Autism South West 2017 and A Shameful Tale

Yesterday I got to speak about “Sugar, Stress and the Spectrum” at the Autism South West conference. Specifically I was building on Dr. Luke Beardon’s excellent equation: 

Autism + Environment = Outcome

to explain how internal stressors (internal environment,) such as high or erratic cortisol levels, change the outcome for any autistic person. 

Let me explain. Now it’s pretty well known that being in a supermarket (an external environment stressor) is highly stressful for autistic people (maybe for you too, but definitely if you are autistic.) When somebody is stressed their adrenals ramp up production of the hormone cortisol which raises blood sugar levels in order to deal with threats. (If you have to run away from a lion – you need glucose in your bloodstream to fuel that race for your life.) But unfortunately your body doesn’t distinguish between real or perceived threats. It just acts without question. 

What else happens when your cortisol is raised? Here’s one of my slides:

Now, think how difficult navigating a simple supermarket shop might be when your brain is affected like that… (This is why my shopping gets done online!) Imagine living in a world where a great deal of your environment causes the outcome of reduced abilities to remember, to regulate your mood and behaviour, to organise yourself and make good judgements?

Next in my talk we discussed how consuming excess carbohydrates quickly raises blood sugar levels, causing the body to employ insulin in order to reduce potentially dangerous levels. And then, because your body likes balance, it fires up our friend cortisol again, because low blood sugar is also a threat! The low blood sugar is an internal environment stressor. 

As far as autistic anxiety is concerned: being hunted by a lion = going to the supermarket = low blood sugar!

Anyway, we covered some other useful stuff too but, in the interest of brevity, that’s probably enough for you to understand my shameful behaviour yesterday evening. Shameful because I am a nutrition and health coach. Please don’t judge…

So the conference was fab! Well organised and with brilliant key-note speeches (Sarah Hendrickx and Dean Beadle) that made me both laugh and cry. But, you know, a conference is still a difficult environment for an autistic to navigate. And so my cortisol levels were pretty high…

Now I knew I had a fridge full of delicious and nutritious organic veg and meat at home. I could have rustled something nourishing up in 30 minutes flat. But my memory and good judgement failed me and I demanded we stop off at tesco for ready made pizza (the shame.) And I looked at those huge, insipid, crappy pizzas and could not for the life of me work out how many we’d need and which types we, as a family, would like. My husband found me crying in the chilled aisle and took over. At which point I wandered off and filled the basket with packets of biscuits. I had acted out my own talk perfectly! My high cortisol response had perfectly reflected my slide’s bulletpoints! Oh the irony…

A few things:

  1. If you’d like me to come and talk about diet and autism please contact me here. (Rest assured that I will prepare my evening meal in advance for future talks.)
  2. I didn’t actually eat the biscuits. I was asleep soon after the pizza!
  3. I’m not really ashamed of my choices yesterday. I’ve learned not to blame myself in those situations and am taking care to rest my adrenals today.  

Science and Nature

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to say that every time I hear someone say that something has been scientifically proven, or scientifically unproven, my immediate thought is, that doesn’t sound very scientific!

Let me explain. I am not anti science. I think it’s a great thing. But I think that people have somehow forgotten or just not realised that scientific “proof” as non-scientists are presented with it is often a potent mix of economic and political bias baked with a liberal interpretation of the statistics involved and served with a healthy dash of media fear-mongering. Pure science is rarely deemed newsworthy. 

Let’s take the health of western society which (and yes, I am going to be very general here for the sake of brevity) for tens of thousands of years thrived on a diet high in organic fat, protein, seasonal produce and un-treated water. Walking, running, climbing, swimming and swinging daily in all elements without sunscreen, sports drinks or orthotics. Sleeping when tired. Socialising in small communities while hunting, gathering and caring for each other. 

Modern medicine was necessitated by an increasingly intensive agriculture and industry based society in order to invent ways to keep the population alive and useful without easy recourse to the basics that had allowed the human population to thrive thus far. And now, guided by medicine, by science we have scientific proof that we need low-fat margarine, fluoridated water, sunscreen and gym memberships. Please! 

You may be aware that science is becoming  increasingly interested in autism. This is evidenced by the sheer number of cause claims and “cure” research turning up on the net. Now, let’s be clear, autism is down to a difference in brain wiring. It seems unlikely that any one trigger, such as genetics, stress in pregnancy, or vaccination will cause such a specific deviation from the “norm.” It also seems rather fanciful to suggest that any amount of therapy, whether conventional or complementary, is going to re-wire the brain so dramatically that it causes such an exact reconfiguration of the neural pathways. 

As I see it, we have three factors at play in autism. Perception, Interpretation, Action. Any claim or cure needs to be able to address each and all of these to effect a permanent change. To my knowledge, this has not yet actually happened (although much effort has been put into researching these factors separately.)

It is important to note here that many autistics would not wish this to be so either, for while our perception of most types of stress is generally far higher than that of allistics (as is often evidenced by our actions) our interpretation of information is unique to each individual and is as valid to the benefit and evolution of society as the next persons. 

Now, I have a theory. It may not be a scientific theory, but it is my current theory and if anyone thinks it’s worth researching further please do! My theory is that the further we (the population and the individual) strays from the food, water, movement, direct sunlight quota and work/rest/play model that sustained humankind for most of our existence, the more stress we subject our bodies to. Now it is stress that causes our physical selves to adapt in order to keep us alive. It is these very adaptions that our physical selves make that give feedback to our brains as to how to react to stress. Acute stress is vital to existence. But accumulated chronic stress? That’s always going to cause problems. Chronic stress forces adaptive responses that, whether structural, biochemical, digestive, neurological, behavioural etc. may not be beneficial to either the individual or the community at large. 

Meanwhile, any therapy that enables us to return to an earlier lifestyle model is going to help to relieve stress, allowing our adaptive systems to stand down and informing our brains that everything is ok. Autism itself is not the problem. Stress is. 

If I’ve been on an ancestral based diet, had some time away from  people other than my immediate family and/or a close circle of friends, slept well and spent time walking barefoot through a forest you’d be hard pressed to pick out any of my more autistic traits. But on a binge-eating cycle, after a winter of multi-tasking under fluorescent lights and having to communicate daily with strangers  I’m going to be spending all my energy on trying to behave “normally”, and I will go into meltdown and I, along with anyone in the vicinity, will have to suffer the consequences. 

I don’t need an explanation as to why I have autism and I sure as hell don’t need a cure, but I will take any therapy that enables me to thrive with, rather than despite of, my autism. 

And I know from experience that the therapies that help me to do this, from natural nutrition, to acupuncture and to homeopathy are the ones most often hounded by and “disproved” by science. And I feel that the energy used by the scientific communities, the pro or anti activists and the media to argue whether or not structural therapies, precaution used in vaccinations, and the overuse of antibiotics are valid in preventing an apparent rise in autism, could be far better spent in helping all of us, whether autistic or allistic, to more closely emulate a lifestyle that predates the study of science altogether. Because living a life more closely aligned with nature allows all of us to thrive, without need for either cause or cure. 

Some Recommended Blogs. 

In the last few months there’s been a lovely increase of followers of and commenters on this blog. Thank you. Thank you to all of you, both new and old followers. Thank you to those of you that comment, that hit that like button, that re-blog, that send links via Twitter and Facebook, that email or message me privately and to also those that just read my ramblings. I truly appreciate all of you.

Today I’d like to recommend a small selection of the blogs that I follow. Specifically those from a new community of autistic bloggers (many of whom had either an official diagnosis of or a self realisation of autism in the last few months) that has been a haven of support for me.

Each of these bloggers has a unique, authentic, warm and eloquent writing style. Whether you yourself are autistic or allistic and whether you’d like to be more informed, crave community or just appreciate great writing please check these awesome blogs out.


A year ago I was featured on Marks Daily Apple as a Primal Blueprint Success Story and I listed my no.1 benefit as, “I no longer suffer with anxiety, or it’s tricky cousin, social anxiety.” At the time I wholeheartedly believed that. But I have come to know myself better in the last year, and thus have come to understand better what anxiety actually means for me.

At the time of writing I was struck by how I was finally able to live without constant in-your-face anxiety. I once read a fantastic description of living with anxiety as dealing with the fear you experience in the seconds between tripping over a loose paving stone and actually crashing to the ground but All The Time. And that’s how it felt. 

Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of what could instantly trigger a pounding heartbeat, buckled knees, nausea, sudden tears, finding myself unable to speak or move, or the desire to run away or drop to my knees with my eyes and ears covered:
A passing motorbike, a child crying, someone shouting, crossing the road, answering the phone, leaving the house, the possibility of an argument, being told off, the noise of a vacuum cleaner, speaking when there were more than about four people in the room, saying/messaging/posting the wrong thing or being misunderstood, getting lost, being late, changed plans, someone else being late, house alarms, other people being drunk and unpredictable, cars going too fast, sirens…

And the worst thing is, while any one of these incidents could trigger flight or fight instincts which might last upwards of a minute, a combination or succession would leave me wired for much longer, meaning I might not recover from something as simple as a minor argument for days. That means living in constant fear even while you go about your daily life desperately pretending everything is fine, because to admit the level of stress you are under would frighten your family, confuse your friends and be just plain irrelevant to co-workers and passers by. 
When I say that I no longer suffer from anxiety I mean that I am no longer troubled by an inappropriate adrenaline response that constantly exhausts and overwhelms. I put this down to a diet devoid of sugar and gluten and rich in good clean fats alongside organic meat and vegetables; and a few carefully chosen supplements. It’s not cheap, but it’s essential for my mental health. 

But anxiety is sneaky. It has a character all of its own. Whispering, confiding, hiding and then waving at you across a crowded room, poking you as you settle down to sleep. It pretends to give you sage advice , “here, wear this dress, it suits you really well!” and then, as you leave the house, “oh gosh, I didn’t realise you were actually wearing it out tonight! How brave!” It cajoles, “yes, you are a good and worthy person, isn’t it strange how nobody likes you!” And it play acts, like a cat, “Yikes! What the hell is that! Oh no, probably nothing, I’m sure it’ll be ok. Don’t close both eyes though, just in case.”

Anxiety tells you that the friends who tell you they love you are probably lying. Anxiety reminds you daily that if you are in a car accident today your children might not have their door key to get in or that they won’t know to let the dog out or what to feed themselves. Anxiety questions if today is the day you think it is, and might you have accidentally left an hour late this morning because there’s different people on the streets than normal and less traffic at the lights. Anxiety wonders if the child crying next door just didn’t get what they want or is being horribly mistreated. Anxiety whispers in your ear that it’s all very well and good that you are feeling more confident these days but that maybe there was a good reason for feeling so unworthy before and that everyone still secretly wishes you’d just piss off. 

I’d really like to tell anxiety to do one. But maybe anxiety is necessary. Maybe it’s the backbone that holds me up, keeps me from over confidence, stops me behaving like an exuberant puppy, licking strangers and leaving puddles on expensive rugs. I really don’t know. I do know that chronic anxiety is common for those of us on the spectrum and I also know that it’s not an exclusive club. So… Talk to me people. What are your thoughts?

Planning a night out!

Tomorrow night will probably be the first time I’ve socialised since my diagnosis about ten weeks ago. I say probably because I don’t actually know if I’ll make it yet.

About four times a year a small group of mums in the village meet at someone’s house for an evening of shared food, wine and gossip. Everyone takes some homemade food along, makes the effort to put on make up and to wear fancy shoes, which always get discarded at the door anyway. Its a relaxed affair, and everyone eats far more pudding than they mean to.

I manage about one in four of these occasions, crying off with made up excuses or genuine headaches. The anxiety is usually more than I can handle. And even if I don’t drink I am likely to have a stress-induced hangover for 24-48 hours afterwards. But this time they are onto me. They now know I’m autistic.

They’ve kindly reassured me that there will only be six of us, most of whom I’ve known and liked for over ten years. They’ve told me, “just come if you like, there’s no pressure at all.” And, love them, they mean it.

But, beyond the basics of what to wear and what food to take, here are just some of the things I will need to plan for in advance:

What time will I leave my house, what route will I walk, how fast will I walk, what exact time will I arrive, who might already be there, what face should I make when someone answers the door, what are the best replies to make to Hello! How are You? Alright? (Or any other of the myriad of opening lines people make), where precisely should I head for when I arrive, who might be in that space already, where should I put my contribution, what should I say, should I accept a drink (I have a very low alcohol tolerance), should I have a mini speech ready or will there already be a conversation in progress, hmm… do I actually have any mini speeches, how should I start them, end them, say them without boring people or confusing them…?

Each of these questions will require me to visualise the situation or run through the words multiple times with several variations so that I will have less to spontaneously react to on the night. Because once the evening is in progress I will have enough processing to do in terms of: where will I sit, what will I eat, when will I go to the loo (it’s astonishing how difficult it is to work out when it’s the right time to get up and leave the room, I don’t know how school kids manage this at all!), and, most problematically, when is it an acceptable time to leave?

Because all the autistic folks reading this will know that however much you might be enjoying the occasion, trying to follow the threads of conversation is a bit like playing chase for a few hours across a busy motorway. It’s knackering and highly stressful. And the sooner you can get home to spend a few hours lying in bed awake to process all the information you took in but didn’t have time to deal with, much like a manual defrag on a PC, the better.

But I do honestly want to go. I’ve known these women since our eldest children were toddlers. We’ve seen each other through crises and new babies. We’ve camped together, babysat for each other’s kids, met extended families and drunk many gallons of coffee over the last twelve or so years. They helped us move house eight years ago this week when I was teetering on the edge of a major breakdown.

So, I need to find a way to do this. To quell the anxiety that even though they say they want me to go that they might rather I didn’t. To decide to not worry if I stumble over my words, knock over the wine, offend someone, eat too much (eating is my stim process), fall over or bore everyone. Does anyone have any tips?

I also want to apologise to those of you who are still waiting on some actual detox and food posts! Trying to figure out what autism means to me is taking up all of my thought processing at the moment. Writing some of it down is my personal detox. As soon as I can I’ll get back to it, but I think autism is going to be this blog’s theme for a bit longer.

Love to all of you!

Lack of Empathy?

A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver some pain medications to a customer on my way home from the pharmacy where I work. I had not been informed that there had been a prior mix up resulting in her having been without her meds for a couple of days, just that she needed them that day. Walking home from work begins my decompression time from a job that I find highly stressful and so by the time I knocked on her door I was unprepared for the shock of her grabbing the bag, waving it in my face and yelling at me because they were late. I do not react fast to vocal information and so my feet had taken control and walked me away from the situation before I had a chance to explain anything. By the time I got home I was in tears. Then the next day I was called in to explain why the customer had emailed in with a furious complaint about me and included the line, “I hope she understands how I felt when she is old and in pain.” I think the phrase, “lack of empathy” was also used. 

I was thinking about this occasion last night while I was pondering the decision to leave Twitter for a while, following the outpouring of grief, anger and confusion resulting from the EU referendum. I have a limit to how much of other people’s pain I can deal with. I suspect it is why I have become a fixer. I have become pretty good at offering solutions for upset or illness. But I cannot provide that shoulder to cry on or be part of that healing circle that others (mostly women) find useful as they discuss and talk their way through grievances. While others find solace, compassion and reassurance in shared experience I hear only voices in competition either in who suffered the most or who can sound the most sympathetic. While they feel relief from putting the world to rights over a bottle of wine and then sleeping soundly, I find their process stressful. To the point that I will probably be looking bored and will be forcing myself not to drum my fingers in the table in annoyance. Instead I want to offer solutions so that problems can be solved and so that I can sleep without obsessing all night. 

For these same reasons I cannot read newspapers or listen to more than the most sanitised of headlines because my powerlessness to solve the worlds injustices crushes my very soul. Every Twitter link to the story of rape, torture, environmental destruction or war leaves visuals in my head that I cannot erase. (Even a fictional horror-film plot line someone told me over three years ago haunts me still.) And yet I cannot unfollow everyone who posts these because I do not wish to upset them and I cannot possibly ask people to sensor themselves on my behalf. So what the hell am I supposed to do? Cut myself off from all outside information and social interaction? 

I don’t think so because the flip side of socialising, whether in person or online, is that other people’s happiness is drug like to me. Good news calms me, restores me, elevates me. It reminds me why life is worth living. Isolation would deny me that chance. And would also deny me the joy in passing on that good news and making someone else happy. 

A girl at school once told me that I was irritating because I was always happy. She was wrong. I was mostly unhappy; anxious, confused, depressed and severely overwhelmed. But I figured that being chirpy and positive might make other people happy, and that then they might like me. And I stuck with that mindset even when experience taught me over and over again that it was wrong! 

But, I’m off track. I’ve rambled off into reminiscence. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: autism is often associated with a lack of empathy. But autistics themselves maintain that, if anything, they have too much empathy. Speaking for myself, I think that maybe perceived empathy may be more of a problem. If you are distressed by a problem then I want that problem to go away, and fast. I do not want you to be distressed. Your distress, for me, is too abstract to help you to relieve directly and so I will put every emotional, mental and physical resource I have available into solving the problem itself for you. But if I cannot solve it then it becomes, for me, a black hole and I, in turn will become distressed to the extent that I have to withdraw completely. From the situation, from you, from everyone. So, contrary to outward appearance, I do not suffer a lack of empathy. Far from it. 


 So, my understanding of autism (I had a diagnosis of Aspergers a few weeks back) is that there is no “cure” but that many of the symptoms can be alleviated with various therapies. And guess what? The most accessible therapy seems to be that of supporting the body in detoxifying. In a nutshell that’s doing massive amounts of work on the gut and its microbiome; helping the liver, kidneys, skin, lymph and lungs to hasten toxicity out of the body and cleaning up the external environment. How serendipitous it is that I’ve got an interest in the detox field already!

Regular readers of this blog might recall that making the switch to a roughly ancestral diet a couple of years back pretty much eradicated my depression and significantly lessened my anxiety – two of the most crippling symptoms of Aspergers. And that, as I have gradually been converting to a more minimalist home and have significantly reduced chemical toxins in my life I have become calmer, slept better, breathed more fully and become, well, healthier and happier.

But, before I can properly crack on with more physical clearing, I am concentrating on getting really, really comfortable with the idea of resting up and taking time out. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been good at curling up on the sofa with a cuppa and a good book. And a blanket. And lots of cushions. But, I have always felt ashamed that while other people managed full time jobs, did outdoorsy stuff with their families and maintained social lives I was just being lazy. Once I read up on what it actually means to have Aspergers I found it  a revelation that shutting the outside world right outside where it belongs and retreating to my cosy spot with a latte and the cat has been as crucial to my brain as rest-days are to an athlete. No guilt required!

Related post

The Art of Selfishness