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Under the Sea

18618642_10155212899245030_1725112754_oWhen visiting friends and family while Chris was growing up my parents needed a distraction; that was either food, or Disney. My dad had friends who worked for a museum in Larnaca and we used to visit them often and eat yummy food. They had a little girl who owned ‘Magic English’ cassettes. For those of you who don’t know, they were an aid to learning English by using Disney characters and movies. He took one look at the opening theme song and that was it: obsession acquired. (Episodes here) I know that my family is probably reading this and remembering the theme song in their heads right now. ‘Magic English, Magic English, have fun with Disney everyday‘.

Naturally, we had ALL OF THEM.

When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to learn both Greek and English and so growing up bilingual. When Chris started speech therapy, he had his Magic English tapes. He watched them non-stop. He didn’t play along, or speak, or use the same words but he paid attention. So, for example, when he saw Flounder he knew he was a fish, when he saw Mickey he knew who that was, what he was doing and why. He just couldn’t express it. You see, the problem with the world today is that we value spoken word over unspoken. We have been programmed to believe that someone who doesn’t ‘like’ your picture on social media thinks you’re ugly. Someone who doesn’t share their feelings is up to no good or doesn’t care. We stopped reading between the lines and somewhere between those lines is my brother.

There is one scene that I remember most of all. It’s using the Little Mermaid, introducing all the characters and ‘Under the Sea’ is playing. Sebastian is singing away, being all Sebastian about life under the sea, I think it was part of the Friends learning cassette. I remember him smiling, dancing, and enjoying that scene. I remember how much of a teenager I was thinking this was silly because it was so basic. I remember it now, and I wish I was back there pushing him to repeat words, to learn them in English, dancing with him and just enjoying his happiness. Hormones are such nasty things. (Magic English – Under the Sea). Before Aladdin and the Lion King, Chris was obsessed with Pinnocchio, the little boy who wished to be real. He loved it when Pinnocchio and Jiminy were under the sea meeting random fish and trying to find Geppetto; and he would hide when the whale was on screen. That scene is also in the cassettes.

Those cassettes were a big part of our childhood and yet another part we owe to Disney.

He loves anything that has to do with water or the sea. You may remember that it was during a Sandy Holiday that we first thought of autism and how he loves swimming on his own. Aquatic treatment is also one of the alternative therapies I mentioned earlier on: We’ve found that water provides a safe and supported environment, which not only supports Chris, but also provides him with hydrostatic pressure that surrounds his body in the water. This pressure actually soothes and calms him, providing him with the necessary sensory input he craves.

What awoke this memory you wonder? Or maybe you don’t but you’ll find out anyway. The Scarborough Sea Life centre introduced an autism-friendly morning last Saturday (13th May). The centre will opened an hour early for an “Autism friendly session”, “with an accessible quiet area, considerate lighting, reduced sound and exclusive use to help families enjoy the aquarium experience in a relaxed and understanding setting.”

If you are in the UK: Max Card is a card you can apply for with your local city council if you are a family with additional needs, not just autism. The scheme is designed to help families save money on great days out at castles, zoos, bowling alleys and more. With local, national and international businesses becoming more autism aware this card might be used more than you think! Autism-Friendly events are expected throughout Merlin Entertainments attractions including Alton Towers and other Sea Life centres in the upcoming months to make sure all children in the UK have the chance at experiencing a magical day out. For more information and booking details are online at www.mymaxcard.co.uk/venues/autism-friendly-day .

I encourage you to use the Magic English aids (^they are all on YouTube, link above^) whether your child is in speech therapy yet or not. Its an entertaining way to spend the afternoon and you may not see immediate results but it does make a difference.

Remember, just because you can’t see progress, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

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Hope arrives on Sesame Street

Julia has been a work in progress since 2015 when she was first announced. (Autism in 2015)

Christine Ferraro, a writer on Sesame Street for 25 years, along with the rest of the staff talked about how they realised that autism was something that needed to be addressed. They decided they wanted to teach kids more about people with autism, who they probably will interact with at school, playgrounds, supermarkets etc.

“So that when they encounter them in their real life it’s familiar. And they see that these — these can be their friends too.” 

Julia-on-Sesame-Street-Has-AutismJulia (pictured) is really nice and loves to sing. Julia also doesn’t react the way the other

muppets do. For example, when the rest of the muppets introduce themselves, Julia doesn’t respond, she is sensitive to loud noises, and she jumps up and down when she is excited; the rest of the muppets join her, and make a game out of it.

Watch this video from the show where Julia is flapping her arms, and how it is turned into something positive.

Julia is brought to life by puppeteer Stacey Gordon. Stacey is a mother of a son with autismshawglobalnews
. She believes that “It’s important for kids without autism to see what autism can look like.” Julia isn’t exactly a new face — she was first introduced in October 2015 as a digital Muppet through the organization’s broader autism initiative, Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children. Sesame Workshop has worked with more than 250 autism experts and organisations to help with its See Amazing initiative. Stacey also draws from her own experiences with her son to portray Julia accurately.
Sesame Street viewers will see Julia get upset by loud sirens, she will have trouble communicating with Big Bird when they first meet, leading Big Bird to think Julia doesn’t like him.

I hope that, by incorporating a character from the spectrum into a beloved children’s show, we will be setting a foundation on which parents and teachers can build autism awareness on. Awareness from a young age about a neighbouring kid, a class
mate or even a stranger at a shop is what will slowly make the autism stigma fade.

My hope is not to eradicate autism, it is to make it visible. Autism is here to stay therefore, when we fight, we do not fight in spite of it but we fight through it.

Sesame Street’s “Meet Julia” episode will air April 10 on HBO and PBS KIDS in the U.S., as well as Cartoonito UK, ABC Australia and Televisa in Mexico. A more global rollout of the episode is planned for later this year.
cbsnews

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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.

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Hope in millions

I just finished reading A Change of Heart. If you haven’t read it, do it right now. The next one on  my list is Inferno by Dan Brown. I had pre ordered it when it first came out and I never got around to it. Dan Brown books are the kind of books which you remember where you were when you read them. They are a journey of self discovery and they speak to each reader in a different way. Robert Langdon, the lead character, is a professor, a researcher, he is constantly looking for answers and is known for a brilliant problem-solving mind and his genius. 17195164_10154982012445030_1234091914_o

Autism can feel like a Dan Brown book some times. *Spoiler alert if you haven’t read them*

Angels and Demons is the beginning: Strange disappearances (being the diagnosis), a secret society that has infiltrated many global institutions, political, economical and religious. Autism has been around forever, but we didn’t even know what autism was in the 90’s, in Cyprus. We couldn’t Google it. It was spoken about in hushed tones and behind closed doors. When the vaccination scandal broke out and was the rebuked the conspiracy lovers amongst us looked at the big corporations, the big boys and wondered what we weren’t being told. As soon as we started researching, looking, reading we uncovered a world we had no idea existed. A powerful word and a condition so complex we had to dig deeper before we even scratched the surface.

The Da Vinci Code is the road to acceptance. It starts with murder (like all the books) that hits close to the heart. To us it was like all the dreams, hopes we had for his future had disappeared after the diagnosis. We set out on a journey to find the reason behind why this had happened. Langdon tries to solve the mystery of this ancient secret society. He breaks codes and solves puzzles. We broke sanity barriers and solved puzzles. Our Holy Grail was finding out how to reverse this. However, when he spoke his first word, we found out that all we had to do was love him for who he was. The answer is in his heart, in our love for him. He was the Holy Grail all along.

The Lost Symbol is about growing up, about realising what you are made of; a severed hand, the story of the prodigal son resonates throughout the book. A son away from home, who always had home with him. It reminds me of leaving Chris to come live in the UK. True, I do not think of myself as the angel Moloch, nor do i intend to. But throughout the book Langdon is submerged in his research around the hidden Ancient Mysteries whose knowledge is now lost to mankind because we have stopped looking at it the right way. The Lost Symbol is  knowledge. Knowledge by education, by research, by constantly learning. That’s what awareness is all about, knowing ones self is the missing key that prevents humans from realising their true potential; that there is a bit of divine in all of us. Whether we are neurotypical or neurodiverse.

This months hope is found in research.

Edinburgh University has been given £20m for autism studies. The Simons Foundation has made the contribution hoping to delve into the biological mechanisms that underpin changes in brain development linked with autism. You may remember – or not – that the Simons Foundation was also the foundation i wrote about in 2016. (see below)

Scientists based in the university’s Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Fragile X Syndrome and Intellectual Disabilities will use advanced techniques to probe brain development in the presence of DNA changes known to cause autism. They will be looking into the wiring variety of the brain and how it can affect how it can processes information.

There are so many on going projects around the world regarding autism right now. The poo research, the discovery of ASD genes that have never before been linked to autism show that we are now committed to investing big sums in search of a holy grail, a Word, a lost symbol. We are venturing out to the unknown in search of a gene, a pattern, a puzzle piece.

Stay tuned for Inferno.

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Hope in Poo

(One of) my New Year’s resolutions was to read more non-fiction books. I just finished a book about Pablo Escobar and now I’ve moved on to a nurse’s recollection of what it was like to be a nurse in the 50’s.

Both post-war Colombia and post-war Britain made the current politics scene more real than ever. People had just gone through a wars that left thousands dead, they lived in fear for years and in the end they thought it would never happen again.

IMG_5933And then these guys come along. In times like these it’s easy to give up and it’s easy to overlook hope.

So, I’m going to start a monthly hope write up. This month’s hope can be found in poo. That’s right, our world is so effed up that we can now find hope in poo.

On the 23rd January, a study was published in the Microbiome Journal (here) which claims that Microbiota Transfer Therapy (Fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), also known as a stool transplant, is the process of transplantation of fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient) alters gut ecosystem and improves gastrointestinal and autism symptoms. The investigation involved 14 days of therapy with oral vancomycin (an antibiotic used to treat a number of bacterial infections) followed by a 12- to 24-hour fast (clear liquids only) with a bowel cleanse using MoviPrep (laxatives). On day 16, to repopulate gut microbiota (the ecological community of commensal, symbiotic and pathogenic microorganisms that literally share our body space), a high initial dose of standardized human gut microbiota (SHGM) was given either orally or rectally for 2 days followed by daily, lower maintenance oral doses of SHGM coupled with a stomach-acid suppressant for 7 to 8 weeks. The stomach-acid suppressant was used to increase survival of SHGM through the stomach. The children were followed for an additional 8 weeks after treatment ended.

What?

Basically:  18 patients aged 7 to 17 years who had ASD and moderate to severe GI problems were given antibiotics for bacterial infection followed by laxatives for 14 days. Then, they were administered a high dose of a range of microorganisms for 2 days. Followed by a lower dose of said microorganisms and stomach-acid repressants for 7-8 weeks; which helps the microorganisms survive longer.

ASD-related symptoms improved, as reported by the Parent Global Impressions-III (PGI-III) assessment, which evaluates 17 ASD-related symptoms, showed significant improvement during treatment and no reversion 8 weeks after treatment ended.

One of the many theories about where autism comes from has been the gut. That’s why we use gluten-free and casein-free diets as an alternative treatment. In “Best Food Critic in Town” I mentioned: Marilyn Le Breton, who explains:

“When you eat, the food you consume is broken down in your stomach. The bits that are not used by the body are flushed out as waste matter. In autistic people, the breakdown of two proteins present in some foods, gluten and casein, is not completed properly. The resulting fragments of these proteins are called peptides. Peptides are small enough to pass through the wall of the gut, rather than being processed in the normal way. As the peptides journey around the body, they make a pit stop at the brain, where they do untold damage before continuing their journey and finally making their way out of the body, via urine. Both are very similar to morphine, a highly addictive drug.”

What this study proves, on a small scale, is that perhaps cleaning the gut of neurodiverse people from the bacteria that the body does not keep in neurotypical people could be the one of the answers we have been looking for.

Hope.

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Sibling Week

There was a hashtag trending a few weeks ago celebrating Autism #SiblingWeek and I had messages asking me how i felt and how I coped as an Autism sibling.1456685_10152043682305030_1431061625_n

In my head, it’s unfair to blame the parents if a sibling is struggling to understand Autism – the parents have enough to deal with. And yes, they are important and they need to seek out ways to get professional help, or books, or alone time. They’re only human and they have their own emotions and their own process to go through; life just dealt them a wild card. I believe, the doctor that gives the diagnosis should also offer advice to parents about their siblings. I haven’t figured out the ins and outs of it yet; but shouldn’t it be a professionals job? They deal with this every day, they know the consequences, they know the shock that drowns out the reality you had been living in until that moment. Even more so, shouldn’t the school be aware of ways to help so they can be offrered?

Chris and I were born 8 years apart. Raising a child, in general, demands extraordinary things from parents, and the family as a whole. When one of them has Autism, those demands are the only thing you have time for. The time you invest in the well-being of that child, you know you will not regret when you see their progress. Siblings though, older or younger, remain silent bystanders. Their silence resonates in their misbehaving at school, in their picking up of bad habits and hanging out with questionable friends. The way the ‘Others’ are affected can take as many forms as can Autism.

416800_10150752443010030_1110641324_nI don’t know whether it’s harder when they are older – so the attention is shifted completely from them – or when they’re younger – so it’s all they know and might not get enough attention.  Your life has changed, the balance has shifted, your parents only talk about Autism, and you can only trace it back to one person. It causes resentment, whether you are old or young, the feeling is there. My mum told me that when Christos was born i used to climb into bed and drink milk from the bottle. I was 8 years old. I was at school. I had friends and I was drinking milk from a bottle and asking my mum to tuck me in; seriously. When he was diagnosed I started acting out at school, mum said – original. Thinking back on it now, its embarrassing, but that’s what happens to children.

As a result of no proper support system being put in place for the Others, there is tension that builds up between the needs of the child with Autism and those of the Others. I used to get annoyed when he played with my toys, when he watched my video tapes because he broke everything; absolutely everything. What i have found, in reading about this and listening to stories, is that there are many ways this frustration can manifest and without the right guidance it can get out of control. The obvious side note here being that where Autism isn’t dealt with early and effectively we get relationships that break down, or never even form to begin with.

In my experience, personally, as well as my discussions with other Others, the great majority has to deal with jealousy for the first couple of years but then there’s this power that comes in. Maybe its from reading, maybe its from witnessing how strong your parents are, maybe its from seeing how someone so small can be so fierce, how someone who cannot speak 419409_10150751639425030_721113893_ncan progress right in front of your eyes. I’m not sure what it is, or where it comes from, but it does and it makes you become who you are. You grow up, you cope, you become passionate, understanding, experienced; you just learn that life isn’t about coping, it’s about taking every day and making it worthwhile, it’s about excellence, because someone is doing that right there, in front of your eyes.

The bright side of being an Other is that we learn, whether alone or with help, to manage these demands and behaviours which makes our childhood/adulthood easier. It teaches us skills we wouldn’t otherwise have or learn at school. We become effective and resilient adults; because being an Other doesn’t end with childhood. It’s a bond we don’t have words for, it’s a relationship that matures and grows stronger over the years.

The concerns of toys and attention fade and as an adult we start thinking of the future and develop a sense of responsibility that makes it difficult for us to leave home and begin an independent life.

Missing home was isn’t an issue, but missing Chris is unbearable. I can text, whatsapp, call my parents, my friends, my family; but my brother I can’t. He doesn’t like the telephone, or talking on skype for too long and when we do he just tells me what he wants to eat. I consider myself lucky if I get the same few words out of him; always ‘Hello, I love you’ and when i ask how he is its usually followed by a kiss and him running away.

I can’t ask my brother how he is, can you imagine that?

It breaks my heart when they call and tell me he asks for me, and asks when he can see me. There’s this weight on my shoulders that I’ve put there that will not be lifted until i know i can give him everything he wants. He doesn’t ask for much, he just wants his music, his food and the pool; but its doesn’t matter, because if he wakes up one morning and asks for something, i want to be able to give it to him. No one expects this from me, and no one has ever spoken to me about the day I will be his carer but it’s something i have been preparing for since i was 17.

That’s the end-game, that’s the dream.

That’s what being an Other does to you, it drives you and it makes you better. So when you meet someone with Autism, take a moment to take it in, see beyond the Autism and realise that they are inspiring, they can motivate greatness without ever saying a word.