn’t activate in response to the new information.

Next time you see a child covering their ears, a parent frantically trying to to put their sock back on, a crying toddler in a busy train/bus/airplane – remember that what you see is never the whole story. Our bodies and minds are vast and beautiful and different. Instead of getting annoyed let your brain fade it out so you can focus on something else – because you have that ability and they may not. Your brain’s natural reaction will be to habituate not to stare or glare or offer unnecessary parenting advice – so pop your headphones in, look out the window or engage in another conversation instead of focusing on the distraction – because you have a choice, people with autism may not.

If you would like a taster of what sensory overload can be like Autism Speaks has 5 video simulations that help you experience sensory overload.

Don’t let kindness, understanding and love fade into the background. See it, appreciate it, teach it and use your capabilities for good.

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An autism sister watching Atypical Season 2, Episodes 3-10

It took me a while to get through this season because it is so emotionally charged. It’s a bit too relatable for me.

Ultimately, I want you to watch it and see these 6 things.

1: In episode 3, Sam walks out of his class at some point due to sensory overload. The way he walks out reminded me of my brother. The eyes, the mouth twitching, the hand shaking, the urgency in his step. He walks out of that class as if his life depended on it. Sam has autism spectrum disorder. Keir Gilchrist, the actor, does not. Creating a single, accurate portrayal of living with ASD is impossible. Therefore, to create something relatable to as many people as you can you endeavour to make connections through different interpretations of ASD. It is a colossal credit to the people behind Atypical that Keir was able to remind little old me of my autistic brother in that scene. You can hear what he has to say about the show here, at Autfest 2018 hosted by Autism Society of America. In the same breath, we are introduced to an autism group with a range of individuals. These actors are all on the spectrum in real life. Again, they do not represent the entire autism community but they are there, on the screen with their own traits teaching all of us that autism has as many faces as the ‘normal’ cult. We see that they are honest, they have insecurities we can relate to and they care and look out for each other.

2: Doug and Elsa 44333001_353571598538233_179029183383470080_nare encouraged to promote awareness after an incident with Sam. I don’t want to state the obvious but that’s what i’m doing with this blog, that what we are going with the autism support group in Cyprus, that’s what my dad does with hiring people on the spectrum to work with. It’s not me being me when I say that our people are inspiring. As soon as they waltz into our lives they start tearing down walls, they press a reset button and draw a line between who we were and who we are meant to be. They push us out of our box, and pull us into unknown territory. They open our eyes and give us the gift of purpose.

3: Bullying. We experience Sam’s school life without Casey and although it is heartbreaking to see, watch and relate to we are also reminded that people outside our family have our kids back as well. It’s daunting for an autism family to let go and not be in control. It is nearly impossible to trust when it comes to them because of how cruel our society can be to anyone who is not neurotypical. We are reminded that they will have friends and foes wherever they go, and that their friends are capable of loving them and defending them as ferociously as we do. We experience more of the friendship between Zahid and Sam in this season. It is refreshing to see a portrayal of non-family members and how attuned they are to the needs of the person on the spectrum. It demonstrates the impact a neurodiverse person can have on everyone around them. Zahid gives as good as he takes in this friendship and when he feels he’s out of his league he calls in the big guns – Casey.

4: Sam explains that autism is not an accomplishment. It is not something he worked towards or something he has overcome. For neurotypicals it’s easy to think of someone’s progress as ‘overcoming’ their autism but that’s not an accurate observation or conclusion to make. Autism is something he was born with. Autism it’s part of his physical, genetic, cognitive and behavioural development as a person. He can’t overcome it, because he is it. To Sam, autism is like having fingers and toes. Think of it this way: Some people’s toes are long, some toes are longer than others, some are tiny. Some fingers bend to the left or the right, some have big nail  surfaces some barely have any. No two toes or fingers in the world are the same which means that there are 7.6 billion different pairs of toes in the world. Some people can bend make different shapes with their fingers, some can paint with their toes. Some are ambidextrous, some don’t have all ten.  Who’s to say what a persons abilities are based on their fingers and toes?

5: Casey – Which I talk about extensively here.

6: It is painfully obvious how immense and substantial the research was when the concept of Atypical was cooked up.  The crew, the directors, the writers and the actors show us in every single episode that they are trying to understand all the hundreds of layers that exist beneath the surface of an autism family. Every member is their own person. They don’t have the answers, they don’t do everything right because an autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a manual. Their characters are not superficially drawn up scripts that react to autism. Not all their decisions or actions relate to the person with autism. Each member is a complex human being, who struggles with their insecurities, their past, their future, their friendships/relationships, and autism. They are deeply relatable and painfully real.

Bonus tip: It’s so so worth watching.

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The Hominidae Family

I read a book recently called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – buy it immediately – and it changed. my. life. It made the world make a little bit of sense.

Yuval Noah Harari explains  how biology sets our limits and how culture shapes what happens within those bounds. He narrates humankind from the creation of the Homo genos to the ultimate dominance of the Sapiens species.

What is especially interesting is that we are a species of the genus Homo, which is the  genus of the family Hominidae (order Primates). Our characteristics include: large cranial capacity, limb structure adapted to a habitual erect posture and a bipedal gait, well-developed and fully opposable thumbs, hands capable of power and precision grips, and the ability to make standardized precision tools, using one tool to make another. For example, the biological family Felidae is a lineage of carnivorans colloquially referred to as cats. The species included in this family are panthers, cats, tigers etc.

So!

Sapiens (us) are a species of Hominidae together with the (allegendly) extinct species H. habilis, H. erectus, and H. heidelbergensis as well as the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis), the early form of Homo sapiens called Cro-Magnon, and the enigmatic H. naledi, which may be the oldest known member of the genus.

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In fact, Sapiens and Neanderthals, H. erectus etc are likely to have existed in the world at the same time. We evolved at the same time as them. Neanderthal anatomy differed from modern humans in that they had a more robust build and distinctive morphological features including shorter limb proportions, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin, sloping forehead, and a large nose.

In 2010  a study was published which determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA and researchers of the Neanderthal Genome Project found that 2.5 percent of an average non-African human’s genome is made up of Neanderthal DNA. Which means that at some point, our species interbred and that Caucasians are more likely to have Neanderthal DNA.

From this study and further genotyping undertaken, Dannemann and Kelso published  “The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans,” Am J Hum Genet, 101:1-12, 2017. They narrowed the sample to include 112,338 individuals with white European ancestry (whose genomes contain Neanderthal DNA), and used these data to tease out which traits are influenced by Neanderthal genetic variants. The traits they identified included those that affect hair color, skin color, skin tanning and burning, sleeping patterns, mood, and tobacco use. For example, being a self-described night owl and being prone to daytime napping were both traits positively influenced by Neanderthal variants, as were loneliness, low mood, and smoking. Genetic loci associated with having red hair were found to be devoid of Neanderthal variants, suggesting red-headed Neanderthals were either rare or non-existent. The new study also supports Capra and colleagues’ previous observations that Neanderthal variants are associated with sun-induced skin lesions, mood disorders, and smoking.”

Next time you’re tempted to call someone a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

What’s the point of this? Basically that we know nothing about who we are, what makes us. The only reason Sapiens went on to dominate the world was because of their unprecedented congnitive ability to imagine, and to believe in their imagination. They went on to imagine new ways to hunt, gather, cook. They imagined states, countries, borders. They imagined religion, human rights, corporations and money.

For millenia, our ancestors imagined things that control our lives, that give us the ability to research, understand and explain where we came from. Their imagination created the world you live in today.

And yet at the cognitive peak of our species, our generations are unable to create a world where we are all accepted because we can’t imagine people with disabilities living up to the culture and demands our society has conjured up.

At the core, we are simply a family that has different traits. If this is fact – why is it so hard to imagine?

In other science news:

Remember when we talked about the gut? Well, you may remember that the gut has always been under observation in autism study.

The Biology of Autism: Where Marilyn Le Breton explained that “When you eat, the food you consume is broken down in your stomach. The bits that are not used by the body are flushed out as waste matter. In autistic people, the breakdown of two proteins present in some foods, gluten and casein, is not completed properly. The resulting fragments of these proteins are called peptides. Peptides are small enough to pass through the wall of the gut, rather than being processed in the normal way. As the peptides journey around the body, they make a pit stop at the brain, where they do untold damage before continuing their journey and finally making their way out of the body, via urine. Both are very similar to morphine, a highly addictive drug.”

Hope in Poo? In 2017, a study was published in the Microbiome Journal (here) which claims that Microbiota Transfer Therapy (Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant, is the process of transplantation of fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient) alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms.

Building on the research above, new findings now have reinforced the theory that some autism symptoms – including behavioral symptoms – can be manipulated with FMT. In fact, the results appear to be long-lasting, continuing to have an effect even years after the fecal transplant.

The researchers presented a follow-up to this study at the Beneficial Microbes Conference this month. According to the reports, the scores on a gastrointestinal-symptom scale remained over 60% better before the transplants through maintaining beneficial bacteria gained from the transplant.

This breakthrough could be groundbreaking for the autism community. If we can understand the causes/origins of autism we can work towards mitigating effects and implementing precautionary tests. This isn’t a cure but it’s hope.

Happy summer my humans!

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April 2018: 2 Science Headlines

1/ Social pressure

A drug is being tested which claims to help people on the autism spectrum with social skills. Balovaptan, said drug, acts on receptors. Receptors are located on the outside of cells and communicate commands to the inside of the cell. There receptors receive a hormone called vasopressin, which is a hormone from the brain which influences social behavior. Balovaptan is designed to block a receptor of a specific vasopressin, which might be linked to social anxiety says Larry Young, professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Basically, the brain sends vasopressin to cell receptors and some of these hormones affect social behaviour. This drug might be able to prevent the hormones affecting social anxiety. Behavioural “symptoms” of autism can be identified (but not limited to) as trouble in communication and interaction.

The idea of using drugs to change characteristics of people on the autism spectrum to “fit in” to a neurotypical society is worrying. That being said, it is important that such medication is available for the safety of the people that need them and for the mental well-being of the people that make the decision to take them.

We all have some form of social anxiety. Whether its tapping fingers, playing with your hair, flapping arms or other forms of stimming. People on the spectrum are under pressure to behave neurotypically to avoid bullying, rejection, discrimination – referred to as ‘masking’. This may be a solution for some but there’s a better one – it starts with ‘aware’ and ends with ‘ness’.

2/ Genes

Remember the MSSNG project which highlighted “an additional 18 gene variations linked to the development of ASD. Nature Neuroscience Journal, published a report on this project which found that the 18 newly-identified autism genes can be instrumental in understanding the pathways in the brain that affect how cells ‘talk’ to each other.” (The Biology of Autism)?

Remember the research published by Princeton University and Simons Foundation researchers where they analysed the human genome to try and predict which genes are likely to cause autism? They had linked about 2,500 genes to autism; we have an approximate total of 24,000. (Mr Autastic)

WELL: Researchers have found alterations of the gene thousand and one amino-acid kinase 2, known as TAOK2, which is so much fun to say out loud. The alterations found are thought to play a direct role in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism.

Karun Singh, study co-author and researcher with McMaster’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute said: “This is exciting because it focuses our research effort on the individual gene, saving us time and money as it will speed up the development of targeted therapeutics to this gene alone.”

img_6972Science is on its way to delivering answers to what causes autism. They are closer to finding out how to predict autism, and, as a result, closer to finding a way to prevent it. In the  meantime, it’s up to you to ask questions, to include to shatter stereotypes and to embrace the people around you.