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Archive for January 14th, 2011

First Published Sunday, 29 March 2009

Bichon Frise

ACTRESS and model Emma Noble knew her little boy would be overwhelmed by his new pet, but even she did not expect such an emotional response.

For as young Harry opened the front door and saw his mum sitting on the stairs with his gift on her lap, his mouth opened in shock — then seconds later tears began to fall and his little body began to shudder.

After what seemed like an eternity, the eight-year-old blurted out: “Put him on the floor, Mummy.”

Seconds later he was hugging the little bundle of fluff and declaring: “I love you, Shoeshine,” while the pup jumped all over his new owner.

It was the beginning of a very special friendship and one which has helped Harry — who has autism — on many levels.

Since Shoeshine — a bichon frisé — moved in with Emma and Harry just before Christmas, the isolated world which the youngster inhabited has opened up hugely.

Today he is happy to leave the house, will chat contentedly to strangers and is learning to empathise with others — none of which was even a vague possibility before.

Autism is a life-long developmental disability which affects social skills. It is thought that dogs have a special affinity with autistic children and help them because they provide a constant in a world which the child can otherwise find confusing.

In the US it is well established that dogs can help autistic children out of their isolation, but the theory is still relatively new in Britain.

In fact, the idea to get a puppy came entirely from Harry, whose dad James — son of ex-PM John Major — was divorced from Emma in 2003.

Years ago Harry started to develop a phobia of dogs, even insisting on crossing the road if he saw one, so Emma started taking him to her parents’ neighbours to see their little pet.

With regular visits, Harry soon forgot his fear and developed a real love for dogs.

Emma says: “One day he asked me out of the blue, ‘What would it be like if I had a friend, Mummy?”

“It broke my heart because Harry doesn’t have many friends. His family are his friends. But there he was, thinking of a dog in terms of a friend.”

From then on, Harry started avidly reading books on dogs, watched every documentary and film he could find to do with them, and talked non-stop about how much he wanted one as a little friend.


Emma, 37, says: “I also had a phobia of dogs after getting badly bitten on the back of my legs as a little girl, so the idea of having a dog in the house certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.

“But Harry kept on about how much he would really love a little friend, so slowly I started to come round to the idea.”

Harry first started showing classic signs of autism when he was two and a half.

He lost all the language he had learned, started to leave food that had touched other food on his plate, would line up his toys for hours on end and withdrew into his own little world, hardly responding when Emma tried to communicate.

Just a couple of months later Harry was diagnosed with the condition. At around the same time, Emma broke up with husband James.

Now, thanks to Emma’s determination, Harry is a little chatterbox, although he is still struggling to deal with many other aspects of autism.

But Shoeshine is definitely helping him to cope.

Emma says: “He is such a good dog, he is so affectionate and Harry adores him.

“Shoeshine looks like a teddy bear, he has such a lovely, smiley face that I’m sure his unthreatening look is part of why Harry feels safe with him.


“Play with Shoeshine is very simple. It’s repetitive, throwing a ball or stick for him over and over.

“And Harry loves that he can easily change the agenda.

“Unlike with other children, who might object, Shoeshine is happy to go along with whatever Harry wants.

“His love for Shoeshine is also helping him to empathise — something he would never have done before.

“Harry understands that Shoeshine needs to eat and get exercise, so he’s learning to appreciate the needs of others.

“When Shoeshine has been ill, Harry gets very upset.

“I was amazed one day when Harry said, ‘Poor Shoeshine’.

“It may sound like such a simple thing but for Harry that is massive — for him to be concerned about someone else.

“Before, if I’d told him I was poorly he would understand it but wouldn’t worry. Now I’m hoping that might begin to change.”

Another major change for animal-mad Harry is that he is a lot happier going outside.

Emma, who lives near Cambridge, says: “Home is his sanctuary.

“He knows where everything is here, but outside he suffers with sensory overload and becomes very anxious.

“Now Harry understands that Shoeshine needs his daily walk — it’s in the puppy rules that mustn’t be broken.”

And once outside Emma has been delighted to see Harry interact with strangers — something he would never have done before.

Again, the link is Shoeshine. Before, if someone approached Emma and Harry for a chat he would avoid eye contact and discussion.

But now, inevitably, the conversation turns to Shoeshine, who Harry is more than happy to chatter about.

Emma says: “Harry is so proud of his dog. He always introduces him as his friend.

“He has come on so far and I have no doubt that Shoeshine is a big part of his development.

“I recently went to his school where he read me a book — of course, it was about dogs — but that was such a major milestone for us.”

Emma is asking Sun readers to “stand up for autism” on April 2 to mark UN World Autism Awareness Day and help increase understanding of the condition.

To find out more, visit waad.org.uk. For information and advice on autism, visit the National Autistic Society’s website at autism.org.uk.

Source:   http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/woman/real_life/article2346343.ece

First Published Monday, 30 March 2009


SAFE HAVEN: Brian Rafferty feels secure in his Broughton Street bookshop.
SAFE HAVEN: Brian Rafferty feels secure in his Broughton Street bookshop.

Brian Rafferty’s secondhand bookshop feels like a sanctuary. Painted claret red and lined with the colourful spines of several thousand volumes, its quiet, compact interior is the sort of place you could happily while away your lunch break. Open just a few months, it is already a popular fixture on Edinburgh’s cafe-lined Broughton Street.

Brian, 21, runs the shop from behind a desk in a back corner and is happy to give his customers the space and time to make their choices, though with his precise knowledge of the stock, he’s also able to help them find a particular volume in seconds. Temperamentally, he appears to be ideally suited to the work of a second-hand bookseller – a job which has given him fresh hope.

“I like the interaction with the customers,” he says, laying down his own book, Sharon Osbourne’s autobiography. “I like it when there are several people in at once.”

But he also loves the calm. “I get things done when it’s quiet, like moving the books around and sweeping up. It’s relaxing.”

For any 21-year-old to be running his own shop would be an achievement, but for Brian it is doubly so, because he has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the milder end of the autism spectrum. He did well at school and college, but struggled to find a full-time job afterwards.

“When he was looking for employment in banks, and in IT, he found it really difficult because he was coming up against people who were, in inverted commas, normal’,” says Brian’s stepfather Kevin, a police officer, who has popped in from the family home around the corner. “He was getting up at midday, and had no purpose. Now he’s up first thing in the morning.”

How does he feel about life now? “I’m really happy that I’ve managed to get more employment.”

Brian has a leaflet that he hands out to customers explaining what Asperger’s is and that he intends to donate a percentage of profits each year to the National Autistic Society.

The bookshop was the suggestion of a family friend, who owns the premises, and has been trading since before Christmas. But it was opened officially earlier this month by the entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer, who paid tribute to Brian’s “can-do attitude”. The stock is donated.

Kevin, and Brian’s mum Sandra, who works in the pharmaceuticals industry, have been deeply touched by how local traders have taken Brian to their hearts. “Broughton Street is a small community. He feels safe here. This is now his home environment, which is fantastic,” says Kevin. “I see such a difference in him. Prior to this, you’d ask him what his day had been like and he’d say fine’. Now, when he goes for a pint, he’ll talk about the shop. It’s something to talk about.”

Brian’s experience underlines how people with certain forms of autism can participate fully in society and the economy. But loneliness and social isolation are widespread among people on the autism spectrum, and are a cause of deep unhappiness.

Autism and Asperger’s are characterised by difficulties in communication, interaction and social imagination. At one end of the spectrum are high functioning people with Asperger’s whose social difficulties may not be very noticeable, while at the other are those with severe autism who may not be able to communicate through speech at all.

“From childhood right through to adulthood, their experience is often of being bullied for being different, or ignored,” says Carol Evans, Scottish director of the National Autistic Society. “Often they want to make friends, but find it very hard.”

One-third of adults with autism develop severe mental health problems like depression or anxiety disorders. Many people with autism spectrum disorders, particularly severe autism, therefore remain at home. “If there was ever a condition that breaks up families, it’s this one,” says Evans. “We find an awful lot of families split because they can’t cope with the sense of stigma. Because autism often results in inappropriate behaviour, people start avoiding the general public. They go to Tesco at midnight instead of midday.”

In a bid to tackle this, 19 autism charities have come together to open people’s eyes to autism on World Autism Awareness Day on Wednesday. The theme is Stand Up For Autism, and a procession of celebrities such as Jane Asher and Patrick Kielty have recorded short videos of themselves doing just that. The aim, says Evans, is to end the litany of tuts and mutterings that autistic people and their families often encounter.

“Our message is: be more tolerant,” says Evans. “Don’t assume the child on the shop floor screaming or waving their arms about is badly behaved. That is their way of trying to convey they’re in trouble. If people were more tolerant, a more normal family life might be possible rather than fearing to leave the house.”

Maureen Rocks from Paisley has two sons with mild Asperger’s syndrome. Her son, Oliver, was diagnosed aged 10. Maureen says: “He was shy and didn’t like to go anywhere. He liked collecting things and doing the same things repetitively, and found it difficult to mix with other children.”

Oliver didn’t like going to school. His teachers noticed him becoming isolated in the playground. One lunchtime, the bell rang and he refused to go in. “The headteacher was brilliant,” says Maureen. “She went out to speak to him and I think she saw in him similarities with another child. She suggested speaking to a psychologist. It was a bit of a relief because I was thinking I was doing something wrong.”

After being diagnosed, Oliver became much happier at school, like Brian,he was picked on by other children. But having a talent for both drumming and playing the guitar, he had a focus and is now studying music performance at college. Oliver’s younger brother Harry was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged five because his behaviour was more challenging, but his character is completely different. “I’d say his social skills are very good,” says Maureen. “He left primary school with lots of friends and won an award for creativity.”

Now the two boys and their brother Jack, 10, who does not have Asperger’s, support one another. Maureen says: “I’m very lucky, my boys have very mild autism. The boys all have an interest and we all get on really well.”

Evans points out that often after leaving the education system, people with autism spectrum disorders get little formal support, because their condition falls between learning disability and mental health problem. Greater public understanding can make a difference.

Maureen’s message is simple: “Learn more about it, be more aware and if you come across someone whose behaviour is negative or difficult, try to be sympathetic and understand why they are behaving that way.”

  • Broughton Street Book Shop, 44 Broughton Street, Edinburgh. Donations gratefully received. Call 07960 015499 or visit www.nas.org.uk

  • Autism: the facts
    Autism spectrum disorders affect 50,000 Scots, one in 100 people, though some scientists believe the rate is rising.

  • *Autism is more prevalent among males than females.

  • *Many adults with autism have not been formally diagnosed, as the condition is usually picked up in school.

  • *Genetic factors are thought to be responsible for some forms of autism, though environmental factors have an influence.

  • People with autism have difficulties in three areas:
    Social communication
    Difficulty understanding facial expressions or tone of voice; body language; jokes, sarcasm and metaphor. Some people with autism may not speak; others will have good language skills.

    Social interaction
    Difficulty understanding unwritten social rules like how close to stand to another person; may become withdrawn or behave in what might seem an inappropriate way.

    Social imagination
    People with autism have imagination and many are very creative. But social imagination – understanding or guessing another person’s thoughts and feelings – is more difficult.

  • *People with autism like routines, and may have sensory sensitivity.

  • Source:   http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/features/display.var.2498557.0.Treatment_by_the_book.ph

    First Published Monday, 30 March 2009

    Playing action video games can boost an aspect of adult vision previously thought to be fixed, a US study shows.

    Researchers found playing the games improved the ability to notice even very small changes in shades of grey against a uniform background.

    “Contrast sensitivity” is important in situations such as driving at night, or in conditions of poor visibility.

    The Nature Neuroscience study raises the possibility of using a video game training regime to improve vision.

    Contrast sensitivity is often one of the first aspects of vision to be affected by ageing.

    There is some evidence that the visual system can learn
    John Sloper
    Moorfields Eye Hospital

    It can also be affected by conditions such as amblyopia, known as “lazy eye”.

    Improving contrast sensitivity usually requires physical changes in eye optics, through eye surgery, glasses or contact lenses.

    A team from the University of Rochester studied expert video game players playing games involving aiming and shooting at virtual targets.

    They found that they had better contrast sensitivity when compared with players who played non-action video games.

    These results were not because people with better contrast sensitivity were more likely to be action video game players – giving non-video game players intensive daily practice in video game playing improved this group’s performance on tests of contrast sensitivity.

    Crucially, the improvements in this study were sustained for months or even years in some cases, suggesting that time spent in front of a computer screen is not necessarily harmful for vision, as has sometimes been suggested.

    Unpredictable events

    Lead researcher Dr Daphne Bavelier said it was likely that several aspects of playing video games combined to produce the beneficial effect.

    The games immersed players in an environment where they had to be constantly ready to react to unpredictable events, and where visual information had to be responded to instantly in very precise physical ways.

    In addition, the mere fact that the games were stimulating and rewarding should not be overlooked.

    Dr Bavelier hopes to make use of the discovery to develop new ways to treat amblyopia.

    The hope is that by using video games researchers can encourage the two eyes to work together, and restore the stereo vision which is lacking in people with a lazy eye.

    Professor Gary Rubin, of the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology, said he was surprised by the findings.

    He said other work had shown that it was possible to train people to improve some aspects of their vision – for instance, to widen the visual field.

    But he said: “Contrast sensitivity is a very basic visual function, and usually they are more difficult to alter in adulthood.

    “This is a small study, showing a small effect, but it was carefully done, and merits further investigation.”

    John Sloper, a consultant at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, said other researchers were also examining the potential for using video games to treat amblyopia.

    He said: “There is some evidence that the visual system can learn.”

    Source:   http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7967381.stm

    First Published Monday, 30 March 2009

    The new edition of Scientific American Mind is out an it has an excellent cover article on the psychological effects of humour and laughter.

    It’s a remarkably wide-ranging article, covering everything from the effect on the immune system, to laughter’s pain killing properties to its beneficial effect on mental health.

    There’s also an interesting aside on the role of humour in attraction:

    In 2006 psychologists Eric R. Bressler of Westfield State College and Sigal Balshine of McMaster University in Ontario reported that women are more likely to consider a man in a photograph a desirable relationship partner if the picture is accompanied by a funny quote attributed to the man. In fact, the women preferred the funny men despite rating them, on average, less intelligent and less trustworthy.

    Although the men in Bressler and Balshine’s study did not prefer witty women as partners, other research indicates that both men and women value a “sense of humor” when choosing a partner. Either way, males do seem to like ladies who laugh at their jokes. A 1990 study suggests that when women and men chat, the amount of laughing by the woman indicates both her interest in dating the man and her sexual appeal to the man. (The man’s laughter did not relate to attraction in either direction.)

    The issue also has freely available online articles on ‘brain training’, the psychological effect of architecture and personality disorder with many more in the print edition.

    Link to April’s SciAmMind.

    Source:   http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/03/the_attractions_of_h.html

    By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
    March 22, 2009

    Contrary to popular opinion, it appears that romance doesn’t have to die a natural death in a long-term relationship. In a meta-analysis review of 25 studies with 6,070 individuals in short- and long-term relationships published last week, researchers set out to find out whether romantic love is associated with greater relationship satisfaction.

    The findings?

    The researchers found that those who reported greater romantic love were more satisfied in both the short- and long-term relationships.

    Perhaps not surprising, those who reported greater passionate love in their relationships were more satisfied in the short term compared to the long term. Companion-like love, on the other hand, was only moderately associated with satisfaction in both short- and long-term relationships.

    What’s the secret?

    “These people are often very relationship focused,” Acevedo told LiveScience. “Their relationship is something that is very central to their lives, something they spend time on, work on, really care about. They seem to resolve conflicts relatively efficiently and smoothly.”

    Other studies on building strong, romantic relationships also suggest the following may help:

    • *Continue exploring and engaging in new activities and opportunities with one another.
    • *Resolve conflicts as they occur, respectfully; don’t let conflicts simmer and build into something bigger over time.
    • *Find something challenging to do together; a shared challenge can help bring you closer together if you work as a team.
    • *Feeling that your partner is “there for you” is invaluable for a good relationship.
    • *Guard against insecurity, as it can lead to spark relationship problems that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

    Romance doesn’t have to turn into pure friendship over time, nor does it have to die a natural death in long-term relationships. Strive to keep the romance alive in your long-term relationship — it’s not as impossible as it may seem.

    Read the full article: Romance Can Be Maintained in Long-term Relationships.

    Married women lonelier than men

    Stephen Lunn, Social affairs writer | March 19, 2009

    MEN benefit more from being married than women, at least in the emotional stakes, as new research shows married women are lonelier than married men.

    The study finds single, separated and widowed men are considerably lonelier than their female counterparts, but the reverse is true for married or de facto couples.

    Overall, more than 30 per cent of Australians rate themselves as lonely, the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index shows, although men’s emotional welfare is harder hit by this loneliness.

    “While the proportion of females reporting loneliness is similar, the wellbeing loss associated with loneliness is most pronounced for males,” says the report, due for release today.

    “Men who have never been married, who are separated or who are widowed are significantly lonelier than females in the same circumstances. Curiously, married and de facto females record higher levels of loneliness than married or de facto men. In this respect, therefore, marriage benefits males more than females.”

    The Wellbeing Index had 2000 people rate their level of loneliness on a scale of 0 to 100. More than 30 per cent of people put their loneliness above 40.

    Report author Bob Cummins said a rating of more than 30 put emotional wellbeing at risk. He said the different emotional make-up of men and women might explain why single men were lonelier than single women.

    In addition to relying more on their relationship for emotional sustenance, men also relied on money to stave off loneliness more so than women.

    “Men from households with an income less than $60,000 are significantly lonelier than men with a household income between $100,000 and $250,000,” the report says.

    Source:   http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25208448-23289,00.html

    By Therese J. Borchard
    March 22, 2009

    A few readers asked if I would write out the content of my videos in accompanying text. Here you go:

    Friendships are a lot like marriages in that some are healthy and some are toxic, or unhealthy. But you sound pretty ridiculous explaining to people why you are sad: “Man, I just broke up with a friend, and it’s really painful.” But that is, in essence, what you are doing, and it needs to be treated the same way as a romantic relationship or marriage ending: with a lot of support and nurturing. As friendships develop and evolve, some don’t have all the right ingredients to last. So it’s right and natural that some break. But that period after the split is so awkward, for both people: the breaker-upper, or the breaker-uppee. I’ve sat in both seats.

    I love the way Anne Morrow Lindbergh talks about friendships in her classic, “Gift from the Sea.” She writes:

    I shall ask into my shell only those friends with whom I can be completely honest. I find I am shedding hypocrisy in human relationships. What a rest that will be! The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.

    I love that. Because I’m trying to be more sincere in my relationships. And as I do that I’m finding that some aren’t as healthy as I thought. The only requirement lately that I’ve been asking myself is this: Do I feel empowered by this relationship? Or do I feel deflated? After having coffee or lunch with this person, do I feel better about myself? Does this person build me up? Or do I feel worse about myself? Does this person in some way take away from me?

    When I ask that question it reveals to me whether the relationship is toxic or healthy.

    Yesterday I was having a discussion with one of my friends about a friendship with which I’m frustrated, and she made a point that helped me understand why some of my relationships can’t be healthy. She said, “It’s hard to be in a true, loving, mutual friendship with a person who is so wounded that they can’t reciprocate the love and the support.”

    Understood in that perspective, I feel less jaded, less hurt, by the person. I just know that she or he is so wounded that they can’t act in any other way. It’s not possible for them to be in a mutual loving relationship. Their wounds get in the way.

    I’m going to close by reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s excerpt again, because I find it so empowering:

    I shall ask into my shell only those friends with whom I can be completely honest. I find I am shedding hypocrisy in human relationships. What a rest that will be! The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.

    Source(Includes Video 3:12):  http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/03/22/video-when-a-friendship-ends/

    Further evidence explains ‘broken heart syndrome’

    By Crystal Phend, Staff Writer, MedPage Today

    PROVIDENCE, R.I., March 27 — More evidence emerged that stress cardiomyopathy, popularly known as “broken heart syndrome,” is not a classic heart attack.

    The long-term effects of the syndrome’s heart attack-like symptoms, brought on by sudden emotional or physical trauma, appeared almost fully reversible, Richard A. Regnante, MD, of the Miriam Hospital and Brown University here, and colleagues found.


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