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Judging me, judging you.

I just finished a session on unconscious bias which was aimed at helping us understand why, despite equalities supposedly being enshrined in law, society is still so unfair. By understanding unconscious bias we can begin to frame prejudice as something we are bombarded with from the world around us and realise that only by developing our response to it can we really eliminate it.

What is unconscious bias? Our background. Our childhood. Our favourite fruit, show and personal experience with a University or a salon or a neighbourhood. Everything around us is made up of societal stereotypes and forced into cultural context because that is how we can even begin to comprehend the world around us. For example, think of these 3 words – pilot, personal assistant, 5 year old. Did you think – man, woman, neurotypical? Of course, you did. I did too.

Unconscious bias has evolved alongside our cognitive functions, our history and our own individual experience over thousands of years. Trying to fight it is helpless, but learning to accept the thought and actively choosing to change it is how we will start to shift the bias for future generations.

Let’s take a child as an example – what do you think of? A boy, probably, around 4/5 years old, maybe just started walking and playing with some sort of toy. You don’t think of an 8 year old girl struggling to spell, speak, eat, or walk – but she’s a child too. So, next time you are speaking to a parent of autism and your mind catches sight of that fictional boy hold the image and open it up. Let the parent tell you about their child’s tantrum, their dietary preferences, what they are learning in speech therapy and let those words shape the image in your mind. Holding on to the original thought means you will think – aren’t they too old for a tantrum? What kid doesn’t like chips? Shouldn’t they be doing more advanced stuff at this age?

Let’s say there’s an adult walking towards you, on his tiptoes, making grunting noises – what do you think of? A man, drunk or on drugs, probably, and it immediately triggers your defence instincts. There’s nothing wrong with this reaction because your survival instinct is too strong to manipulate – it’s been developing for millions of years. Stop judging yourself for judging people on appearance because that’s all the information you have during the split second your instinct kicks in. It’s what you do after the thought that speaks to who you are. You wouldn’t think it’s an adult with autism just walking and stimming for many, many reasons. Maybe you don’t know about autism, maybe you don’t know stimming, maybe you’ve had a hard day – but what do you do when you do realise, or when you know?

I know I use this example too often but let’s think of a busy, long flight and a screaming kid – what do you think? Probably some profanities, judging the parent who can’t ‘control’ their kid, wondering why, of all the planes in the world, it had to be this one. Well after all those thoughts, which will take about a second to form and go through your mind, remember how different we all are. Put yourself in the parent’s or the kid’s position. Maybe you know about sensory overresponsivity (from my previous post *winkwink*) or maybe you just put your headphones in.

Unconscious bias will have an impact on our decisions and actions without realising. We will relate more and offer more allowances to people we know something familiar about – like people who are from the same country or enjoy our kind of music – and we will judge people who don’t like what we think is the bomb.com, like smoked salmon or Stranger Things. We will be more inclined to learn about different abilities if we know people who have them – like autism, Downs or paraplegia – and we will be more sceptical of conditions we don’t understand – like Tourettes or palmar hyperhidrosis (clammy hands or feet).

How we react when we recognise unconscious bias is what we should noticing, passing on to others and using our experiences to shape a new image for pilot, personal assistant and 5 year old. The first step is to stop judging yourself, for judging others. The rest of the steps are up to you.

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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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21 and Atypical: Happy Birthday Steph🍾🍰

Stephanos is 21 years old today!

19358841_10154713771921238_1693404057_oJust like his bestie, he won’t be preoccupied with this day. His birthday will serve as a reminder to his family of how far he has come and how many Steph milestones he has reached. A birthday is too typical to be atypical like our boys. Stephanos won’t get excited about presents, or friends coming over for a party. His phone won’t be beeping with Happy Birthday notifications and he won’t feel the social pressure we feel when we reach a certain age.

Stephanos doesn’t live to please social norms, or to meet society’s expectations 27752278_10155332857716238_3880961810554679579_nof what a 21 year old ‘should’ do. As his mother has so beautifully put it “He may not accomplish University, marriage, or having children like in a “ typical ” world but he has been totally loved and supported by family , friends, schooling and society. I am positive if he could speak he would confirm in a verbal manner how blessed he is on this subject. Autism is part of society nowadays and we all do our “ bit” to accept and embrace because after all we are just human. We have all learned that a “ typical” world isn’t always for everyone. Society has its beautiful exceptions and Stephanos is an example”.

Stephanos lives to break the ‘norms’, exceed expectations, inspire and pave the way to a new and more inclusive world. He was the inspiration for so many actions taken by his family that have shaped and given meaning to my life. He inspired our group, the special unit in Ayia Napa, the summer schools for children with autism in our area and eventually the SMILE project. In a world where everyone wants to be an individual, Stephanos is the most inspiring of them all. Because Stephanos has allowed so many others to be themselves, to be individuals and to be exceptions just by being himself.

Happy birthday Steph. Thank you for inspiring my family, for opening doors for us we never thought possible. Thank you for being my brother’s friend.

Stephanos’ birthday closes my 21 and Atypical series (although I will be referring back to it with updates from the boys). So join me in wishing him a very happy birthday.

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21 and Atypical: The SMILE Project

64582350_2087828768006568_1085529915794653184_oThe SMILE Project is a culmination of the fears, determination and strength of the autism families in the Famagusta area in Cyprus. It was born out of fear of what will happen to our adults with autism who require care. It was created with determination to establish a safe, educational space for our kids where the state has failed. It is opening today because of the fearlessness and strength of those involved. Those who have done the manual work, donating time and money to ensure that our gentle giants do not suffer the consequences of a state that doesn’t understand them. Today, 19th June at 7:30pm in Paralimni, we open our doors to 3 young adults who pave the way to a better future for all adults with autism in Cyprus.

The Smile Project will be based in the Famagusta Area (Paralimni) and will provide day-care services for young autistic adults of 21 years old and over. 64912747_2382131665339646_8103174948933074944_nIn every autism family, there comes that dreaded time where you have to think of what’s next. Our families and Autism Support Famagusta powered through obstacles, lack of funding and the absence of support to imagine what would happen after State school comes to an end. We, the families, know that there is no provision or services with specialised staffing for young adults with autism in our area – so we needed to act.

The future of our children is a concern for all parents.
Who will take care of them?
Where will he/she live?
Will they be safe and have a quality of life when we are no longer here?

The SMILE project is a massive achievement and a stepping stone. The ultimate goal will be a 24-hour care centre with overnight stay but also a day care provision for adults on the autism spectrum. The centre will offer sensory sensitive activities tailored to each child, music therapy, speech therapy, arts and crafts etc.

Our children’s learning will not stop. We are working together towards the same goal which is to provide support to families with children on the autism spectrum.

As a group, we are blessed to have had the support of the Municipality of Ayia Napa, the Mayor, local councillors and staff every step of the way. We are hopeful and confident that other Municipalities in Cyprus will embrace and support us to pave the way to a brighter future for autism in our beautiful island.

So.. join us – all you have to do is smile.

If you want to help:

Donate here https://www.autismsupportfamagusta.com/donate-index-impact

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21 and Atypical: Steph’s Got Talent

You will remember that Stephanos loves the arts. Playing music, singing, drawing, painting, crafts etc. He uses his talent to express words and emotions in a different way – like a true artist!

Over the years, he has taken major steps in improving his skills through weekly lessons and “he will improve much more as he grows and has the potential for much more that what we give him credit for” his mum reminds us. He loves painting horses, having started with a basic drawing of the outline and then moved on to slowly adding the horse mane, the tail to eventually winning an Erasmus award for one of his paintings.

60342861_295902934633404_3523312190037688320_nA friend of the family was part of ESIPP and Erasmus: ESIPP stands for Equality and Social Inclusion Through Positive Parenting and aims to provide parents with accurate information, effective practical strategies and improving outcomes for individuals with autism and their families. Parental autism education has not been available everywhere in Europe and through the work undertaken and the findings in the project ESIPP has made key recommendations for policy makers. The ESIPP project was established to develop a locally appropriate Parent Education Programme (PEP) for families living with autism in three south-east European countries (Croatia, Cyprus and the North Macedonia). The project is led by the University of Northampton and includes eight other partner organisations from across Europe.

ESIPP asked for design submissions for the project logo. So the society rounded up about 15 paintings from the Famagusta area. The Autism Famagusta Support society runs a yearly summer school in Ayia Napa where the children who attend undertake a range of activities – and they always keep kids work. Stephanos was one of the first for Cyprus.

Nowadays, he has an art studio next to his home where he takes daily lessons and showcases his art. At School, Stephanos loves art class and creating things in woodworking lessons. While the equipment was usually left to be handled by the teachers, a couple of months ago Stephano’s mum was sent photos of his latest woodwork creations from school where he actually put together this wood placemat with hot glue alone.

Stephanos also paints most of the clay money boxes that we decorate and sell at events.

 

Currently, he is working on creating occasion cards as another way to promote Autism Support Famagusta, autism awareness and earn money from selling cards created with Stephano’s input. I’m already putting in my order so all you summer babies that I love so much will be getting a Steph card! While he doesn’t come up with the occasion designs all alone, he follows instructions and does all the drawing and colouring.

Every single one of you express yourselves in a different way – with emotions, physical strength, volume, writing, activism. Which means that, at the end of the day, the only thing we have in common is that we are all different.

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You can donate to our society here.

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21 and Atypical: A very Disney birthday

60007825_1102919996568611_2483072549760532480_nChristos celebrated his 21 birthday on Monday 6 May 2019 at the Disneyland Parks in Paris. He was spoiled for 4 days with mum running after him and buying him basically anything he wanted. We were a bit grumpy on one of the days due to headaches but looking around at all the families and all the crying kids I’m convinced that we didn’t stand out. There’s something in the air in Disney that makes every one (adult or not) have at least one tantrum.

Disneyland Paris is very accessible to people with different abilities. You get a special pass delivered to the hotel which means that you can skip queues and get special seats fit for your needs. Their maps have an accessibility guide which describes each ride (how loud, how many steps, how bright etc). Overall, the Disney experience is magical. He smiled a lot, cried a bit, pretended to cry a few times and on his birthday he let the restaurant sing him happy birthday and he blew out his candles.

I often wonder if he knows what a birthday is, if he gets excited. But birthdays are 59918925_406917366526247_477245289778905088_n (1)weird and, really, what is there to ‘know’? So, he waits for the song to finish, he blows out the candles and gets to eat cake after. Christos won’t get Facebook posts wishing him happy birthday, he won’t get texts, he won’t go out and celebrate with his friends, he won’t ask for money to spend, he won’t ask for expensive presents, he won’t make a big show of opening presents. The greatest gift we gave him on Monday was sticking to the programme we made.

I ask my mum if she thinks he knows I am his sister or whether he thinks I’m some girl who shows up a couple of days a year to annoy him. She said I’m crazy. But I have lived in a different country for 11 years and, yes, I know all the things I can say to myself to make it okay. Yet since Tuesday when he gave me a rushed kiss and flew back to Cyprus, I haven’t been able to stop being sad. When I’m with him I try to get into his routine and I try to do things for him but he doesn’t want me to – he wants mum to put his hat on, or to hold his hand, make his breakfast etc. And, I get it because mum, dad, yiayia and pappou are the people who are there for him every day. 10/10 times he needs something I am not there to help him and he knows it. It empties me – this feeling of wanting but not being there. You may think that living with autism is hard, but let me tell you that being away from it is just as painful.

Just like my mum, my family and friends will tell me I’m crazy and that he loves me. They will point out all the nuances that reaffirm that he knows who I am and for a couple of months, that will be enough for me to be okay. I’ll catch up with my thoughts to remember that he is happy and all the sadness and guilt I feel are completely selfish because I can’t add to his life right now. Maybe, later. I hope.

59746931_803068253409282_2241911501889732608_n18 years ago, when he got diagnosed we wondered if we would be able to handle it, if he would ever speak, if we would ever be able to communicate with him. We worried whether he would be able to do things for himself like tying shoe laces, eating, bathing. When he was five, we never would have imagined sitting down and having a conversation with him about what he wants, why he’s upset, how we can fix it.  We never thought he would handle school as well as he did, or socialise as well as he does. At 21 he still surprises us with his quick math, his photographic memory, his compassion, organisation and humour. That’s the Christos I want tell you about – my resilient, honest, brave, loyal cheeky and atypically typical brother.

So, I write this blog post instead of sending a card, I ask for pictures instead of Skyping and, every year, I try even harder to be better. I think of the years I was there and how I was a part of his smiles, his laughter, his crying, his bedtime rituals, his repetitiveness, his speech therapy, his tantrums, his education, his homework, his first steps, his first words, his transition, his moves, his development.  I dream of sharing the rest of my life with him, for our happily ever after, and want with all of my being for him to know that I will be there and that I am his sister.

Happy birthday Christos, I love you, thank you and respect you 💙

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21 and Atypical: The stories we don’t tell

I remember so many 2am’s almost drifting into sleep when I would hear Christos whisper “Oh” and wait for me to repeat it. If i didn’ respond he would climb int bed with me until I did. Sometimes I didn’t use the right volume, tone or accent so he repeated it until I did, all night and as long as he wasn’t asleep himself.  By the time 6am came around and all three of us struggled to put his socks on, the right way. They need to be put on perfectly, if not you start again. If you touch the wrong spot, or accidentally stroke his ankle, toe at any point you have to start again. If you tickle him or give him an inadvertent ‘Lets go’ pat, you start again. If you don’t start at the right end, if both sides aren’t moving up at the same pace, if its too high or too low, you start again, you start again, you start again. No loose ends, no marks, no holes otherwise you start again. Even if its not visible, is it a new pair? Are you sure they’re a pair? Start again, just in case. Then come the shoes. Something’s not right; is it the shoes or the socks? Take everything off and start again. By the time we were ready for school we had already lived an entire working day.

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Stephanos, while in bed at night will hear his mum – or whoever is downstairs – clear their throat and he will run down the stairs, go straight outsidem, lie flat on the ground in the garden and sing a song until he is not upset and he is ready to go back to bed. Just like anyone of us the boys have characters of their own. They get angry when people don’t understand them, when a sound is so loud or a light is so bright that it interferes with their welbeing – wouldn’t you? Sometimes, they shout, scream and lose control – don’t you? The difference is that you can communicate your frustration, you can talk about it and find ways forward.

But what if you couldn’t?

Christos’ triggers could have been anything when he was growing up. We were all learning, trying to get to know this ball of fire that was gifted to us. Sometimes the consequence was a million ‘Ohs’, sometimes it was scratching at a mosquito bite until it was raw. I remember his arms, legs and face bear the scars of his incessant picking at every bit of his skin and tearing off any protection we tried to offer. He twisted his arm, legs and head hair to the point of pulling it off. Other times, he would be hitting his head with a closed fist so hard it left a mark, punching his arms and legs while clenching his jaw in frustration to whatever it was we had done wrong. What could we do? He was obsessed with every little spot on him, us, clothes items around the house. We would wipe and wipe and wipe until our hands we sore but whatever it was he could see was still there. When he became a teenager his frustration grew, and so did he. He is 6ft something and 90kg, he overshadows me at 5.2ft (and whatever weight I am depending on the year) and the rest of our family, teachers, friends. He would throw anything that was in his hand. I remember him once throwing his school bag over a tall bush and into the middle of the road. I remember him squeezing my fingers in his palm until I cried or squeezing my nans arm until he got yelled at by mum. He dug his nails so hard into his own skin that it bled and then he would cry.

At 13, Stephanos broke a window in his home. His injuries were so bad that he needed surgery. The next day, he woke up in pain, disorientated, and with stitches. He ripped them off during his meltdown despite his family’s best and desperate efforts to help. His self-harm started during his puberty. He used a closed fist to hit the side of his face so hard that he caused the retina in his eye to detach. His family lived with his rage and self-harm every day for years, this had become commonplace. He didn’t communicate to say something felt off but one day his mum noticed a whiteness in his eye and took him to the doctor who confirmed that Stephanos is blind in one eye. To help control his outbursts, his family used medication to calm him down but they say they never got to the root of the aggression, which peaked at 16/7 years old. Was it pain? Was it sensory? All they know was that they felt lost.

The families all feel guilt for not doing enough and for any harm the boys inflict on themselves, for every behaviour, every sound or scream. Not only are they judged and stared at for every atypical behaviour, they judge themselves always striving to do and give more. What parent doesn’t feel that? Our parent’s stood up, against all odds, in a society that didn’t even know the word ‘autism’ and created functioning, well-behaved adults who understand, laugh and love. What were you like as a teenager? And if you weren’t taught to refrain yourselves would you know how to?

Sensory sensitivity can be a real struggle. We could lie and say we are used to it after 20 years but it’s still frustrating and I still get annoyed and fight with Christos. The only advice that exists is keep at it, you’ll get it right at some point. It’s not their fault, and it sure isn’t your fault. We don’t understand what they see, hear or feel and that is in no way your fault. To everyone else who doesn’t live with autism – sometimes we don’t even hear the screaming because we live in a ball of scream. Other times, we don’t react to the hitting or pulling or scratching or throwing because we live in a world where silence is not the typical. Once the 100th storm of the day has passed, Stephanos’ calming depends on which behaviour has been triggered. He may go lie down by the front door, run to the back of the house, sing a song and stim with his index finger or stay flat down reciting a song. He will shred flowers, grass and weeds through his fingers, at day or night and for hours. He goes back in the house, he smiles and suddenly the slate is wiped. You have the strength to take on another 7 storms. Once the millionth ‘Oh’ has been said, Christos will just repeat our names over and over until we look like we are happy. He will shower us with cuddles and make us apologise for what we did to cause it. He will laugh until we laugh and he will cry if we cry. He will apologise and smile. Suddenly my fingers don’t hurt anymore and his kissy face makes it all ok.

So what happens when we aren’t there? Where will these reactions be housed? Where 11165285_10206036337501718_7756282778690047842_nwill they find forgiveness? How will they be understood? How do you size them up, find what they need and keep them safe? In Cyprus, in our case, the answer is to create something our government doesn’t offer – or can’t offer quickly enough. We work to find ways to fund high quality facilities which are based on ethical and inspiring opportunities for children and young adults with autism in the Famagusta area. To recruit and ensure that their education and development doesn’t stop just because being ‘typical’ means you leave school at 18. The members of the Autism Support Famagusta charity work all day, take care of their family and rack their brains to facilitate activities and growth based on individual interests and skills. Two of the boys going into this home will be Christos and Stephanos will you help?

The stories we don’t tell are the stories where we are all to blame for not making this world a world we can all live, grow and be in. They are stories in which our pursuit for comfortable and easy conversations are depriving young adults their future. They are the stories in which we are the villains for not caring enough because it’s not our ‘problem’. Christos and Stephanos hide from the Disney villains on the TV and they turn the villains around them to warriors. Which one are you? And what will you do this April, for autism awareness month, to make sure everyone has a place in this world? Until every last piece of the puzzle fits?