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Happy Birthday – 2020 Edition

Dear brother

You turn 22 years old tomorrow and this year you are celebrating in the midst of a pandemic. Another memorable celebration with all your loved ones awaits tomorrow; a Mickey mouse cake, your favourite food, and all the things you told mum you wanted for your birthday weeks ago. What an amazing life you have lived so far and how many experiences you have grown through.

You mesmerise me with your brain, your intelligence and how you keep surprising us all every day. Like how you know dad hides the laundry you ask him to wash every day and you have to remind him to take it out of hiding when he’s packing your things, or how you take care of mum when she needs it the most. People might think we can outsmart you but, damn boy, you put us all to shame with your perception and keep us on our toes.

You make me laugh out loud when you say you don’t want to go for a walk because you’re cold, but its 30 degrees outside and you’re sat in an air-conditioned room. Or when you start laughing just to turn our frowns upside down. You keep our family sane and safe, reminding them to wash up, bring in the clothes when it starts to rain, drink their tea before it gets cold and making them all smile with your wit. Thank you for taking care of them.

I live off the seconds I get to see you on video chat to hear you shouting at me to hang up the phone. That’s all I get and that’s okay. I am so proud of you and I can’t wait to see you again, grab your chin and force you to kiss me 10 times.

Happy birthday my little brother, I more than love you, more than miss you.

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FYI: If you want to help our cause during the Covid-19 pandemic, I am selling off my paintings to raise money for SMILE School in Famagusta, Cyprus. SMILE, like all schools, has been closed due to Covid-19 and our boys are being home-schooled, it’s easier for some more than others. It’s distressing for us to stay at home, but even more when you rely on that sense of routine and repetition to get through the day. When parents have to divide their time to further the education of all their children, neurotypical or not, as well as keeping the peace, maintaining the household etc. Your donation can help with getting supplies to educate our boys in art, math, cooking, baking, to entertain them with music, films etc or to help with paying rent or utilities so that the boys have somewhere to return to when all this is over.
Read more about SMILE on the blog and pick a painting you like. Make us an offer! These are difficult times, so I won’t price them. It’s up to you to bid and, once confirmed, donate directly to the school. 

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Eternal Valentine

Love in an autism home means something different to the rest of the world. It means hassling your little bro for attention when he won’t play with you. It means finishing your homework and then doing his homework and speech therapy with him just so you can spend time together. Watching the same movie/scene over and over just to share experiences with him. It means staying up every night until he falls asleep first repeating his words. It means giving him all your tapes, toys, CDs, phones in the hope that it calms him down. It means running after him. It means making sure he is okay first.  

Love in an autism home is fierce and overwhelming. As a sibling, I learned at the age of 10 that my childhood, teens and adulthood weren’t my own. As the big sister I thought this little boy was going to adore me, follow me around and annoy me for the rest of my life. Instead, he flipped it all on me and made me the follower.

Love in an autism home breaks you apart and builds you back up. It takes control of every little bit of your soul – even the ones you don’t find out about until years later – and it makes every piece of you better. It gives you the highest highs and some lows far lower than I ever knew were possible.

Love in an autism home takes away your identity. Whoever you thought you were is gone and now you’re someone new. Someone capable of things you never thought of – strength, emotional intelligence, thinking beyond the imaginable. It forces you to love yourself.

Love in an autism home inspires fears bigger than anything you can imagine. I am crippled by the fear of something happening to me because what would happen to him? Who would understand him and give him what he needs? Will he have a home and will he be safe? My fears manifest in love for myself; taking care of me and being overprotective of my welbeing. It made me selfish when it comes to health and forced me to be prepared for any eventuality I can imagine.

Love in an autism home takes away your eyesight and gives you perception. It leaves you blind to egos and gives you uninterrupted vision to see beyond the visible. To dream big and look forward to a future that is waiting to be written by the struggle and fight and determination of autism families for autism families.

On this day I reflect on a life so full of love and I am so grateful for my eternal Valentine – my brother. I hope I get to spend all my lifetimes being inspired by you.

Happy Valentines, Galentines, Malentines, Palentines and Friday to all of you ❤

 

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My hopes for you and me

My 20s were full of love, laughter, crying, drama, fights, loses, wins, deal breakers, trips, transitions, degrees, decisions, heartbreaks, booze, dreams and so much more. Sometimes I wonder what your 20 would have been like if you were neurotypical. I wonder if we would still be a family, how close we would be and if I82233631_2531887710466115_4314041005243367424_n would worry about you. Would we hang out? Send cards? Meet on special occasions? Would our lives depend on each others?

Probably no. But for better or for worse, our lives are intertwined. We are close, I worry about you, we hang out, send cards and meet on special occasions. All these banal things take a completely different meaning but that meaning is ours – yours and mine.

To be honest, I am nowhere near where I thought I would be at 30 but I know where I’m going. I know where home is. I can make plans and dream big – I’m doing better. I spent my 20s chasing goals and worrying that I didn’t belong to one place or have a home but I’ve realised that anywhere with people is home – I have so many homes and that’s okay. You taught me that. In the last decade you have moved to 7 different homes, changed 3 schools and you were okay.

In my 30s I have all I need and maybe that was the gold I was so desperate to find – not earning enough to support us both or having a high-stakes powerhouse job but being a powerhouse and strong enough to be okay with not being okay, being irresponsible to learn responsibility, being broken to become resourceful and being miserable to appreciating happiness.

My hopes for you are that you are happy where you are, with the people you are with. I hope that when you look at yourself you love you, and that when you don’t you can lean back into our love for you. I hope you continue living your life knowing that there are people around you who know you and can represent you and keep you safe. In return, I promise to be safe so that you always have a voice. I promise to live the life I have at this home away from you and always come home to you – for all the decades in my life and yours and beyond.

Thank you to everyone who has donated to Autism Support Famagusta over the last few weeks. I am aware of some tech issues but even if you were not able to donate, your intentions mean that you can out there instead and spread what you’ve learned like a kind of autism awareness plague.

To donate: http://www.autismsupportfamagusta.com/donate

Thank you.

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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.
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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: A very Disney birthday

60007825_1102919996568611_2483072549760532480_nChristos celebrated his 21 birthday on Monday 6 May 2019 at the Disneyland Parks in Paris. He was spoiled for 4 days with mum running after him and buying him basically anything he wanted. We were a bit grumpy on one of the days due to headaches but looking around at all the families and all the crying kids I’m convinced that we didn’t stand out. There’s something in the air in Disney that makes every one (adult or not) have at least one tantrum.

Disneyland Paris is very accessible to people with different abilities. You get a special pass delivered to the hotel which means that you can skip queues and get special seats fit for your needs. Their maps have an accessibility guide which describes each ride (how loud, how many steps, how bright etc). Overall, the Disney experience is magical. He smiled a lot, cried a bit, pretended to cry a few times and on his birthday he let the restaurant sing him happy birthday and he blew out his candles.

I often wonder if he knows what a birthday is, if he gets excited. But birthdays are 59918925_406917366526247_477245289778905088_n (1)weird and, really, what is there to ‘know’? So, he waits for the song to finish, he blows out the candles and gets to eat cake after. Christos won’t get Facebook posts wishing him happy birthday, he won’t get texts, he won’t go out and celebrate with his friends, he won’t ask for money to spend, he won’t ask for expensive presents, he won’t make a big show of opening presents. The greatest gift we gave him on Monday was sticking to the programme we made.

I ask my mum if she thinks he knows I am his sister or whether he thinks I’m some girl who shows up a couple of days a year to annoy him. She said I’m crazy. But I have lived in a different country for 11 years and, yes, I know all the things I can say to myself to make it okay. Yet since Tuesday when he gave me a rushed kiss and flew back to Cyprus, I haven’t been able to stop being sad. When I’m with him I try to get into his routine and I try to do things for him but he doesn’t want me to – he wants mum to put his hat on, or to hold his hand, make his breakfast etc. And, I get it because mum, dad, yiayia and pappou are the people who are there for him every day. 10/10 times he needs something I am not there to help him and he knows it. It empties me – this feeling of wanting but not being there. You may think that living with autism is hard, but let me tell you that being away from it is just as painful.

Just like my mum, my family and friends will tell me I’m crazy and that he loves me. They will point out all the nuances that reaffirm that he knows who I am and for a couple of months, that will be enough for me to be okay. I’ll catch up with my thoughts to remember that he is happy and all the sadness and guilt I feel are completely selfish because I can’t add to his life right now. Maybe, later. I hope.

59746931_803068253409282_2241911501889732608_n18 years ago, when he got diagnosed we wondered if we would be able to handle it, if he would ever speak, if we would ever be able to communicate with him. We worried whether he would be able to do things for himself like tying shoe laces, eating, bathing. When he was five, we never would have imagined sitting down and having a conversation with him about what he wants, why he’s upset, how we can fix it.  We never thought he would handle school as well as he did, or socialise as well as he does. At 21 he still surprises us with his quick math, his photographic memory, his compassion, organisation and humour. That’s the Christos I want tell you about – my resilient, honest, brave, loyal cheeky and atypically typical brother.

So, I write this blog post instead of sending a card, I ask for pictures instead of Skyping and, every year, I try even harder to be better. I think of the years I was there and how I was a part of his smiles, his laughter, his crying, his bedtime rituals, his repetitiveness, his speech therapy, his tantrums, his education, his homework, his first steps, his first words, his transition, his moves, his development.  I dream of sharing the rest of my life with him, for our happily ever after, and want with all of my being for him to know that I will be there and that I am his sister.

Happy birthday Christos, I love you, thank you and respect you 💙

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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: 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