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Judging me, judging you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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.

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An autism sister watching Atypical Season 2, Episode 2

I’m only going to talk about Casey (the sister) in this post. I want you to see her the way I see her.  I want you to see through her to all the sisters out there.

42877323_986385234880394_644448336547414016_nThe sister at home – Champion. She is the neurotypical child. She is the one that outed her mum. She is a good student, and a sought after athlete.

She is attuned with her surroundings and the needs of every member of her family. She blames herself when the marriage is put in jeopardy, when Sam finds out and tries to keep normalcy when Sam needs it the most. She takes on responsibilities no one has assigned her with. No one in her family expects her to be all these things, to think of all the implications and consequences. Her thoughts and needs take a back seat because she is the neurotypical, she is the one that has to be there while the parents sort out their own stuff. There’s no time for her emotional distress because she has to step up for every other member in their family. Plus, no one asked how she was dealing with her parent’s problems or in her new school – her champion mask is impenetrable.

The sister at old school – Shield: Everyone knows that you do not mess with Casey and Sam. Sam continues coping at school without Casey because of the foundations she has laid in previous years. It is expected that there will be repercussions when it comes to Sam, and no one wants to take that risk with her. I’m getting ahead of myself but in Episode 3, a fellow pupil accidentally does something to Sam and she says to him “Tell Casey I didn’t mean it”. Her shield mask is impactful.

The sister at new school – Timid. We haven’t seen this side of Casey yet. Mostly because she is so assertive in all her other roles. She is outside her comfort-zone. No one knows her as Sam’s sister here – they know her as an athlete, they will get to know her as Casey. It’s hard for her to readjust and define herself as her own person. She resorts to funny remarks and sarcasm almost every opportunity she gets while she is at the new school. Like I mentioned above, no one in her family has asked how her first few days at school have been – not on screen anyway. That’s not something that just hasn’t been addressed in the script, that’s how it really is in life.

On her first day she had a brought prepared lunch from home, on her second day she has to survive on peanuts and on the third day someone offers her a helping hand (whether it’s a good idea or not is irrelevant). She grabs it because she needs to be taken care of. Do you see how inspired this analogy is? It’s a representation of all the crap she has to deal with in the last few days narrated in food, the thing that sustains us.

Instead of crumbling she picks herself up and watches the penguin cam with her brother. She doesn’t even see herself as being in need of support or comfort. She deals and returns to what’s important. She doesn’t take the compliment from her dad calling her a ‘good kid’ because the things she does, and the support she offers comes is who she is. It’s not fake, it’s not something she has to think of; it’s not for a reward. She has to find her Casey mask.

*End*

As an autism sister, it’s was impossible for me to define myself or to get to know myself when i was growing up. Family break ups and autism drowned out my noise. I never had the chance to sit down and think “Right, this is what I want; this is what I like; this is what I don’t like”. My teenage years were me moulding myself to what I thought my family needed.

I moved away because I thought that’s what I needed to do so I could offer my brother the best future I could. I did law because I thought it would make me financially stable for my brother. I did an MA because I thought that’s what was expected of me. And my relationships and friendships? Well.

In the last two years, I have gotten to know myself . I spend more time with me, I know what films I like – not because my friends like them. I know what music I want to listen to – not because it’s popular. I know what books I like to read – not because they’re bestsellers. I used to drink beer because we were at a pub or eat beef because steak is  ‘the best’. I’d go out every time people had plans without any regard to what I wanted, I’d watch all the blockbusters, listen to all the hits and pretend that I didn’t have a care in the world because no one likes a downer.

Now I know that I don’t want to be a solicitor, I don’t like beef, I can tell people I disagree without the crippling fear that they won’t like me anymore. 12 years down the line, I bagged myself a blind date with me.

It’s hard for any teen to figure out who they are. Add a break up and autism in the mix and things get even worse.

When you look at Casey, or an autism family, look beyond the autism cloak. They are still humans, flawed, broken, tired, brave, and sometimes inspirational humans. When you watch Atypical, read between the scripted lines.

Casey is the single most inspiring female character I have watched in the last few years. I hope you see her through my eyes and that you let her teach you about autism, family and love.

After the trauma of the first episode, i’m ready to binge. I’ll let you know when i come up for air. 😊

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Summer Love

This summer has been a tad amazing. Great weather, amazing friends, trips to remember, drama for weeks and a ton of lols. On the penultimate day of summer 2018 my 2018 summer secures a place in the Hall of Summers with a visit from my brother.

He arrived in the UK on Tuesday and will spend the next four days with me in Canterbury/London along with my mum and yiayia (grandma).

So far, their trip has been eventful to say the least.

Larnaca airport prides itself for being an airport for everyone. They have hosted days with people on the spectrum to experience the process of arrival, security checks, boarding and the aircraft. They have special paraphernalia to identify persons who require special assistance and priority service. In fact, ACI Europe awarded Larnaca International Airport with the first prize, among 500 other European airports from 45 states, in the category of “Most Accessible Airport for disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility.

Unfortunately, my family had to wait for an hour and a half while COBALT airlines found them three seats together – even though my brother had priority. This lead to them boarding the plane last. I assume that making a 20 year old autistic adult wait at check in for an hour and a half is not part of their accessibility offerings.

However, we recognise the efforts made by Hermes and we look forward to the smoothing out of such issues in the future.

We should also recognise that my brother flies quite often and therefore is familiar with airports. We are unable to fathom what would have happened if this was experienced by another person with autism.

Heathrow accessibility support on the other hand is incredible. They are prepared, organised, and trained to help. They act with professionalism and sympathy to people with hidden disabilities and the elderly. Due to Heathrow’s amazing partnerships with Autism West Midlands, the National Autistic Society and Autism Alliance they are ready, willing and able to assist travelers with cognitive disabilities and offer some comfort to their families.

40371016_479740792503127_4261342490960855040_nI must also mention Qatar’s accessibility support which we experienced in December while we were travelling back from Sri Lanka on our own. We were met at the aircraft door and we were accompanied to the door of our connecting flight. We were so comfortable that we didn’t even notice that we were there for 2 hours. This shouldn’t be a surprise since 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 a day dedicated to raising awareness about ASD across the world.

I hope that Larnaca and Cobalt will continue to learn and adapt, and one day follow the footsteps of these airports and become inclusive and sympathetic to people who require assistance.

He has adapted to the Underground, national rail and bus journeys better than I have after 10 years of living in the UK. I cannot put into words how proud I am of this boy, because he makes everything seem so easy. That’s the thing about autism – you have to know about it to know about it. And that’s why we are moved to tears when international airports, strangers and society make sure that our kids are looked after.

Of course even though my brother is cool AF, under the calmness of our tough exterior we are consumed by hurricanes because we know that the circumstances are not easy. That is why we worry ourselves sick whenever he is on the move, we don’t eat until he’s finished eating and we don’t sleep until he’s dreaming.

But, any autism family will tell you that stress, hunger and insomnia are a small price to pay for knowing your soulmate.

I will keep you updated on our Big Fat Cypriot Weekend which will be the perfect end to the perfect summer.

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Dog Treats, Ice Cube and Rutgers University for Autism

What is Silver Linings?

I go to Silver Linings to watch for any balloons we can reach and move to our world, and here are the ones I have been following in the last couple of months:

  1. Finley’s Barkery in Minnesota “embraces neurodiversity and empowers people to do what they love. 80-90% of adults with Autism and other developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. Finley’s Barkery set out to change that statistic. By utilizing one’s unique strengths, our team takes pride in their roles from handcrafting the treats, to marketing and sales.”
  2. McDonald’s in Indianapolis: Leif, is 7 years old and has autism. His mum explains that “A classmate brought one of the toys to school and Leif saw it and spent the next two weeks hardly talking about anything else with us. He gets really fixated on things and creates stories around toys.” So, like any mum, they went to Mc Donalds and asked for the toy. Unfortunately, the toy had been sold out. *Enter Awareness*TaQualliyia, a 16-year-old employee, overheard that encounter spoke to her manager about the situation. With the manager’s approval, TaQualliyia spent 15 minutes dismantling the display behind the counter as Kandel and her family were eating lunch to get the toys for Leif. Read the story here.
  3. Results of a new study have revealed that brain scans might help predict autism in babies before symptoms appear. “We see an increased rate of growth in the outer surface of the brain, the folds, the sort of waviness of the surface that’s followed by an overgrowth of the brain in the second year,” says senior study author Joseph Piven, M.D., of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The overgrowth of the brain they observed coincided with autism-related behaviors that start to emerge when the child reaches their second year, the researchers said. Read the story here.
  4. Represent, a social merchandising and marketing platform that enables influencers to create and sell custom apparel, announced their collaboration with Ice Cube in launching a limited edition apparel campaign to benefit Autism Speaks. Ice Cube is very vocal about his autism family. “I’m proud to support the great work that Autism Speaks does, a cause that is so important to me,” said Ice Cube. “My goal through this campaign is to not only help raise awareness but to also support this great organization’s efforts in promoting solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
    Ice Cube’s design is available on a variety of products for men and women, starting at $24.99, available at Represent.com/IceCube.
  5. In Oklahoma: Children on the spectrum were able to practice their pre-flight skills and how to be an airline passenger through the Wings for Autism program. The free event, which was held Will Rogers World Airport for families, brought children from across the state to participate in the program and had a waiting list. Watch the video here. Wings for Autism will be held in Allentown, PA May 6, 2017, Fresno, CA May 13, 2017, Appleton, WI – May 13, 2017, Denver, CO – May 13, 2017.
  6. Special Books by Special Kids: Founder and teacher, Chris Ulmer, began Special Books by Special Kids (SBSK) to share the unique talents and incredible personalities of the students in his special education classroom.
    Special Books by Special Kids is leading a global acceptance movement that brings awareness to the joys, needs, and struggles of the special needs community and promotes the acceptance and celebration of neurodiverse individuals by all. You can watch a beautiful video of Jon teaching his classmates about planets here.
  7. Legoland Park, Florida: Since 2016, Legoland has been working with Autism Speaks to make its amusement parks more friendly for guests on the autism spectrum. The resort in Winter Haven, Florida, explained some of the features it has added since then including “quiet rooms” and a pass specifically for guests with autism who may have difficulty waiting in line in a press release. Disneyland Paris also offers this.
  8. Speaking of Disney, as always. Disney, in association with Amaze announced an Autism-Friendly Performance of Aladdin – The Musical will be staged in Melbourne. This special performance will be held at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 12th August, 1.30pm. Aladdin was one of our favourite Disney films growing up.
    You can watch the video here.
  9. Stem cells research: This is the story of Gracie. Gracie is 7 years old and was one of 25 children who took part in the first-of-its-kind study at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The study’s goal was to assess whether a transfusion of the children’s own umbilical cord blood containing rare stem cells could help treat their autism.
    The results? More than two-thirds of the children showed reported improvements. A larger second trial is underway, one its researchers hope will lead to long-term treatment for children with autism.
  10. Autism Involves Me: Cathy Lomond is the owner of Hotel Port Aux Basques in Port Aux Basques, Nfld. Cathy, working with Autism Involves Me, decided to create a space where those with autism disorder spectrum (ADS) can relax and enjoy their vacation. “The hotel has a lounge with a calming mural, a swing, a climbing wall and a sensory boat to create a comfortable environment for children with autism. There’s also a kids’ menu available with pictures of the food items, which can help foster independence for children who may have trouble speaking.”
  11. 9 million donation to open Britain’s first international autism centre: The money will be donated by Phones 4U billionaire John Caudwell.  The research and therapy centre will be based at Keele University and will cost £18 million. It will specialise in autism. “I have been deeply affected by the families I’ve met whose lives have been devastated by autism, and rebuilt thanks to the support of the charity. I am proud to support what is set to be a landmark development in the provision of services for the millions of people who are affected by autism on a daily basis.”The Caudwell International Children’s Centre (CICC) will include state-of-the-art assessment suites, a sensory garden to help children interact with nature, family training suites, training kitchens for cooking classes to encourage a healthy diet. It looks beautiful and it stand for something you cannot describe, only feel.
  12. Ambitious About Autism: The Ambitious College has opened its doors at Pears Campus at College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London and West London College. Ambitious College was created to give everyone the opportunity to lead a fulfilling, happy and rewarding life; and this includes young people with autism.“Our learners are at the heart of everything we do, their curriculum is highly personalised to help them achieve their goals.” Read more about it here. You know that I have worked with Ambitious on various different projects, therefore this College is very very close to my hear and I cannot wait to watch it succeed and become part of this amazing opportunity provided to the autism community.
  13. Have you stopped reading yet?
  14. Maryborough Correctional Centre: A pilot program in Queensland has had overwhelming success with inmates training special needs assistance dogs. Unexpected? Over 10 months, the prisoners taught the dogs complex tasks including wheelchair work, opening doors, picking up dropped items and turning on lights, all to prepare them for life with a special needs child. Smart Pups CEO, Patricia McAlister, said the pilot program had been very successful as the increasing demand for trained dogs was “huge” and outweighed the number of assistance dogs available.
  15. Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS), based in Rutgers University, will “..feature a comprehensive program that is designed to support adults ages 21 to 60 with mild to moderate ASD through a wide range of services specifically tailored to meet their individual needs.” Will offer up to 60 adults with autism, and who live off campus, university jobs supported by clinical staff and graduate students. The second phase of the center will offer a pilot residential program for 20 adults with autism who will work on campus and live alongside Rutgers graduate students in an apartment-style residence.

I chose to end with Rutgers because this time last year we got emails from Rutgers University wishing Christo a happy birthday as part of #Project324. Avramis and Florentina were the 2 friends I asked to distribute the cards and so Rutgers because a familiar name during those months. I’ve copied some below because reading them makes me happy and I hope that reading them will prove to you that awareness is everything.

I hope that with all these new initiatives and stories circulating in the media, not a day will go past without you hearing the A word.

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Hope in Disney

553829_10150760901390030_1000986510_nI watched the Beauty and the Beast trailer on TV last night and I felt so emotional. People will say its cliche, or call me a princess because I love Disney films. I watched them all, every day, I know all the songs, the punchlines. It’s a world away from home. It’s how Christos and I bonded when we had nothing else in common.

Facebook drowned me in memory pictures this morning and reminded me that 5 years ago was the first time we took Chris to Disneyland Paris. I had been there the year before to scope it out. I was 22, he was 13 and my mum was exhausted. I had very little patience back then so shout out to my mum for being a saint and dealing with an overgrown teenager and an autistic son all on her own.

He was overwhelmed when we walked in. He didn’t know what was coming, what to expect, what to listen to or see first. The crowds were overbearing and we held on to him tight. By day two he was acting like a local. We were getting off the shuttle one morning and he fell. Suddenly in our heads alarm bells are ringing, the National Guard is summoned. You can see from the pictures that he was a big 13-year-old. He fell, but he didn’t cry. He limped because he still wanted to go to the park, however, he kept wanting to sit down. So, we went to the medical centre and we waited to be seen; after about an hour they just said it needs rest, so we sighed with relief, got him a wheelchair and used it as an excuse to give him anything he wanted. Every day at 5pm he wanted to go watch the parade, he identified his favourite rides, which we visited every day, his favourite crisps and the best ice cream. I won’t repeat myself, you can read about our Disneyland Adventures (volume 2 in 2015) in the  Mickeyminniegoofydonaldydaisypluto series of posts.

This month’s hope is also found in Disney.

Growing up with a brother that didn’t respond to his name, want to play with you and who broke things or rolled around on the floor in anger left little room for bonding. Don’t get
me wrong, I was connected to him from the day we found out he existed, but he never seemed to feel the same. Back when VCR’s were a thing, we had 2 drawers, a big cabinet and a small cabinet full of tapes. Mums family are all film fanatics, they love to chill out watching something and we have definitely inherited that habit. We would record them when they were on TV and then label and put away for watching later.

Despite his aversion to playing with me, he always joined me for a movie. I would put it on, and it would get his attention. Maybe it was that we all went silent when it started, maybe it was the music, the funny voices or maybe it was how much we laughed and how the atmosphere changed when a Disney song came on. We watched them religiously, nearly every day. On weekends we would watch Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck on TV and then in the evenings we would watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin, Hercules, Toy story, Lion King, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc. He picked it up quite fast and soon he knew the scenes off by heart. But when Frodo, Jafar, or Maleficent, or the Evil Queen were making an appearance he would hide behind the couch;  listening, but not looking.

Soon after, he started choosing what we were going to watch, he started fast forwarding the parts he found scary and he made sure each box had the correct tape in it. Cute right? No. He also needed all the stickers and covers to be perfect, which they were not because we used them every day. He wanted us to cut off the worn out bits, but cut them straight, and cut them right otherwise you needed to cut more and more and more until there was no sticker or cover left. He would also watch the whole movie, and then would rewind it and watch it in reverse. And because our VCR was old, some of the tapes got caught and were destroyed. My tapes. My Disney tapes. My escape. My world, the one without autism, the one where I was in control because I knew every word and I could count on all the happy endings.

I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little bit.

It didn’t stop when DVD’s came out, he still ripped them to shreds, he scratched the discs, he ruined the plastic covers. I remember once, I had cleaned one of the discs with a cloth about 150 times. He would look at it touch it, and hand it back. So after the 151st time, I broke it in half. I was like “There, now it doesn’t matter if it’s clean”. Petty right? A bad sister right? The thing is I never treated him differently as a little brother because of his autism. I’d still deny that I had made him cry when mum would ask, I’d blame all broken stuff on him. I stole his food, he broke everything i owned. We yelled at eachother until we cried and we slapped eachother around a little bit. I’d put my foot in his face or throw my socks at him, and he would keep me up all night repeating words until we were both exhausted. And while this is how neurotypical siblings would bond, it wasn’t the same for us.

428326_10150752441475030_1462595363_nI remember how much I missed him, how my friends’ little brothers were so close to their sisters and how much they looked up to them. When I couldn’t get him to hang out with me, I would put on a Disney tape and put the volume right up. I’d hear the game boy music stop, the rustle of a blanket and tiny footsteps running up the stairs. And he would sit, ask me to apologise, turn the volume down and watch the movie with me.

I see a lot of Disney headlines that remind me of those lazy afternoons singing about a whole new world, or those Friday nights at our nans repeating the same old Lion King jokes with our granpa.

For example, Disney’s hit new musical Aladdin, playing in the West End, has announced its first dedicated Autism-Friendly performance will take place on Tuesday 29 August 2017. Wicked did this last year and The Lion King is staging its first Autism-Friendly performance Sunday 4 June 2017.

You may have heard that ‘Life, Animated’ was nominated for an Oscar this year. ‘Life, Animated’ follows the Suskind family and its unique way of communicating with their son — through Disney animated films. Inside his head, Owen created his own stories where he and Disney sidekicks battle villains who represent bullying, depression and even autism itself. The director has said that “Life, Animated” is a testament to the strength of family, the imagination of childhood and the power of story; “Owen is living a meaningful life and it’s not up to us to decide what that is. I’ve never met anyone more happy and content and open and honest about the world around him.” You can read more about it here and you can download it on iTunes or watch the trailer here.

Disney films don’t always have to be about the princess.