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Hear me roar (about autism): 2013-2014

I am saying goodbye to my 20s this year and will be fundraising for the Smile Project by Autism Support Famagusta. Smile is the first and only day care centre for adults with autism in Famagusta, Cyprus – and it hosts my brother. 

To donate please follow this link and use the hashtag #30smiles

After my graduation I was a bit lost. I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue a career in law, I isolated my self and spent most of my days on the couch or in bed. I had decided not to return home (to Cyprus) all the pursuit of happiness and love. Only, after three years of living away from home I still wasn’t any wiser re the happiness and completely lost about the love bit. One gloomy day, I was re re watching an old series when an episode about writing spoke to me. Coincidentally, I had a little run-in with blog writing at a temp job where I wrote a post about unemployment and the woes of being a law graduate in the state of today’s economy. The process, as well as the response, made me think this was destiny (I believed in destiny when I was 22, just like you did). So, I got out of bed and did some research. Ok I sat up in bed and did some research.

The blog tips I got from various internet sources, sitcoms and friends were “Be yourself”, “Spell check” and “Pick a theme, write about something you’re passionate about” – so what was I passionate about? Looking back now, it was so obvious and I don’t know why it took that long to find the answer. I was still learning about myself and crawling my way out of my own personal dark ages for the previous ten years so I had to dig deep and shed all the layers and masks I had on. One night, I was Skyping home and Christos was being a tiger on camera. After that I spoke to dad about the issues he was having at school. I hung up, cried and realised I’m passionate about him and his future. Destiny (i thought) struck again when I read a guest blog article on BBC about how autistic children are presented with special jargon phrases. Mark Neary captured it completely; it made me laugh out loud and at the same time gave me the courage to create this page and write my first post .

199123_10150167935090030_1697873_n (1)The next two years where a blur. The blog took off in a way that I never expected and so did I. I had so much to say, share, relive, consider, reflect on and learn. Writing all this down made me cry every time. Suddenly, in two years I went from re re watching series in bed and avoiding my feelings to advocating for rights in Canada, Australia, France, the UK and writing articles about us in Greek, writing to MPs and governments around the world. I was approached by autism charities, organisations, radio stations, TV stations about my story (links to articles under Published tab on main page). There was no hiding anymore, no masks.

Writing became a regular thing. It got me out of bed, it made me think, it made me angry, it made me change things and perceptions around me. I had found my voice and the roar I had been suppressing was bursting out of me. My life was filled with people from all around the world who were going through the same thing I was, who wanted guidance, help or advice. People who had just gotten a diagnosis, or who didn’t know which therapy to go for, or parents who worried about how the siblings of the kid with autism would be affected. Writing about autism brought me the happiness I was looking for and it made me look at me in a different way. I knew so much more than I gave myself credit for. I had so much to give and the sadness and anger I felt transformed into inspiration and were channelled into this blog – which made a difference in other peoples’ lives but, perhaps more importantly it mended my ties with my family, and myself. I learned so much about myself through writing about Christos – yet another gift he has given me.

I published 52 posts on the blog in 2013/2014 and, today, this is my 201st post. On the second day of 2020 I won’t set any resolutions because it doesn’t matter what you think you want to do or what is expected of you – what you are is already you. So I am grateful for transformation my brother inspired in the last 21 years, I am thankful for all the friends we have around the world through this blog and I am more inspired than ever to continue advocating for this cause.

I hope you will join me.

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The girl with the Dora mask: 2011-2012

I am saying goodbye to my 20s this year and to counteract the selfish need to reflect on the last decade I will be fundraising for the Smile Project by Autism Support Famagusta. Smile is the first and only day care centre for adults with autism in Famagusta, Cyprus.

For more information: Smiling September

To donate please follow this link and use the hashtag #30smiles

While the turmoils at home seemed to be neverending I thought that being away from it meant I was indestructible. I had started an LLM in a new city and it was intoxicating. In those years (my social years) I made friends for life, lost a few on the way but most importantly I found a way to not be me and it felt great. I was masking my sorrow with a mask no one knew about – not even me. Needless to say my social years didn’t last long – i’m a house cat at heart. So after too many jagerbombs, heartbreaks and too many late nights I buckled down, did the work and got my first masters. It felt like an accomplishment but not my own.

After this, I made the decision to stay in the UK permanently. It may sound selfish but I could never find out who I was in Cyprus; I was a child of divorce, sister to a boy with autism, wanted a career in law, but I didn’t even know basic things about myself; what food I liked, what music moved me or even how I liked to dress. Up until that point I was just faking being me trying to be the me I thought I was supposed to be.

So I cut ties with with all that, got a job and started working towards getting a training contract.

Today: I look at my brother who has lived his life so openly. No masks, no pretending – he has known who he is since the start. Who knows what mask he would be forced to wear if he was like us? What he would be forced to suppress/do just to fit in. So today, after years of mistakes and learning from my brother, i can proudly stand next to him without a mask. I don’t have peppers in my food because I don’t enjoy them, i don’t like horrors/thrillers, i prefer rain to sunshine and Pizza Hut to Dominos (that’s right), and I’d rather stay in all day and hang out with my bro (even though we annoy eachother) than go out into the world without him.

 

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Am I ‘normal’?

normal
/ˈnɔːm(ə)l/
adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

Is brown hair typical? What about blonde, red, gray. Are blue eyes usual? What about hazel, green or black? Are beauty spots standard? What about big lips, small feet, pronunciation. How can we say something is ‘normal’ when there are dozens of different body types, languages, dialects? When we suffer from allergies, have different taste buds, handle spice and heat in varying degrees and are shy, confident, anxious or sad? When we all have different abilities in math, sports, languages and even memory. From hunters to taking over the planet, social constructs have been a powerful tool in our conquests as well as our taming and undoing. Social expectations led to competition, innovation, scientific discoveries, cures and architectural wonders. But social constructs of class and what is ‘normal’ or beautiful have also led to genocide, poverty , abuse, racism and inequality which riddle our history, stain our future and which are all anything but ‘normal’.

In just the last 100 years our world – our ‘normal’ – has changed over and over again. From the fall of the Romanovs to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Wall Street Crash, nuclear weapons and the war on terror to Gandhi, Mandela, Malala and then Trump and Brexit. From the Great Depression to Twitter, apartheid to landing on the moon, Chernobyl, #metoo, loving whomever you love and to the world’s first genetically edited babies – what even is ‘normal’? How come we keep fighting for these ‘normal’ ideals, preach, exclude, bully and not provide for every human simply because they don’t tick the ‘normal’ box when you – reading this – cannot define what is ‘normal’?

atypical
/eɪˈtɪpɪk(ə)l,aˈtɪpɪk(ə)l/
adjective
not representative of a type, group, or class.
If ‘normal’ cannot be defined – Every single one of us is atypical. Which makes us all typical in being unique, different, special, unusual, unexpected, abnormal.
Let’s talk about all the ways we exclude our fellow humans in every day life – with filling forms, education, fashion, language and expectations. Let’s defy all the social impediments we have put in place to facilitate notions of ‘normal’ and create a new social world which helps every ability and every human.
That’s what we have done with the SMILE project. We saw a gap in a system which meant that the Cypriot government didn’t understand the needs of it’s people and doesn’t provide equal opportunities to the communities it is supposed to support. So, we defied the ‘conventional’, we shouted from the rooftops about our kid’s rights – regardless of autism – and we imagined and created a space for them.
WhatsApp Image 2019-09-27 at 18.45.08
Celebrate your uniqueness, your neighbour’s quirks, listen to someone’s opinions which are not akin to your own. Learn about hair colours other than your own and embrace all the things that make us typically atypical. Help, allow and encourage everyone around you to be the version of themselves they already are and not the one they think they have to be.
Donating to Autism Support Famagusta supports the local autistic community directly – donate here.
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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: You can’t spell autism without family

Celebrating parents and family in April – Autism Awareness Month – is a must. As well as being thrown into parenthood for the first time (or again), parents are thrown into the autism spectrum maze as well. They not only navigate parenthood but also autism and any other siblings. They are pushed into a minefield without any instruction and all the while knowing that every decision they make will change the lives of the family unit (and beyond).  They are the first example of strength we witness as siblings and their love, compassion and bravery mould us, push us, make us. I have collated a few of Stephanos’ and Christos’ family pearls of wisdom below:

Chriso (Stephanos mum):

“I can remember back in the days of nursery, just before the Ayia Napa primary school was to open the special unit for autism when I met Christos’ parents. We were introduced to each other and shown around the special unit so as to show us how it was going to be specialised and in the hope that they would be board. After that we kind of bonded and were in close contact for a lot of issues, not just autism, ranging from therapies, to school, to just life. During primary school and Apostolos Varnavas Stephanos has become connected to kids but Christos used to always save a swing seat for him and I think this camaraderie has stayed with them throughout the years. I always got the impression that the boys had full understanding of each other. They respected each others boundaries and would  not react or interrupt each other’s stimming behaviours.”

“When laughs it makes us all laugh with joy. It’s little things like when he finds cheese in the fridge and grabs a slice of bread and makes a mini sandwich, or when the electricity gets cut off and he goes to the electricity box and tries to switch up the MCB, or when his siblings play hide and seek or ball or generally doing things all together that reminds us that ultimately as long as he is happy we all are too. He is so full of love for his family, he sees one of us upset and he will approach and look at the tears or the face because he knows something is off. He will laugh at appropriate times of happiness, or if he sees his sister that is away studying or the others who come and go, he understands faces even though he wont always respond as per the social norms.”

15032849_10154114892521238_68260037536364233_n“Now they are 21. They go out into a society who has not prepared to welcome them. After this point and after our long journey, full of ups, downs , happy and sad we arrive at another hurdle. But, just like our boys we are always fighting, searching and promoting the awareness to all and especially to the parents who have just had a diagnosis and think their world has caved in. We stand by them because we made a decision to stand up and keep going for as long as we can. Crashing out is not an option because what is at risk is our boys. Autism has given us the opportunity to appreciate the smaller things in life which we would overlook in an already busy world.”
Chris (Stephanos sister):
“I am so amazed by his memory.  He remembers choreographies and song lyrics from years ago. So much so that we can dance to “I will survive” and he will remind me of the steps.”
When he sings Hakuna Matata “He hits the exact tone and also makes the background sounds of the music just with his mouth, he is unbelievable and sothumbnail_97F59141-AC3F-4BF6-9715-B348B40D813E talented. I can see that in general he likes music and especially Disney ones but I think it makes him feel more special that he gets to sing his favourite songs with me. Disney was definitely something we both enjoyed as kids so much and I think it was a way that we both could relate since we loved Disney and grew up with it until now. So I would say it’s more like a the first bond that made us become more closer as sister-brother relationship. I was listening to the Disney song ‘You’ll be in my heart’ from Tarzan few days ago and I instantly started being emotional when singing along cause all Disney songs just remind me of Steph and always will.”
“When he was younger he was a perfectionist he wouldn’t let me draw stuff the way I thought it was correct. He would just take his pen and do it his way on top. Sometimes he still does it now, but it was worse before when we were younger. I think Steph  is fine to do anything with me except drawing because he loves it that he wants to draw in his own way and that’s what makes him be so amazing at drawing.”
“It’s fascinating how autism can bring all people from different areas of the world together”.
Christiana (Christos’ mum):
After the diagnosis “…and while we thought we were alone in this battle, we met Chriso and Stephanos and that gave hope in our lives. We had a common cause and both families fought together. I remember the first time i saw Stephanos I was taken aback by his big bright eyes and his smile, and when i saw Chriso I saw an ally. She inspired me and gave me strength and still does to this day.”
884456_1403665136540932_166050827_o“Even though Christos is not social and doesn’t like too much interaction or hugging he is much more patient now than before. Even though isn’t friendly at first with people, with Stephanos it was always different. They never spoke to each other, they never went out or hung out, perhaps not even looked each other in the eyes once but always acknowledged and accepted each others presence. i really dont know how but in some way i am sure they have their own language. they both love music and walt disney characters. they are silent friends, and i am so happy when they are together.”
“Christos’ behaviour has changed and he has developed awareness which he did not have before. Christos is a loving boy, sensitive, and very well organised. He is perfect with directions, rarely being overwhelmed or getting lost. In fact, he helps us not to get lost, especially me when I am driving! He has eyes on the back of his head and you can never get away with anything he doesn’t approve of; like not washing your glass and not putting laundry for even one day. He has been travelling abroad from a very young age and has adapted perfectly to airports, trains, buses, queues etc.”
“Christos is an angel in our lives, he has brought us light, meaning and made us better human beings. We are so blessed to have him and our goal is to keep that smile on his face always because he is a happy child who soon will become a happy adult.”
Ajith (Christos dad):
“Their whole life starts from home; we are their first image of men and women, their example of people, family, lovers, parents, husbands and wives. Parents need to understand that once you become parents you become a role model, your family is you and even though it can be impossible at times to 16910928_10154942225380030_1134673750_omaintain the balance, keep it simple in your heart without looking at it as a duty but a happy and useful lesson in life.I want to conclude by saying that children with special needs, learning disabilities etc are my heart, I want to stress how important it is to make them feel equal, cuddle them and stop trying to adjust them to society’s unreal, outdated expectations.To all the families out there who are on this journey, repeating the first piece of advice I heard before starting this journey “Keep them happy”. It’s a way of life. My thoughts and prayers are with you every day.It is my life’s mission, along with the support surrounding us, to keep my son, and my family, happy to the best of my knowledge and ability.”
“I have learned and will learn so much from my son. Life for him is so simple and happy, in his own world, his own universe that we can only peek in once in a while. His demands are innocent and very genuine. He has his own routine, his own ways and his journey through learning, communicating, and compromising is simply beautiful. It is a blessing to live with him and see him grow.”
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21 and Atypical: More than meets the eye

Autism traits are not immediately visible all the time. It may take a while to notice the stimming, the echolalia or the sensory deprivation. For decades we have been trying to be as mainstream as possible, but the tables are turning now and our uniqueness is being celebrated. People are telling their stories and we are telling Christos and Stephanos’ stories with the hope being that you look a bit closer, stare a bit less and learn a bit more next time you meet a family on the spectrum. 

Christos and Stephanos are just 2 neurodiverse adults. They communicate through PECS or simple sentences, they reach milestones at their own pace, they love, laugh and feel the same as you. They are a bit more sensitive to light or noise and may come to a conclusion a different way but they are an equal part of ‘your’ world. This society we have conjured up, with its timeframes, standards and expectations is in constant motion and it is up to us to make sure no one gets left behind just because they don’t fit into a make-believe box. The perpetual need to fit in is what makes up most of the worries autism families have. Will he fit in? Will she support herself? What if they get lost? Will they find their way? Who will be there when we’re gone? The therapies they undergo are for their own quality of life, but the social conditioning they go through – no flapping, no screaming, no stimming etc – comes from fear of being different. It stems from the desperation of wondering what society will do to them if we aren’t there.

Then, they do something amazing and we forget all about society’s fictional rules and its illusions of greatness. Because we witness greatness every day. Our kids are living proof that just because someone said it was impossible doesn’t mean it is. That just because they didn’t speak until they were 8 doesn’t mean they don’t understand what we say. They stomp all over misconceptions and create worlds that work on inspiration, love and growth. We see this every day with our kids but we spend so long worrying and sheltering them that we forget how intelligent they are and that they have been watching us and learning for years while we were too busy talking. 

thumbnail_8C5CE67D-701A-4313-916B-8E79ACC208CDStephanos’ mum remembers a cruise trip to the Greek Islands with all 6 kids. “On the second day we were all upstairs playing cards and Steph was stimming around us, in our line of vision. There were 6 pair of eyes focused on playing cards but also watching Steph. At some point, in a split second, he was gone. We lost him. Steph’s verbal abilities at that age were limited but he could say “toilet” and “help”. Immediately, the 6 of us had spread out on both sides of the ship, on all the floors, in the lifts and asking people if they had seen him. Finally, some restaurant guests who knew us from Ayia Napa said they had seen him in the lift going down. We went to our floor immediately and found him in the loo. He used the lift, went to the correct floor and corridor and knocked on his brother’s room door which was different to our own! What is amazing to me is that he knew our room was empty and so knocked on his brother’s door instead.” It may seem menial to you, going to the loo when you need to, but it was a milestone for Stephanos. It was an eye-opener for the family, and a reminder that just because they are overprotective and Stephanos doesn’t speak  it doesn’t mean that he is not fully aware of his surroundings or capable to make rational decisions to fit his needs.

Last year, when Christos and I were travelling back from Sri Lanka we were sat on 29746571_10156190751480030_515778963_othe plane repeating his schedule and what times he would eat what. So we’re cuddling under the blankets talking about pasta when I realised I had to explain time zones to my brother who is obsessed with time. IMAGINE, trying to explain time zones to someone with only numbers and the words – dad, mum, Christos, Theodora, airplane, and (obviously) pasta.  I showed him the time in Colombo and said this is dad, the time in Doha which is where Christos and Theodora are going, and the time in Cyprus where mum is. Then explained that the airplane would take off and land in between Colombo and Cyprus at Doha. He was staring at the phone and me while I’m making grand gestures and airplane noises and showing him numbers. I wasn’t sure he got it, I underestimated him. Then we got to Doha and he asked me to change the time on my phone to the local time, for which he had done the math in his head, and did the same when we landed in Cyprus. Now, he has a globe in his room and can point to where we all are and where we’re going next. 

We’ve seen these boys grow, learn and make progress in front of our eyes. Yet, somehow these false thresholds set by our communities seep into our subconscious and make us forget how extraordinarily ordinary they can be. They quickly catch us by surprise, always a step ahead, whether it’s giving us directions or using words we didn’t even know they knew and remind us to not stereotype but to learn about the talents our kids have and to stop thinking there’s a limit to their potential.

Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs” – Neurotribes Read more about Autism Advantages.