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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: 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?

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21 and Atypical: Stephanos

young stephStephanos was born on 21.06.1998. His mum remembers his first words being ‘Mama Papa’ before he was even 1 year old. His 5 older siblings showered him with love because he was the baby, the centre of attention. They were all enchanted by that big smile. Just like any other infant he ate a variety of fruit jars, fruit cremes and mashed potatoes and carrots, packed full of flavour and smells.

At 11 months, he stopped reacting to his name. He stopped eating colourful food and stuck to Cerelac, biscuits and Farley’s rusks. He closed himself off, deaf to his family’s calls for affection. They remember it as him regressing instead of progressing. He stopped saying ‘mama papa’. He started stimming – hands in front of eyes, flapping hands, tiptoeing and making sure all his trains and cars were in the right order.

At 2 and a half years old he was diagnosed with ASD.

Stephanos’ family quickly jumped into action. They tried most of the alternative therapies for autism as well as speech therapy, occupational therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis, one to one teaching and of course used PECS. With PECS his family started communicating with him again. With music therapy they got to see that smile again. With speech therapy his speech resurfaced. Little by little, they got an inch of him back at a time.

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With the support of his big, strong family Stephanos was able to express his artistic side. Nowadays, he has an art studio next to his home where he takes daily lessons. He loves painting horses, having started with a basic drawing and slowly adding the horse mane and the tail to eventually win an Erasmus award for one of his paintings. He also has music sessions three times a week and he loves it! In fact, he knows most of the Disney songs off by heart and he loves Grease the film – and I mean, who wouldn’t? His mum describes to us how on school days they have to play Peter Pan, El Dorado and Robin Hood in the morning, have a little dance and roll and only then are they ready to go to school and start the day.

Even through his verbal communication has declined over the years, Stephanos is a major part of the Prodromou familia. He makes them all laugh, he makes them proud with his art, he overwhelms them with pride when he simply picks up a piece of cheese from the fridge and makes himself a mini sandwich. Stephanos’ own milestones and accomplishments are the product of a long and difficult journey.

Through his ups and downs, he has grown into a thoughtful, caring, compassionate and talented adult who approaches you when you are upset and gets excited when his siblings visit. Perhaps the greatest thing Stephanos has done is inspire the people around him. His family, friends, teachers and other kids get to see his progress and have hope.  Stephanos’ story gives hope to newly diagnosed families that it will get better and even if it doesn’t there is a group of people who will stand by them. He has inspired his parents and my parents to take action and to speak up for him and for all the autism families who need it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when getting to know Stephanos. I’ll be telling you all about what he likes, dislikes, his calming routines and even his bad days – because who doesn’t have one of those once in a while? We’ll dive into a beautiful, atypical friendship between two boys who accept, acknowledge and respect each other. For example, Stephanos does not like it if you touch your own face or head (same for Christos), yet! somehow they don’t bat an eye lid when one of them does it. Boys eh!

#21andatypical

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21 and atypical: Friendship

Countless interactions, conversations, memes and quotes indicate that friendship is voluntary mutual respect, support, loyalty, laughs and a connection that lasts a lifetime. Your classic examples of a friendship are images of people hanging out, going out, sharing experiences and emotions.

Would you consider it a friendship if the two people involved had never uttered a word to each other? If they had met when they were 7 and gone through primary school, high school, speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy together without having a play-date or sharing a secret? Is it a voluntary friendship between the two boys if the parents were the ones that fit the friendship description above? If it was the parents who supported each other emotionally, mentally, called, shared their deepest darkest fears and found strength in their shared experiences?

Dr. Suzanne Degges-White , a friendship expert, explains that “True friendships are hallmarked by each member’s desire to engage with the other – it’s about mutual interest in one another’s experiences and thoughts, as well as a sense of ‘belongingness’ and connection…Friendships require reciprocity – of admiration, respect, trust, and emotional and instrumental support.

Christos and Stephanos met in 2005 when they started primary School in Ayia Napa. They were 7 years old and had been diagnosed with ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since then, they have grown up in each other’s presence.

52158514_408230119981576_493427098757627904_nThis year, they are turning 21 in May and June. This year, they leave school together. This year they find themselves facing a new challenge because governments don’t offer suitable support for adults with autism. This year, once again, they carve out a new path – their own path – which will be one that will enable other adults with autism to follow. Our boys will lead the way – again. They will inspire – again.

Over the next few months we (the two families), in collaboration with the Famagusta Autism Support Group, will be campaigning to raise awareness about autism in adults by attempting to give you a glimpse into Christos’ and Stephanos’ silent friendship. A friendship that is purely mutual respect and acceptance. A friendship that is as unique as the two gentlemen behind it.

The mission of the 21 and Atypical awareness campaign is to document how one pair of children with autism grew up to become adults with autism. We want to shed light on the highs and lows of their journey to adulthood through stories, memories, dreams and ambitions with an aim to create a world in which they are simply ‘adults’ accepted and accommodated by our societies. We hope that their story will inspire you to help us or your local autism group/organisation/neighbouring family build foundations for adults with autism to grow, set down roots and pave the way to a more positive future.

 

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When Will We Learn?

I’m not going to write about the atrocity that was the US Election – here’s what i felt a year ago #Project324 Trump, Republicans and Disabilities, oh my.

I’m going to write about hope, the future. I’m going to remind you that you can change things, that you need to be strong in the face of racism, discrimination and unfairness. I’m going to ask you to take action, to not let this perversion become our legacy. I’m going to ask you to think about what world you want our kids to grow up in and what we can do right now to make sure they do.

Ambitious about Autism is an organisation i work with, they’ve put on projects like: #EmployMe for which I wrote –  What happens when you turn 18? UN International Day of Families for which I wrote – A letter to my autistic brother on his 18th birthday . Fun fact – I wrote this in 15 minutes and cried the whole way through, I haven’t read this since it’s been published. Maybe fun isn’t the word for it. Autism Friendly – Ambitious about Autism supported a London-based restaurant in winning the first of the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Awards. Making the world Autism-Friendly Back to School – School Bells

Their latest is called #WhenWillWeLearn. The ambition is to make the ordinary possible for children and young people with autism. They provide services at schools and colleges, raise awareness and understanding and campaign for change. 

And they don’t give up. Their campaign asks you to write to your MP (if you are in the UK). Those of you outside the UK can write to your local authority, or you can write to me – I would love to forward your letter to our MPs, because it doesn’t matter where you live. A small change can resonate around the world – that’s the beauty of awareness, it doesn’t have borders. Sign up to show your support: ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/pledge-your-support or email me.

The campaign highlights that:
80% of children with autism experience anxiety every day about attending school;
45% had been illegally denied their right to a full education;
Over 1000 parents are forced to take legal action every year to get the support their child is entitled to;
42% of classroom teachers say their training doesn’t prepare them to meet the needs of children with autism; I wrote about this here.

So, please don’t give up. Because we have made a difference already; businesses introducing schemes to train people on the spectrum like Ford, Apple, Microsoft etc; stores introducing quiet hour to accommodate autism; TV shows are introducing characters on the spectrum; theatres/cinemas are catering for autistic youth; ‘neurodiversity’ is an official term and it’s all because of all of you, reading about autism and not giving up.

15007644_10154605350205030_2088488013_oI traveled to Venice on the 3rd November and, incidentally, it was also the day that Gatwick became an Autism Friendly airport. A ceremony was held but I didn’t know about it until later when i was stuffing my face with gelato and thinking about how much Christo would love it. The airport was presented with an award by the Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society to mark the achievement. Gatwick met a range of Autism Friendly criteria to help passengers, their families and carers, it has been praised for providing clear and accessible information for passengers about the airport and the assistance available to help plan for their journey. Staff have been specially trained to help assist autistic passengers and a hidden disability lanyard system has been put in place. HOW EXCITING. I wrote about Chris at the airport here. I know, I’ve referred to my own writings a lot in this post but it just goes to show that the information is everywhere, and it’s only a click away. So, click.

It’s up to us – we have to do this, we have to write, speak, call, email, visit, shout about all the things we want and by doing it for our own, we are doing it for everyone; one step at a time. Now, more than ever, we need to unite. We need to be one and we need to make our voices heard, because they did – so why can’t we? Now more than ever, we should recognise the power or the people. Because it was people that did this, and it will be people that change it.

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The end of Chapter 3

Earlier this week I found out that i have finally passed my Legal Practice Course; an LPC is the vocational stage of training to be a solicitor that must be taken after completing a law degree and before practicing. This means that after 8 years of being a law student, I am done. I was trying to describe to my friends how happy I was to receive the news and I couldn’t find words.

If you are a regular reader, you know that this was part of my life plan. I moved away from home, I’ve been studying since 2008 and working alongside my studies to set down the cornerstones of the life Christos will have to join eventually. This last month has been a tough one. My nan was in hospital for 3 weeks. My nan, or my 75137_10150101622680030_3087748_nyiayia, is a 2-time cancer survivor, she’s worked since she was 14 and she raised us all with such love. She loves a good sing-along, a western cowboy film, she knows how to throw a good party, she loves a good beer with her lunch and a whiskey on special occasions. She looks amazing; i know I’m biased but look at her! She always takes care of herself even though she worked 16-hour days, she never said no to a customer or an ill aunt, she was never too tired to run around after her grandchildren and I’m so proud of her – I used to borrow my yiaya’s jewelry and shoes, that’s how cool my yiayia is. She’s one tough cookie. I love my yiayia, she makes the best food, the best tea, toast and jam, she makes the best cakes (she owned a confectionery), she cries every time we speak and she rubs my feet even though hers are way more tired. I love my yiayia the most though because of how she treats Christo. I talk a lot about how our family felt after the diagnosis but my nan and granddad were right there with us. They went through all the emotions, all the ups and downs. They picked us up from school, babysat, they took Christo to speech therapy, to the oxygen chamber appointments, they watched the Lion King a thousand times, they picked up after  a tantrum, they always had a stash of calming treats, they stopped singing because he doesn’t like it and they never gave up on him. She has been a support to us and to Christo for as long as he has been with us. She knows his language, his schedule and how to bribe him for kisses and hugs. Christo knows he has to respect her, he knows which buttons to push and he knows that every time he says ‘yiayia’ she is ready to give him the world. I love the way they love him because it looks like the way i love him. It’s my only consolation, knowing he is loved that much every day I am not there.

By completing the course, I’ve ticked off a big box on my preparation list for our future. It’s something I have been working on for years, it’s the one thing I’ve worked so hard on, it’s what i will base the rest of my life on. And it’s done, it’s just there now waiting to be built on – waiting for me.

The end of the LPC is the end of the first big chapter in my life. 2 years of 4000 words every 10 days, 17 exams, sleepless nights, lots of wine, and lots of tears and it’s over. I breathe a sigh of relief before I move on, i take a moment to leave this behind and digest what it all means. In my head, everything i did was a step closer to the end game – the LPC was about 150,000 steps. I can look at my brother now with confidence, with certainty that we are going to be okay. I like to think that if he knew he would be proud, I like to think that deep down he knows. I can look back to when I left him to study in Lancaster and not be struck down by guilt; because after 8 years i did what i left him for. I think of all the birthdays i missed, all the tantrums, all the times he needed me and even though i can never go back and be there, it wasn’t all in vain.

Stay tuned for Chapter 4 of Life with the Pereras.