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21 and Atypical: Dancing with the Stars (aka Sisters)

Christina is Stephanos’ older sister and she shared this story with me earlier this week.

53423695_926770284324454_1836469629984178176_nWhen I was around 15 and Steph was 14 we used to listen to this song “I will survive” by  Gloria Gaynor and we used to just dance to it“. Christina is a year older than Stephanos and has loved dancing since forever. So , she decided to make up a choreography to the song and include Stephanos! Her many choreography stunts included lifting her little brother which she finds hilarious now as he is much bigger and taller than her.  They rehearsed it and danced to that song all the while sealing their sibling bond and creating memories that would last forever and would end up being shared on this blog, with you! As they got older and Christina moved to the UK for her studies their dance faded into their childhood. Christina remembers “after approximately 5 years, we were just sitting around with my mom and Steph listening to the radio when the song popped up! I looked over at him and said ‘Steph it’s our song!’ For a moment he looked at me like he was trying to process which song it was but when I stood up and positioned myself he immediately stood up as well and walked to the exact position he had to, to start off our choreography. I was so amazed by his memory. We started dancing to it again and of course half way through I forgot it but he remembered it all.” 

483721_10151540249360030_589832536_nFunnily enough, when I went home recently we were watching old home movies and going through old pictures and found videos of me and Christos dancing in our flat in our pyjamas. We would listen to same song repeatedly, switching off all the lights and run around with flashlights.

Growing up with a younger sibling with autism we couldn’t help but wonder if we can handle it, if they would ever speak, if we would ever be able to communicate with them. At first we were afraid, we were petrified and kept thinking we could never live with this diagnosis by our side. But, we survived. We look back at those years now thinking how we spent oh-so many nights just feeling sorry for ourselves, crying because we thought we’d crumble. Yet, we survived. We more than survived. We were pushed, inspired, lifted and moulded by them. We are us because of them.

As sisters we were tied to this dance even before we were born. But, and I’m sure Christina will agree, if we had a choice, 20ish years later and knowing all the things we know now, we would always choose to spend all our lifetimes dancing with Christos and Stephanos.

Read about more amazing sisters I have met through this blog here.

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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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An autism sister watching Atypical Season 2, Episodes 3-10

It took me a while to get through this season because it is so emotionally charged. It’s a bit too relatable for me.

Ultimately, I want you to watch it and see these 6 things.

1: In episode 3, Sam walks out of his class at some point due to sensory overload. The way he walks out reminded me of my brother. The eyes, the mouth twitching, the hand shaking, the urgency in his step. He walks out of that class as if his life depended on it. Sam has autism spectrum disorder. Keir Gilchrist, the actor, does not. Creating a single, accurate portrayal of living with ASD is impossible. Therefore, to create something relatable to as many people as you can you endeavour to make connections through different interpretations of ASD. It is a colossal credit to the people behind Atypical that Keir was able to remind little old me of my autistic brother in that scene. You can hear what he has to say about the show here, at Autfest 2018 hosted by Autism Society of America. In the same breath, we are introduced to an autism group with a range of individuals. These actors are all on the spectrum in real life. Again, they do not represent the entire autism community but they are there, on the screen with their own traits teaching all of us that autism has as many faces as the ‘normal’ cult. We see that they are honest, they have insecurities we can relate to and they care and look out for each other.

2: Doug and Elsa 44333001_353571598538233_179029183383470080_nare encouraged to promote awareness after an incident with Sam. I don’t want to state the obvious but that’s what i’m doing with this blog, that what we are going with the autism support group in Cyprus, that’s what my dad does with hiring people on the spectrum to work with. It’s not me being me when I say that our people are inspiring. As soon as they waltz into our lives they start tearing down walls, they press a reset button and draw a line between who we were and who we are meant to be. They push us out of our box, and pull us into unknown territory. They open our eyes and give us the gift of purpose.

3: Bullying. We experience Sam’s school life without Casey and although it is heartbreaking to see, watch and relate to we are also reminded that people outside our family have our kids back as well. It’s daunting for an autism family to let go and not be in control. It is nearly impossible to trust when it comes to them because of how cruel our society can be to anyone who is not neurotypical. We are reminded that they will have friends and foes wherever they go, and that their friends are capable of loving them and defending them as ferociously as we do. We experience more of the friendship between Zahid and Sam in this season. It is refreshing to see a portrayal of non-family members and how attuned they are to the needs of the person on the spectrum. It demonstrates the impact a neurodiverse person can have on everyone around them. Zahid gives as good as he takes in this friendship and when he feels he’s out of his league he calls in the big guns – Casey.

4: Sam explains that autism is not an accomplishment. It is not something he worked towards or something he has overcome. For neurotypicals it’s easy to think of someone’s progress as ‘overcoming’ their autism but that’s not an accurate observation or conclusion to make. Autism is something he was born with. Autism it’s part of his physical, genetic, cognitive and behavioural development as a person. He can’t overcome it, because he is it. To Sam, autism is like having fingers and toes. Think of it this way: Some people’s toes are long, some toes are longer than others, some are tiny. Some fingers bend to the left or the right, some have big nail  surfaces some barely have any. No two toes or fingers in the world are the same which means that there are 7.6 billion different pairs of toes in the world. Some people can bend make different shapes with their fingers, some can paint with their toes. Some are ambidextrous, some don’t have all ten.  Who’s to say what a persons abilities are based on their fingers and toes?

5: Casey – Which I talk about extensively here.

6: It is painfully obvious how immense and substantial the research was when the concept of Atypical was cooked up.  The crew, the directors, the writers and the actors show us in every single episode that they are trying to understand all the hundreds of layers that exist beneath the surface of an autism family. Every member is their own person. They don’t have the answers, they don’t do everything right because an autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a manual. Their characters are not superficially drawn up scripts that react to autism. Not all their decisions or actions relate to the person with autism. Each member is a complex human being, who struggles with their insecurities, their past, their future, their friendships/relationships, and autism. They are deeply relatable and painfully real.

Bonus tip: It’s so so worth watching.

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April 2018: 2 Science Headlines

1/ Social pressure

A drug is being tested which claims to help people on the autism spectrum with social skills. Balovaptan, said drug, acts on receptors. Receptors are located on the outside of cells and communicate commands to the inside of the cell. There receptors receive a hormone called vasopressin, which is a hormone from the brain which influences social behavior. Balovaptan is designed to block a receptor of a specific vasopressin, which might be linked to social anxiety says Larry Young, professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Basically, the brain sends vasopressin to cell receptors and some of these hormones affect social behaviour. This drug might be able to prevent the hormones affecting social anxiety. Behavioural “symptoms” of autism can be identified (but not limited to) as trouble in communication and interaction.

The idea of using drugs to change characteristics of people on the autism spectrum to “fit in” to a neurotypical society is worrying. That being said, it is important that such medication is available for the safety of the people that need them and for the mental well-being of the people that make the decision to take them.

We all have some form of social anxiety. Whether its tapping fingers, playing with your hair, flapping arms or other forms of stimming. People on the spectrum are under pressure to behave neurotypically to avoid bullying, rejection, discrimination – referred to as ‘masking’. This may be a solution for some but there’s a better one – it starts with ‘aware’ and ends with ‘ness’.

2/ Genes

Remember the MSSNG project which highlighted “an additional 18 gene variations linked to the development of ASD. Nature Neuroscience Journal, published a report on this project which found that the 18 newly-identified autism genes can be instrumental in understanding the pathways in the brain that affect how cells ‘talk’ to each other.” (The Biology of Autism)?

Remember the research published by Princeton University and Simons Foundation researchers where they analysed the human genome to try and predict which genes are likely to cause autism? They had linked about 2,500 genes to autism; we have an approximate total of 24,000. (Mr Autastic)

WELL: Researchers have found alterations of the gene thousand and one amino-acid kinase 2, known as TAOK2, which is so much fun to say out loud. The alterations found are thought to play a direct role in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism.

Karun Singh, study co-author and researcher with McMaster’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute said: “This is exciting because it focuses our research effort on the individual gene, saving us time and money as it will speed up the development of targeted therapeutics to this gene alone.”

img_6972Science is on its way to delivering answers to what causes autism. They are closer to finding out how to predict autism, and, as a result, closer to finding a way to prevent it. In the  meantime, it’s up to you to ask questions, to include to shatter stereotypes and to embrace the people around you.

 

 

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April 2018: 2 new facts

  1. In 2007, the Qatar representative to the UN, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned,  put forward a UN General Assembly resolution, to create World Autism Awareness Day. This gave way to today, a day dedicated to raising awareness about ASD across the world.
  2. Numbers published by the World Health Organisation show that approx 1 in 160 children are diagnosed with autism. That suggests that of the 7.2 billion people living on Earth, approx 45 million are diagnosed. Plus the lost generation and women that never received a diagnosis due to a variety of factors.

45 million! Autism is no longer a hidden disability.

Autism awareness is not confined to this day, or to this month. We fight for it every day to help educate people on how to better understand autistic people and lessen the stigma and discrimination that autistic people face in every day life. Awareness means that the community can identify and respect the autism spectrum. Awareness means that the financial burden families have to bear may be lessened with proper access to support and by making autism education and alternative therapies a mainstream issue.

Welcome to autism awareness month.

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The “Normal” Cult

29830733_10156190751535030_853762012_oIt’s autism awareness week if you hadn’t noticed & I read this article on BBC about women on the spectrum – It all made sense when we found out we were autistic . These women are teachers, PhD candidates, artists, comedians, psychologists and they are inspiring (& autistic).

About 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autistic Society. That’s approx 1.05% of the UK population.

In a one-hour special for Channel 4, tonight 28 March 2018, trainee human rights lawyer Georgia Harper and artist Sam Ahern, who both have autism, aim to uncover the true face of autism in the UK today. I hope you’ll be watching.

Autism awareness isn’t just about the future of autism, it’s also about the past and present. It’s about every person who feels they don’t “fit in”, all the times it feels like everyone else was given a manual on life, a ‘lost generation’ of thousands of adults going through life without a diagnosis. Autism awareness is about informing, spreading knowledge, sharing stories, finding new ways, and removing the stigma imposed by a system that doesn’t understand.

Autism awareness isn’t spread only by those living with autism. It’s a plague – a good plague. Awareness is born out of love, it spreads with our voices and makes an impact with our actions. It starts with sharing a story with another mum, or with children asking questions, with major airports introducing measures to help passengers with autism, shops introducing ‘autism hours’ and employers investing in autism training for staff. All the milestones we have witnessed in the world in the 5 years started with a voice.

The biggest obstacle to understanding autism is the expectation to look ‘normal’, the imposition of being ‘neurotypical’ and the social bullying that makes us dismiss and disable anything outside this fictional realm of “normal-ness”. We are programmed to treat anything different differently but what happens when you can’t see the difference? We grow up judging books by their covers and learn to condemn them when the cover doesn’t match what we thought should be inside. You ask someone,”Why is it weird if someone won’t make eye contact?”. Unless it’s a cultural trait, no one can think of an answer except a variation of “It’s not normal”.

You see someone and they look ‘normal’, they speak ‘normalish’, their lives seem ‘normal’ – they have a PhD, or a job or a family and they fit in your category of ‘normal’. As soon as you find out they are on the spectrum your perception shifts. You think, “how? why? really?”.

Autism awareness aims to infiltrate and destroy the ‘normal’ cult we subscribe to. It wants to shatter illusions of what we are supposed to do, it wants to expand our horizons and adds new words to our dictionaries. Just like all the once outcasts of this made up and exclusive society of “normal” the autism awareness movement is working. One in 100 people in the UK are diagnosed with ASD, teachers and police officers are trained, there are groundbreaking findings in ASD research and major channels invest money in documentaries, series and autistic actors/presenters (or muppets).

Autism is becoming a regular headline and it all starts with a voice. April is Autism Awareness day/week/month: here are some things you can do to help – Until everyone understands ; Wear Blue ; 30 things to do in April .