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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: Hakuna Matata

It means ‘no worries’ for the rest of your days.

IMG_6995Christos and Stephanos grew up loving Disney, Warner Bros, Dreamworks, Pixar etc – also we love all those films so it was one of the repetitive actions that we didn’t worry about or mind as much. Among their favourites are Anastasia, Hercules, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Pocahontas, Cars, The Road to El Dorado and dozens of others. Our houses were always full of Mickey, Minnie and all the heroes and heroines they grew up watching and imitating. In this post we’ll talk about the Lion King. Since its debut in 1994 The Lion King, won two Golden Globes, two Academy Awards and that’s not even listing all of them! The musical version won a Tony for Best Musical and numerous awards for Best Costume and Lighting. Later this year, summer 2019, Disney are releasing a remake of the Lion King using virtual cinematography technology. Basically, we’re obsessed with the Lion King.

I was lucky enough to go watch the musical in London a couple of weeks ago. Listening to that opening song I was transported back to our living room where I am desperately trying to get my little brother to notice me and play with me. After the age of 1 Christos started ignoring us and tantrums were just ordinary. As a big sister I was enamoured by him and his smile – the one that was too big for his face – and wanted his attention so badly that I let him destroy all my dolls, all my board games, all my Disney VHSs. One of the only things he would let me do with him was watch animated films, like the Lion King. In fact, we watched it almost every day for years. He would play the whole film and then rewind it and watch it in reverse, or he would fast forward scenes that he was scared of.  It got to the point that we had to limit it to only watching it when we visited our grandparents. My grandad, wanting to be part of his world like all of us, would sit with him and watch it whenever he got a chance. He often tells us stories about Christos being afraid of the hyenas and at a specific scary scene (elephant graveyard/Scar’s song) he would  hide behind the couch and listen carefully until it was safe for him to go and take his seat in front of the TV again. Christos wasn’t much for emotion back then (he’s a big softie now) but our grandad remembers how happy he was each and every time he watched it and how he lived every different scene every time. My love affair with these animated films was reignited when I realised they were a world where I could talk to my brother. Through scenes, colours, songs and music I saw my introverted brother react to sounds, express fear, amusement and sadness. Simba, Timon and Pumba unlocked something in Christos that I thought I could never access. Of course, he doesn’t let us sing along or dance or say the lines but there are rare occasions when he does. Like dancing to “A whole new world” with my mum on his 18th birthday or letting me watch The Emperor’s New Groove even though he would rather Peter Pan. Anyway, there I was watching the Lion King musical, weeping at how beautiful it was and at how grateful I am for that first song, the song that brought my brother back to me.
Stephanos’ sister, Christina, has told me about how they watch the Lion King as a reminiscent of what they used to do as kids. When the ‘Hakuna Matata’ song comes up they literally both jump up out of their seats, just like they used to do, and they start imitating Timon and Pumba; she’s Timon and he’s Pumba! She describes how fascinating it is to see Stephanos so full of excitement and joy and how well he can imitate these characters. It’s a great feeling seeing your brother engage and show off skills that you would otherwise miss. It reminds us that while our boys are capable of imitating and pretending, they are also making the choice to just be themselves. Stephanos loves music. His mum was telling me about his artistic side which has developed over the years and what a big part of his life music has become. You may also remember that music is used as a form of alternative therapy many reasons but also for people with ASD. Stephanos jumps into place as Pumba, the big loveable friend who never gave up on Simba, and he hits the exact notes of Hakuna Matata – the most wonderful phrase. Not only that but he also makes the background sounds of the music just with his mouth. His sister says “he is unbelievable and so talented”. Chryso, Stephanos’ mum, tells me about how he knows all songs, lyrics and scenes. He still watches them and he can become quite obsessive by rewinding and fast forwarding to specific scenes. Sometimes his brothers and sisters act out particular parts of  a film, for example “its a piranha its a piranha!” from Tarzan to Stephanos’ amusement. While for me it took years to break into Christos’ world, Christina remembers the Lion King singing as being just a part of the activities her and Stephanos shared. They danced to “I will Survive” and they drew together – even though when he was younger he was already a perfectionist and wouldn’t let her draw what she wanted but would take his pen and do it his way on top of her drawing.

In both cases the Lion King brought out something in the two boys that we hadn’t seen before. Their singing, acting and dancing abilities or their emotional and more child-like nature. In either case, they grace us with showing us a part of their character that others wouldn’t see because the autism label overshadows it. When you think back to what these animation films meant to you, or your kids do you see a difference? Did you not squeal when Jafar turns into a snake? Did you not bop your head or scream out the words to Hakuna Matata? Did you not feel the pride of Mulan going back home and taking her place in the world? Is autism even factor in on how we all felt watching these characters? In the end, whether we’re under the sea, on the road to El Dorado, or just around the river bend aren’t we all the same?

#21andAtypical

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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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20

It’s May and I get to cry about my little brother turning 20.

31646765_10156283477410030_4157660885218754560_nI was in Cyprus 2 weeks ago and everywhere I went people talked about how good he is, how handsome, how they miss him and how much they love him. You might think that me writing this is what makes the difference but it’s not. It’s all of my family and how they raised him, how they treat him, how they flaunt him and how much they love him. He has become someone people want to know, and want to know more about.

I took over his room while I was visiting. He didn’t barge into his room to wake me up before 8am even though I could hear him being awake from 7am. He didn’t tell me to fold my clothes, or pick up stuff off the floor of his room, even though the rest of the house had to be spotless. When I couldn’t find the honey – he showed me where it was. When I wanted to drink one of his juices he kissed me and gently took the juice away. When I wanted to watch something, he let me even though it was his time to watch cartoons. When I wanted to watch a DVD he set a time for me and him to watch it together, even though he has this thing about not watching DVDs unless the stars align.  He let me bite off bits of his food even though Christos doesn’t share food. He let me pinch his cheeks and chin repeatedly despite his sensory overload.  When we said goodbye at the airport he hugged me for one second longer, because he knew I would ask for it anyway. He knows I’m a guest and he lets me be one. He has allowed me to float in and out of his life for 10 years.

10 years.

I asked mum if she thought he knew I was his sister or whether he thought I was some girl who showed up 10 days a year to annoy him. She said I was crazy.

But I have lived in a different country for half his life. Yes, there are many things I can say to myself to make it sound ok but right now I am just a girl in a foreign land waiting for him to have another birthday – from which I’ll be absent.

So, I write a blog post instead of a card, I ask mum for pictures instead of skyping and 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. And I want, with all of my being, for that to be enough and for him to know that I am his sister.

20 is the theme of May but I don’t know why and I don’t know how I’m gonna pull it off. Let’s figure it out together.

In other, less gloomy, news it was an eventful Autism Awareness Month this year. Here are some interesting reads in case you missed them:

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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 .