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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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Fading into the background

A new study published here – Distinct Patterns of Neural Habituation and Generalization in Children and Adolescents With Autism With Low and High Sensory Overresponsivity – on pubmed.com explores how the brain can fade repetitive or familiar sounds in order to allow concentration in neurotypical persons and compares the workings of the same function in neurodiverse individuals.

For most of us, sensory stimuli such as noises or unusual textures trigger activity in the part of our brain which processes sensory information. The more we are exposed to this stimuli, the more our brain is able to recognise it as familiar and tamp or manage our response to it. This process, called habituation. It helps us tune out background noise/sensations so that we can pay attention and process new information. Let’s take a fan as an example – you hear it when it’s turned on at the start of the day, you feel it every time it turns towards you, but you don’t keep hearing that buzz or noticing the gust every second throughout the day, unless you choose to.

The article’s objective is to explore sensory overresponsivity (SOR), which is an atypical negative reaction to sensory stimuli prevalent in autism spectrum disorder. The study monitored responses in three stages of sensory processing:  initial response, habituation (i.e., change in response over time), and generalisation of response to new but familiar stimuli.

The new study, by lead investigator Shulamite Green  (assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles), found that some autistic children don’t show signs of habituation. This means that their brain does not fade out the sound of a fan, the gust of wind, a stray hair that tickles their neck but their brain keeps trying to understand the stimuli over and over again – which is overwhelming and exhausting.

You can read the very interesting findings at length through the link above. The summary is:

  • The team studied brain responses to sensory stimuli in 42 children with autism and 27 non-autistic children, ages 8 to 18 years, who have average or above-average intelligence.
  • The autistic children into two groups: highly responsive to touch and sound and those less responsive. 
  • Each child’s brain was scanned while it experienced a series of stimuli, each lasting 15 seconds: white noise, a scratchy sponge rubbed along the left arm, and then both at once. The sequence looped six times.
  • The team monitored the regions of the brain which process sound and touch, and the amygdala, which filter sensory information.
  • During the first two rounds of repetition, all children showed increased brain activity. The group with the less responsive children had a noticeable brain activity drop during the third and fourth rounds and remained low for the fifth and sixth.
  • The brain activity of autistic children with high sensory reactivity veered towards high for all six repetition rounds.

The team also exposed the children to one more round of stimuli using similar sensations but with a slight difference in texture and frequency. The brain activity for the group with the low sensory reactivity indicated that they recognised the stimuli as new but also that they were similar enough to tune them out. Whereas, the other group had high brain activity which may indicate that their brains were processing the stimuli as completely separate and new. It was also interesting to read that some children with autism showed no brain response to the new stimuli at all. This may mean that they could not tell that the stimuli were new, or that their brains had faded the response to the original stimuli so much that they couldn’t activate in response to the new information.

Next time you see a child covering their ears, a parent frantically trying to to put their sock back on, a crying toddler in a busy train/bus/airplane – remember that what you see is never the whole story. Our bodies and minds are vast and beautiful and different. Instead of getting annoyed let your brain fade it out so you can focus on something else – because you have that ability and they may not. Your brain’s natural reaction will be to habituate not to stare or glare or offer unnecessary parenting advice – so pop your headphones in, look out the window or engage in another conversation instead of focusing on the distraction – because you have a choice, people with autism may not.

If you would like a taster of what sensory overload can be like Autism Speaks has 5 video simulations that help you experience sensory overload.

Don’t let kindness, understanding and love fade into the background. See it, appreciate it, teach it and use your capabilities for good.

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21 and Atypical: The SMILE Project

64582350_2087828768006568_1085529915794653184_oThe SMILE Project is a culmination of the fears, determination and strength of the autism families in the Famagusta area in Cyprus. It was born out of fear of what will happen to our adults with autism who require care. It was created with determination to establish a safe, educational space for our kids where the state has failed. It is opening today because of the fearlessness and strength of those involved. Those who have done the manual work, donating time and money to ensure that our gentle giants do not suffer the consequences of a state that doesn’t understand them. Today, 19th June at 7:30pm in Paralimni, we open our doors to 3 young adults who pave the way to a better future for all adults with autism in Cyprus.

The Smile Project will be based in the Famagusta Area (Paralimni) and will provide day-care services for young autistic adults of 21 years old and over. 64912747_2382131665339646_8103174948933074944_nIn every autism family, there comes that dreaded time where you have to think of what’s next. Our families and Autism Support Famagusta powered through obstacles, lack of funding and the absence of support to imagine what would happen after State school comes to an end. We, the families, know that there is no provision or services with specialised staffing for young adults with autism in our area – so we needed to act.

The future of our children is a concern for all parents.
Who will take care of them?
Where will he/she live?
Will they be safe and have a quality of life when we are no longer here?

The SMILE project is a massive achievement and a stepping stone. The ultimate goal will be a 24-hour care centre with overnight stay but also a day care provision for adults on the autism spectrum. The centre will offer sensory sensitive activities tailored to each child, music therapy, speech therapy, arts and crafts etc.

Our children’s learning will not stop. We are working together towards the same goal which is to provide support to families with children on the autism spectrum.

As a group, we are blessed to have had the support of the Municipality of Ayia Napa, the Mayor, local councillors and staff every step of the way. We are hopeful and confident that other Municipalities in Cyprus will embrace and support us to pave the way to a brighter future for autism in our beautiful island.

So.. join us – all you have to do is smile.

If you want to help:

Donate here https://www.autismsupportfamagusta.com/donate-index-impact

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21 and Atypical: 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: Planet Blue💙

It’s autism awareness month and you may notice that a lot of the posts are blue. You may also scroll past or see numerous autism-friendly events and educational activities which will be taking place all month, everywhere in the world, in order to increase understanding, acceptance and further support people with autism.

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But why blue for autism? While there’s no definitive answer I think the reasoning is found in the meaning of Blue.

Blue is a colour found in nature such as the pale blue of a daytime sky or the rich dark blue of a deep ocean. It is for this reason that it is described as calm and serene. Blue seeks peace and tranquillity and although life with autism is not calm, Christos and Stephanos feel safe in their own space and surrounded by people that adore them. Stephanos’ godsister, Joanna, remember their days in primary school when Stephanos used to wait for her to pick him up from class for break and hold her hand when they had to play volleyball or basketball at gym. Aren’t you most at peace when you feel safe?

Blue is also a cool colour which can sometimes seem icy, distant or even cold. Before the diagnosis, the speech therapy and before we adjust to this new world of living with autism it can sometimes seem as though they are distant or not interested. When they don’t respond to their name, when they wiggle themselves out of a hug, when they wipe away a kiss, it may seem like a loss but Christos is an affectionate man who intimacy. He laughs with us, eats with us and cries when we are sad. He helps us when we are in pain and he surprises us with hand holding or a kiss. Stephanos, is more social in general and he allows kids to approach and touch him, to hold his hand, to guide him and even to kiss his cheek. He responds and seeks affection from his family while also showing them he loves them daily. The myth about people on the spectrum being unapproachable is one we aim to dispel every day. Don’t you find that you appreciate your alone-time as well?

42816046_319009918650137_5237303023620849664_nBlue is idealistic, it explores and pushed the boundaries of self-expression; in fact, it is the most used colour in business and 53% of country flags incorporate some shade of blue. Christos and Stephanos push limits in communication without words. They are imaginative and creative in their journeys. Stephanos dances, sings, plays music and has his own drawing studio. At school his talents are further cultivated by creating through woodwork and using the hot glue gun to complete his own work. His abilities are not defined by his speech or his ways of stimming and he reminds everyone around him to not underestimate his neurodiversity.

Blue can be conservative and predictable, a safe and secure colour; a traditional colour if you like. Christos used to be notorious for not liking change. Over the years we have seen such massive changes in him in terms of eating habits or changing his daily schedule last minute. He has become open-minded and has broken out of the shell the word ‘autism’ imposed on him. He is safe in his predictability and unpredictable in his emotional intelligence. Change may be difficult for Blue but how many of you are completely comfortable with frequent changes?

Blue also represents freedom. Perhaps freedom of mind, freedom to be whomever they want to be. Free from the restraints and pressures of social ‘norms’, liberated from being confined in one box and ‘fitting in’.

So, it’s autism awareness month and if you are reading this you’ve taken one step to contributing in spreading awareness. Other things you can do are:

Tell someone it’s autism awareness month.

Wear blue; a t shirt, accessory, or even blue jeans with the intention of it being for autism!

Image result for autism awareness puzzle ribbonDisplay the puzzle: The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon is the most recognised symbol of the autism community in the world. Wear the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon – as a pin on your shirt, a magnet on your car, a badge on your blog, or even your Facebook profile picture. The puzzle pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colours and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. 

Find out what’s happening near you. Many Autism 15032849_10154114892521238_68260037536364233_nSociety local affiliates hold special events in their communities throughout the month of April.

Watch a movie or documentary about autism. Louis Theroux’s documentary “Extreme Love Autism”, Oscar nominated “Life, Animated”, “Autism in Love” on Netflix, “Girls with Autism” on ITV are just a handful of recent depictions of autism.  You can also read about Autism, and it doesn’t have to be a journal, or research. It can be fiction, like “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult or “Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” by Matthew Dicks.

Donate to your local charity or ours Autism Support Famagusta .

Read #21andAtypical, share your story and #StandUpForAutism .

By embracing the puzzle piece, not the missing puzzle piece, we embrace the piece of our world that is autism. Tomorrow, the world will follow a tradition pioneered by Autism Speaks and Light It Up Blue. And while lighting a blue light doesn’t help parents struggling to balance a job, a family and autism, it raises awareness. Awareness will come from people who notice the different monuments/buildings worldwide going blue, a window in a quiet street displaying a puzzle ribbon, a local business fundraising for autism and they will ask questions about it. They might tell others, or go home and read about it. They may recognise it next time they see it and not stare, they might pass down the knowledge to younger generations.

If we could go into every house and help every family struggling with autism, we would. Instead, we will wear blue and we will tell people to wear blue. We will tell them why and we will talk about autism until all the pieces fit, until everyone understands.

From the Empire State Building in New York, Niagara Falls, the London Eye, Sidney Opera House, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Petra in Jordan, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, the Taj Mahal in India, the Table Mountain in South Africa, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, the Canton Tower in China, and the Great Buddha at Hyogo, people all over the world will Light it Up Blue to honour World Autism Awareness Day tomorrow. Will 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