IMPORTANT. READ THIS FIRST.
In this post, I’m going to be looking at biological stuff. After I finished writing, I realised that this could be easily read as advocating for a “cure” for autism. Nothing could be further from what I want to say. I don’t want to be fixed or cured. “Cure” thinking has done and is still doing so much harm to autistic people, that it almost stopped me from publishing this post.
However, I think the link between depression, ADHD, and autism could still do with some examining. Maybe we’re all part of a really broad spectrum. Maybe we’re all differently wired in a similar way. Maybe we can be who we are without feeling horrible or being made to feel horrible about it.
Maybe we aren’t alone.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how important it is for me to do things that activate my reward centre. I speculated that the lack of achievement in housekeeping was the reason my reward centre wasn’t lighting up with nice juicy dopamine, and so I didn’t have enough motivation to do any regular housekeeping. This is how recreational drugs work, and sex, and food, and any other pleasurable activity: they increase dopamine levels which in turn activate your reward centre.
The reason why I was thinking about rewards and dopamine is because since about the beginning of June, I have been really struggling in several areas of my life. I started a new job after being unemployed for 10 months, I decided to quit smoking, and I got referred to a mental health clinic for an autism diagnosis. Maybe a bit too much to cope with all at once.
But was that all?
Normally I feel pretty damn good whenever I manage to actually do something, even in my bleakest moments. Look, I did the dishes! The rest of the house is still a mess and I haven’t paid the bills in over two months, but screw that, I did the dishes! I’m awesome! Now, that sense of pride seemed oddly muted. Was this depression? It didn’t seem to be, I was feeling very overloaded with work and smoking and autism but not necessarily sad or down. Overwhelmed, unable to deal with sensory stuff, pretty normal for me in that kind of situation. The muted feeling was new.
And then I made a brain leap. That’s how it felt. My brain jumped up and landed in a different spot. A spot labeled “dopamine”.
You see, I was a very heavy smoker. Think 45-50 cigarettes a day. So when I decided to quit, I asked my GP for varenicline because I’d heard good things about it and figured it would be the support I needed in overcoming my dependency. It worked like a charm, the first day I used it I was down to 23 cigarettes and after 5 days I smoked about 8 a day. Instead of 50. And it didn’t cost me ANY effort. I just didn’t feel the need.
How does this work? Well, nicotine, like other addictive drugs, makes your dopamine levels peak. So there’s an instant reward when your nicotine receptor gets activated. Varenicline prevents this reward by making the nicotine receptor less sensitive, and at the same time mimics a low level of dopamine so you don’t go cold turkey.
So I was weaning myself off my dopamine addiction. And lowering my overall dopamine levels.
And suddenly I didn’t like alcohol as much. I didn’t pay my bills. I couldn’t keep my house clean. I hid in my bedroom. I bought things I normally never eat, like crisps and chocolate and cakes. I had a very low threshold for loud noises and bright light. I nearly broke down at the thought of having to take the train to work. I couldn’t focus on my work as easily as I used to do. I began compulsively refreshing my Facebook feed and email and rapidly switching from one browser tab to the next. I started stimming heavily (whereas I could have sworn I didn’t ever stim. Nope. Not me. Not stimmy at all).
I started thinking that maybe there was a blog post in this. So I looked up dopamine on Wikipedia, googled some stuff. And then I stumbled onto this.
We usually think of dopamine as a chemical messenger that is related to things like reward or drug addiction. But more properly, dopamine signaling has to do with salience, how important something should be to you at any given time. Dopamine spikes are associated with the pleasure of drugs or good food or sex, but they also say “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS”.
This is from an article called The Dopamine Side(s) of Depression and it looks at several behavioral studies done with mice to look at how dopamine works. Go read it. It blew my mind.
Because besides the “Pay attention to this” effect – which I’m starting to think could be part of why sensory processing disorders, for example difficulty to filter out background noise, occur so often in autistic people – the research also looked at the role of dopamine in social defeat stress.
You take a normal mouse, and put him into a cage with a bigger mouse. The bigger mouse “owns” that cage. He’s a retired breeder and very aggressive. He will usually launch himself right at the poor intruder mouse, beat him pretty badly, resulting in a “social defeat”. The mice are usually separated very quickly so the larger mouse doesn’t injure the intruder, but the defeated mouse is partitioned off in the case, where the aggressive resident can still threaten and bully the poor guy.
The mice that were given high level dopamine stimulation showed signs commonly seen in 10 day social defeat (less social interaction with other mice, less inclination to engage in pleasurable activities)… after only 2 days.
Let me repeat that for you. The mice that were bullied and beaten up showed signs of depression MUCH FASTER after giving them high levels of dopamine.
Are we on to something here?
Depression. Hyperfocus or the lack of focus. Unable to filter sensory input. Decision making (assigning priorities). Even motor skills are commonly linked to dopamine.
But social behaviour is a new one for me.
Can autistic people simply be part of the large group of people who are differently dopamine-wired?
- The dopamine side(s) of depression (scientificamerican.com)
- Sensory gating (en.wikipedia.org)
- Voice may not reward autistic kids (abc.net.au)
- The Roles of Dopamine and Serotonin in Decision Making (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Four genetic markers associated with five psychiatric disorders (clinicalpsychiatrynews.com)