Socially Awkward #SoCS

I am socially awkward. Before I was diagnosed with autism, this was how I saw myself. I even had an E-mail group on Yahoo! Groups titled socially_awkward. This was for adults and teens with social issues of any kind.

Indeed, the main symptom of autism is still seen as social communicative difficulties. I do have them, mind you, but I don’t see them as my main symptom of autism. My main symptom is overload, both cognitive and sensory.

Then again, like I said, I do have issues with social interaction. I haven’t had a friend other than my husband since special education junior high in 1999. I tended often to be too clingy. In this sense, I guess I exhibited the “acctive but odd” style of social interaction that is often exhibited by males on the autism spectrum and is seen as the least impaired style, common in those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Yet I do experience severe impairments in other areas.

When I was older, I tended to exhibit a more passive interaction style. Then again, when at meetings, I can still be dominating. This is probably why the people in the Dutch DID group decided I wasn’t safe. They kicked me out, officially because they believed I didn’t have DID or had imagined it, but they cited as reasons for this that I talked bookish about my issues. Well duh, that’s typical of autistic active-but-odd interaction.

But back to how mild or severe my autism is in terms of social interaction or other symptoms. I was diagnosed as ASD level 1 under DSM-5, so the mildest severity level. The reason is probably that I can hold down relatively normal-sounding conversations in structured settings and with people of my intelligence level. At least if they’re focused on me, which diagnostic interviews usually are. I cannot keep up a conversation about someone else for long. This may be why some people, including my parents, used to see me as selfish. I tend to want to dominate or talk about myself. That is, I don’t really want to, but it is the most natural.

In the second symptom category of autism, which is restricted and repetitive behaviors, I was also diagnosed as level 1. I disagree, particularly because sensory issues have been added to the criteria and I’m severely impaired with regard to that. I stim all the freakin’ time, for example. I feel I should definitely be level 2 on this symptom category.

This post is part of #SoCS, for which the prompt this week is “social”.

Cerebral Palsy: And Other Effects of my Brain Injury #AtoZChallenge

Welcome to day three in the #AtoZChallenge. I am feeling a little off today, as my support worker canceled our appointment tomorrow and my husband will be home from work late this evening. For this reason, I’m feeling a little unmotivated to write. I hope that forcing myself to write today’s A to Z post anyway will help me snap out of the bad mood. Today, I am sharing about a disability that I have had since infancy, but that I didn’t know much about till a few years ago.

Like I mentioned on Monday, my autism diagnosis got taken away in 2016, because my then psychologist thought my having had a brain bleed as a baby precludes an autism diagnosis. It doesn’t, but it did help me gain some new perspective on my issues. Could I possibly be suffering from the effects of neonatal brain injury?

I asked my parents, starting with the obvious. I have left-sided weakness, affecting both my arm and leg, which I assumed was due to the brain bleed. I had heard of cerebral palsy and had figured out I might have this. I asked my father, but he didn’t answer my question. Possibly, he wasn’t told by the doctors, because my mobility impairment is relatively mild.

I did see a rehabilitation physician and had regular physical therapy until I was around eight. I also needed a cast on my left foot because my achilles tendon was at risk of becoming too short. Later, at age fifteen, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. This isn’t so uncommon that it alone warrants another diagnosis. However, coupled with all the other issues, I put two and two together.

Cerebral palsy, for those who don’t know, is basically a mobility impairment due to a brain injury acquired in utero, at birth or in the first year of life.

I finally went to my GP in 2017 to ask him, again focusing on my mobility impairment. This, after all, is the defining characteristic of cerebral palsy. I was just told I had acquired brain injury.

Still, in late 2018, I joined the national CP charity in my country. When I went to their conference in November, all puzzle pieces fell in place. Not only were my symptoms – not just the walking difficulties – characteristic of CP, but I met people with milder walking difficulties than mine who had been diagnosed as having CP.

There are five different levels of CP, depending on gross motor functioning (ability to walk or otherwise move around). People in level 1 and 2 can walk independently, though those in level 2 require some handheld mobility aids for long distances or on uneven ground. I would probably score as level 1 or maybe 2, but this motor functioning assessment is appropriate for children and adolescents only. There are also several different types of CP, depending on which limbs are affected and how. I probably have spastic hemiplegia, meaning CP affects one side of my body only.

Currently, I am not looking for an official CP diagnosis. I probably had one as a child, so digging up my old records may reveal it, but I’m not in a position to do so at this point. I also wonder what benefit I could gain from this. The support groups for CP on Facebook allow me in based on the facts of my brain injury and resulting mobility impairment. Besides, like my GP said in 2017, a physical or occupational therapist treating me for my brain injury would have to take into account the major disability of my blindness. Maybe, should I ever go into long-term care for the blind, I’ll be able to afford support for this.

A diagnosis of cerebral palsy requires mobility impairments, but a brain injury can have other effects. At the CP conference, the first presentation I attended was on overload. The same cognitive and affective difficulties that people who acquire a brain injury later in life can endure, can affect those with neonatal brain injury. In that sense, my psychologist may’ve been correct that my emotional and cognitive impairmetns are due to that.

Autistic: Living Life on the Spectrum #AtoZChallenge

Welcome to day one in the #AtoZChallenge, in which I’ll share a collection of miscellaneous musings. For my first post, I’d like to talk about a topic people who used to follow my A to Z posts on my old blog, are thoroughly familiar with, since I chose it for my theme in 2015 and 2017: autism.

I was first diagnosed with autism at the age of 20 in March of 2007. The clinician who diagnosed me, didn’t give me an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, like my support staff at the time had wanted. I didn’t care, as I at the time already didn’t subscribe to the rigid subtypes of autism, be it Asperger’s, PDD-NOS or classic autism, or high-functioning and low-functioning autism for that matter. I believe autism is a spectrum condition presenting differently in every affected person.

Later, in December of 2007, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s after all. This remained my diagnosis, along with a few mental health conditions, until the summer of 2016. Then, my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis got taken away. The psychologist who changed my diagnosis, claimed that my premature birth and the brain bleed I suffered as an infant, preclude an autism diagnosis. As if those genetically wired to be autistic are somehow exempt from being born prematurely or suffering brain bleeds. I know that, because the exact cause of autism is still unknown, it may be hard to differentiate autism from the mental effects of brain injury. However, since said psychologist couldn’t diagnose me with acquired brain injury either, because I sustained the brain bleed before age one, I ended up with no diagnosis at all that could explain my social cognitive differences.

I sought an independent second opinion and, on May 1, 2017, was rediagnosed with autism spectrum disorder under DSM-5. I am diagnosed with level 1 ASD, which is the mildest kind. I am pretty sure that, if the psychologist had taken the opportunity to assess me in a more natural environment, I’d be diagnosed as level 2.

Autism is still diagnosed based on the presence of social communicative difficulties and repetitive behaviors and interests. As of the release of DSM-5 in 2013, sensory issues are finally part of the diagnostic criteria. In my opinion, they aren’t given nearly the amount of attention they deserve. Neither are executive functioning difficulties. This is a term which describes organizational skills. I scored high for ADHD on the initial screening tool, but couldn’t be further assessed for it. Though I’m pretty sure I have some ADHD-inattentive traits, they could just as easily be part of my autism.

Autism, like I said, presents with social communicative differences. These include, in my case, difficulty making and keeping friends, difficulty interpreting non-literal language and tone of voice. Of course, because I am blind, I cannot read body language. My conversations also tend to be one-sided, in which I’m either the listener or the talker.

The other criterion of autism is the presence of repetitive behaviors and interests. I engage in near-constant stereotypical, self-stimulatory movements (or “stimming”). My language can also be repetitive, but this is particularly clear when I’m overloaded. As for special interests, I don’t have a lifelong obsession, like Temple Grandin does with animal behavior. Rather, my interests, though they change often, can be obsessive in intensity and focus. For example, I used to have an obsession with calendar calculation (calculating what day of the week a certain date falls on).

My main autistic trait though is overload. This is also a common brain injury symptom. In that sense, I’m doubly blessed.. I tend to be both sensorially and cognitively very easily overloaded. This then causes me to stim more, use echolalia (repeat other people’s words) and may lead to meltdowns or shutdowns.

Something interesting about overload is that it rarely occurs when I’m engaging with my special interests. This may make you think I’m just lazy, but I’m not. For one thing, my special interests involve little offline interaction. For another, they are my special interests because I’m good at them.

I hope that through this post, you’ve gotten a little glimpse into my life with autism and learned something new. For those not aware, April is autism awareness month. I encourage you to read other blogs by autistic people. You will find that most have a kind of difficult relationship with autism awareness month. I, like them, prefer autism acceptance.

CP Conference Last Saturday

So I attended the Netherlands’ national conference day on cerebral palsy on Saturday. Before I went, i was incredibly scared. Would I be able to connect to other people or would I be left on the sidelines all day? Would there be people willing to help me navigate the school building in which the conference was being organized? Would I arrive on time? But my main worry was related to my own diagnosis of cerebral palsy, or rather the lack thereof. You see, I was never told that I have CP by my parents and was too young to understand medical jargon by the time they stopped taking me to specialists. Maybe my parents didn’t even know, as doctors do not always clearly communicate and my parents were mostly looking for reassurance.

My GP also was a bit vague when I asked him last year, citing a probably relatively recent letter saying that I had acquired brain injury. Now I do happen to know that doctors disagree on whether brain injury acquired shortly after birth counts as ABI or a diagnosis of CP or the like should be made instead. So I’m a member of Facebook groups for both CP and ABI. However, ABI is a diagnosis regardless of symptoms and CP requires mobility impairments. I wonder therefore, are my mobility impairments severe enough to count?

I arrived at the school forty minutes before the doors were officially open, but someone took me to a chair anyway and gave me a cup of coffee. Soon, a man I’d been talking to via Facebook messenger arrived too and we sat and chatted some.

Gradually, other people arrived and it was soon time for the official opening speech. This was partly about Steptember, a movement challenge to collect money for research on CP.

Then, a neuropsychology professor spoke about the effects of movement and mental or physical effort on cognition in people with and without CP. It turns out that effort, whether that be mental or physical, strengthens brain connections to the frontal and parietal cortex, which are responsible for higher-order cognitive functions such as planning, organizing and impulse control. He also briefly touched on the effects of music, which can also help strengthen these connections. In short, moving and exerting ourselves as much as we can within the limits of our CP helps our cognitive functions. Of course, past age 30, these brain areas no longer grow and actually decline, but still exerting yourself enables you to learn more effectively regardless of your age.

After this, you could choose to follow a workshop session. The one I followed was on overload. This was a bit of a chaotic workshop, as the presenter allowed for questions while presenting. I am quite familiar with overload, as a person with autism, but I loved to explore it from a CP perspective. I mean, physically I do have some more limitations than those without CP. As a result, walking may give me energy, but it also costs me energy more so than it does non-disabled people. This was rather interesting, because I often tend to sometimes give everything and more of myself physically and other times I tend not to bother. Something the presenter said that really struck a chord was that mental overload can be counteracted by physical activity and vice versa.

In the afternoon, we could also pick a workshop to follow. The one I chose was on nutrition. A registered dietitian had developed nutritional guidelines for children and adults with CP. Topics that were discussed included underweight and overweight. The presenter said that, as a general rule, people with CP need fewer calories than those without CP. The reason is that, even though our movement costs more energy and hence burns more calories, we tend not to move as much.

Another topic that was discussed was swallowing difficulties. Did you know that up to 99% of people with CP, even those with mild CP, have swallowing issues? I didn’t. This was so validating, because I happen to have some rather significant swallowing issues.

Other topics of discussion included reflux, constipation and bone development. There is little research into these, as particularly constipation and osteoporosis are common within the general population anyway.

Overall, I loved this day. It was also very validating. Not only did no-one say I don’t look like someone with CP, but I actually met several people who are at least as mildly affecte as I am.

Confessions of a New Mummy

CP Day

Yesterday, I heard about an event on November 3 that I was immediately interested in. It’s the Dutch national CP day organized by BOSK, the country’s charity for people with physical disabilities.

For those not aware, CP is an abbreviation of cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder caused by brain damage sustained in utero, during birth or in a child’s first year of life. In my own case, I had a brain bleed shortly after birth.

The thing is though, I was never told that I have CP. My parents just told me I’m clumsy. I did get adaptations early in life, such as a large tricycle. I also had lots of physical therapy. When I was around nine though, my parent discontinued my specialist appointments. Even when I developed scoliosis in adolescence, they didn’t tell me. Scoliosis is a common consequence of hemiplegic (affecting one side of the body only) CP.

Last year, I asked my GP about it and was told I have acquired brain injury. Usually though, when someone acquires their brain injury in the first year of life, it doesn’t “count” as ABI. Instead, diagnoses are then made based on symptoms, such as CP in the case of movement difficulties.

CP is classified in five levels of severity. Obviously, since I don’t even know whether I was diagnosed with CP as a child, I’m not sure of my level either. I would have to guess I’m probably level 1 or 2, which are the mildest levels.

CP is not progressive and yet in some ways, it is. The brain damage that causes it doesn’t get worse, but adults can experience worsening pain, muscle stiffness and symptoms related to overuse and overcompensation.

On the CP event, there’ll be various workshops for adults with CP and parents of CP children. The morning workshop that most appealed to me, is about overload. I’d love to explore this from an a CP perspective rather than an autism perspective.

In the afternoon, the workshop I’m wanting to attend is on nutrition. A dietitian will speak about nutritional guidelines for people with CP. While CP affects movement in the limbs mostly, it can also impact on one’s gastrointestinal tract, because after all these are muscles too. I suffer with both constipation and reflux, which will be discussed.

Obviously, I still feel a little self-conscious about going due to my uncertainty about my diagnosis. Because I am sure I had a brain bleed in infancy, my main concern in thsi respect is that I’m not “bad enough”. My parents at one point tried to get me into a school for the physically impaired and were told (or so ‘ve heard) that I wasn’t disabled enough. Now of course I don’t mind not being that disabled, but then of course I shouldn’t be going to an event like this.

Consultation Meeting at Day Activities

So I had a meeting with the Center for Consultation and Expertise consultant at day activities this morning. First, I talked some with her alone. We discussed my care needs in some more depth than we’d done when she’d visited me and my husband at our home. I still feel the ideal situation is that my husband and I could still live togehter but close by a care facility. I also mentioned that, though my husband supports me wherever I go, he has some reservations about us living in a lean-on apartment together. A lean-on apartment is where you still live independently, but close by a care facility. Since my husband and I together make too much money for renting a home too, and we don’t have a huge financial reserve, choices are limited. This means most likely I’ll either have to manage with the same amount of care I get now, but we could move to a larger town, or I’ll need to go the long-term care route and essentially live away from my husband during the week. I can manage okay’ish now and I don’t want to risk my marriage for better care, so I’ve already reluctantly set my mind on the former.

We also discussed my needs for mental health treatment. We discussed the insiders and I named a few. The consultant, herself an educational psychologist, took my experience surprisingly seriously. I had expected she wouldn’t, given how she seemed to respond when my husband said he’s married to Astrid, “pieces” or not. I mentioned having come out to my psychiatrist. I’ll have a meeting with her and my nurse practitioner on October 2. I mentioned the psychiatrist having said that my treatment may take another five years. Again surprisingly, the consultant didn’t react negatively to that, saying instead that if I felt it’d be beneficial in the end, I should go for it. We also went into childhood trauma a bit, which is the reason the insiders are here. The consultant recommended I discuss getting EMDR with my psychiatrist and nurse practitioner. I said this had been recommended by the psychologist who rediagnosed me with autism in 2017 and on whose report my treatment plan is based. However, that psychologist recommended I do dialectical behavior therapy first. The consultant disagreed, saying that nowadays, people who aren’t very stable or even people with intellectual disabilities can benefit from modified EMDR. She mentioned a therapist’s name that I couldn’t fully understand and a quick Google search came up with nothing.

Then, we drank coffee and after that, the consultant talked with my day activities staff. She asked what activities I do during the day. She also recommended my staff respond proactively to my becoming overloaded. I’m not so sure I like that, but I think it’s for my own good anyway. I mean, we again went on a long walk this morning and I couldn’t fully keep up. As a result, at the end the staff decided not to take me on the full, hour-long walk again for now. I so badly want to meet my goal of 10,000 steps a day, so I feel pretty awful having to cut back.

On October 4, the consultant will make her recommendations at a meeting with my home support coordinator, assigned day activities staff and me. I’m hoping for the best.