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20

It’s May and I get to cry about my little brother turning 20.

31646765_10156283477410030_4157660885218754560_nI was in Cyprus 2 weeks ago and everywhere I went people talked about how good he is, how handsome, how they miss him and how much they love him. You might think that me writing this is what makes the difference but it’s not. It’s all of my family and how they raised him, how they treat him, how they flaunt him and how much they love him. He has become someone people want to know, and want to know more about.

I took over his room while I was visiting. He didn’t barge into his room to wake me up before 8am even though I could hear him being awake from 7am. He didn’t tell me to fold my clothes, or pick up stuff off the floor of his room, even though the rest of the house had to be spotless. When I couldn’t find the honey – he showed me where it was. When I wanted to drink one of his juices he kissed me and gently took the juice away. When I wanted to watch something, he let me even though it was his time to watch cartoons. When I wanted to watch a DVD he set a time for me and him to watch it together, even though he has this thing about not watching DVDs unless the stars align.  He let me bite off bits of his food even though Christos doesn’t share food. He let me pinch his cheeks and chin repeatedly despite his sensory overload.  When we said goodbye at the airport he hugged me for one second longer, because he knew I would ask for it anyway. He knows I’m a guest and he lets me be one. He has allowed me to float in and out of his life for 10 years.

10 years.

I asked mum if she thought he knew I was his sister or whether he thought I was some girl who showed up 10 days a year to annoy him. She said I was crazy.

But I have lived in a different country for half his life. Yes, there are many things I can say to myself to make it sound ok but right now I am just a girl in a foreign land waiting for him to have another birthday – from which I’ll be absent.

So, I write a blog post instead of a card, I ask mum for pictures instead of skyping and 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. And I want, with all of my being, for that to be enough and for him to know that I am his sister.

20 is the theme of May but I don’t know why and I don’t know how I’m gonna pull it off. Let’s figure it out together.

In other, less gloomy, news it was an eventful Autism Awareness Month this year. Here are some interesting reads in case you missed them:

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April 2018: 2 Science Headlines

1/ Social pressure

A drug is being tested which claims to help people on the autism spectrum with social skills. Balovaptan, said drug, acts on receptors. Receptors are located on the outside of cells and communicate commands to the inside of the cell. There receptors receive a hormone called vasopressin, which is a hormone from the brain which influences social behavior. Balovaptan is designed to block a receptor of a specific vasopressin, which might be linked to social anxiety says Larry Young, professor of psychiatry at Emory University. Basically, the brain sends vasopressin to cell receptors and some of these hormones affect social behaviour. This drug might be able to prevent the hormones affecting social anxiety. Behavioural “symptoms” of autism can be identified (but not limited to) as trouble in communication and interaction.

The idea of using drugs to change characteristics of people on the autism spectrum to “fit in” to a neurotypical society is worrying. That being said, it is important that such medication is available for the safety of the people that need them and for the mental well-being of the people that make the decision to take them.

We all have some form of social anxiety. Whether its tapping fingers, playing with your hair, flapping arms or other forms of stimming. People on the spectrum are under pressure to behave neurotypically to avoid bullying, rejection, discrimination – referred to as ‘masking’. This may be a solution for some but there’s a better one – it starts with ‘aware’ and ends with ‘ness’.

2/ Genes

Remember the MSSNG project which highlighted “an additional 18 gene variations linked to the development of ASD. Nature Neuroscience Journal, published a report on this project which found that the 18 newly-identified autism genes can be instrumental in understanding the pathways in the brain that affect how cells ‘talk’ to each other.” (The Biology of Autism)?

Remember the research published by Princeton University and Simons Foundation researchers where they analysed the human genome to try and predict which genes are likely to cause autism? They had linked about 2,500 genes to autism; we have an approximate total of 24,000. (Mr Autastic)

WELL: Researchers have found alterations of the gene thousand and one amino-acid kinase 2, known as TAOK2, which is so much fun to say out loud. The alterations found are thought to play a direct role in neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism.

Karun Singh, study co-author and researcher with McMaster’s Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute said: “This is exciting because it focuses our research effort on the individual gene, saving us time and money as it will speed up the development of targeted therapeutics to this gene alone.”

img_6972Science is on its way to delivering answers to what causes autism. They are closer to finding out how to predict autism, and, as a result, closer to finding a way to prevent it. In the  meantime, it’s up to you to ask questions, to include to shatter stereotypes and to embrace the people around you.

 

 

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April 2018: 2 new facts

  1. In 2007, the Qatar representative to the UN, Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned,  put forward a UN General Assembly resolution, to create World Autism Awareness Day. This gave way to today, a day dedicated to raising awareness about ASD across the world.
  2. Numbers published by the World Health Organisation show that approx 1 in 160 children are diagnosed with autism. That suggests that of the 7.2 billion people living on Earth, approx 45 million are diagnosed. Plus the lost generation and women that never received a diagnosis due to a variety of factors.

45 million! Autism is no longer a hidden disability.

Autism awareness is not confined to this day, or to this month. We fight for it every day to help educate people on how to better understand autistic people and lessen the stigma and discrimination that autistic people face in every day life. Awareness means that the community can identify and respect the autism spectrum. Awareness means that the financial burden families have to bear may be lessened with proper access to support and by making autism education and alternative therapies a mainstream issue.

Welcome to autism awareness month.

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The “Normal” Cult

29830733_10156190751535030_853762012_oIt’s autism awareness week if you hadn’t noticed & I read this article on BBC about women on the spectrum – It all made sense when we found out we were autistic . These women are teachers, PhD candidates, artists, comedians, psychologists and they are inspiring (& autistic).

About 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autistic Society. That’s approx 1.05% of the UK population.

In a one-hour special for Channel 4, tonight 28 March 2018, trainee human rights lawyer Georgia Harper and artist Sam Ahern, who both have autism, aim to uncover the true face of autism in the UK today. I hope you’ll be watching.

Autism awareness isn’t just about the future of autism, it’s also about the past and present. It’s about every person who feels they don’t “fit in”, all the times it feels like everyone else was given a manual on life, a ‘lost generation’ of thousands of adults going through life without a diagnosis. Autism awareness is about informing, spreading knowledge, sharing stories, finding new ways, and removing the stigma imposed by a system that doesn’t understand.

Autism awareness isn’t spread only by those living with autism. It’s a plague – a good plague. Awareness is born out of love, it spreads with our voices and makes an impact with our actions. It starts with sharing a story with another mum, or with children asking questions, with major airports introducing measures to help passengers with autism, shops introducing ‘autism hours’ and employers investing in autism training for staff. All the milestones we have witnessed in the world in the 5 years started with a voice.

The biggest obstacle to understanding autism is the expectation to look ‘normal’, the imposition of being ‘neurotypical’ and the social bullying that makes us dismiss and disable anything outside this fictional realm of “normal-ness”. We are programmed to treat anything different differently but what happens when you can’t see the difference? We grow up judging books by their covers and learn to condemn them when the cover doesn’t match what we thought should be inside. You ask someone,”Why is it weird if someone won’t make eye contact?”. Unless it’s a cultural trait, no one can think of an answer except a variation of “It’s not normal”.

You see someone and they look ‘normal’, they speak ‘normalish’, their lives seem ‘normal’ – they have a PhD, or a job or a family and they fit in your category of ‘normal’. As soon as you find out they are on the spectrum your perception shifts. You think, “how? why? really?”.

Autism awareness aims to infiltrate and destroy the ‘normal’ cult we subscribe to. It wants to shatter illusions of what we are supposed to do, it wants to expand our horizons and adds new words to our dictionaries. Just like all the once outcasts of this made up and exclusive society of “normal” the autism awareness movement is working. One in 100 people in the UK are diagnosed with ASD, teachers and police officers are trained, there are groundbreaking findings in ASD research and major channels invest money in documentaries, series and autistic actors/presenters (or muppets).

Autism is becoming a regular headline and it all starts with a voice. April is Autism Awareness day/week/month: here are some things you can do to help – Until everyone understands ; Wear Blue ; 30 things to do in April .

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Bru-mance

On 4th January 2016 I relocated to Brussels on a 3 month secondment. In those 3 months I made lifelong friends, we had lols for days, hangovers, a detox diet, so much pizza, I gained 10 kilos, launched an autism awareness project, took LPC exams and witnessed a terrorist attack.

I fell in love with Brussels because it’s such a weird place. You can find anything you want but it is organised chaos. You only have to walk around for 20 minutes and you are bound to go through european, residential, touristy, historic parts of the city. It’s a small town playing dress up as a big city.

On 22nd March 2016 I went to work super early because there was a lot going on. It wasn’t until 9am that I sat down, switched on my PC and looked at my phone which kept getting messaged and missed calls that a colleague said to me – there’s been an explosion at the airport. We knew a group of people from our institution that were travelling that day so we immediately began trying to contact them. It wasn’t until the second explosion hit the news that I stopped and thought that this was something I should worry about. We had colleagues stuck on trains and being diverted, colleagues trying to come back and others trying to leave because they had to get to their children. Our building was in lock down and we had to do inventory to figure out if we would be okay to stay the night. When we were finally allowed to leave, we walked through the city to our neighbourhood, it was such a sunny day. Three days of mourning followed.

I wasn’t scared that day. I couldn’t be scared because we were burdened with so much responsibility. In the weeks that followed, we retold the day’s events so many times and I always remember not being scared. I credit this to that one colleague who was my rock that day, and who stayed late with me when I offered to walk people home. I was scared that afternoon when I had to go buy enough supplies to get me through the next few days. I was scared when I locked the door to my flat and I was alone. For the next few days, every time I heard a police siren I checked the news. Two days after the attack a friend called to say there’s a march and we should go.

The Bourse was overflowing with people, flowers, candles, song, laughter and life.

I love Brussels because there’s surprise at every corner; you never know if the car will stop at the zebra crossing, or what kind of amazing cuisine you’ll uncover during a stroll.   love Brussels because their landmark is a small bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating.

I love Brussels because it was were I started my autism awareness project for Christos’ 18 birthday (#Project324). It was from there that I asked the team if they wanted to be part of the project, it was there that the cards were printed, cut and mailed to 18 countries. I am so proud that my brother’s 18th birthday project is associated with the city of Brussels.

In a short 3 months, I loved, I lived, I drank, I ate, I campaigned, I advocated, I worked, I helped, I was scared, I was angry, I lolled, I studied, I cried, I learned, I got a pink elephant hat. Most importantly, I was inspired. On this day, two years ago 32 people died, hundreds were injured and millions were inspired. Millions around the world were inspired by the fearlessness of humans.

#jesuisbruxelles

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The Sri Lanka Diaries: 13 years later

13 years ago on 26th December 2004 we were just two kids holidaying with our parents in Sri Lanka.

13 years ago, while I was clutching onto Christos and waiting for the second tsunami wave to hit, I thought of all the things I might not be able to do. I wondered if my family knew I loved them. If we would be found. I thought of what I wanted to do, and how I would do it.

13 years later, unavoidable circumstances have led to Christos and I being on holiday in Sri Lanka alone for three days. We aren’t slumming it in the slightest. We are still staying in Amaya Lake, got a suite and all the staff doing their best to provide us will all the support we need.

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It’s not the first time we’ve been alone together. I used to be in charge when our parents were at work for 3-4 hours. But we were at home. I knew who to call; I knew what needed to be done in case of an emergency; our parents worked 15 minutes away and our grandparents lived 30 minutes away. For the last three days we have been a 3 hour drive away from dad and 5,644km away from any kind of family. No back up. And when I say no back up, I mean no back up that can take over from me with Christos. I’m the only one who knows how to make his food, what he says, what he drinks, his schedule, his expressions, his mood, how he likes his clothes, socks, showers. I’m the only one he can depend on for 3 days. I haven’t found a word that describes what it feels like yet.

In 2004 Christos was 6. He had not started speaking yet and we communicated with PECS. We had a bag packed with only his food. There was his gluten free pasta, halloumi, lemons, rice, a burner and his salt and vinegar Lays crisps. Remember, this was 2004, in a village in a third world country in the midst of a civil war. No smartphones, no internet, no roaming, no YouTube, no Lays.

Despite my stomach ache, insomnia and the permanent look of panic on my face, the three days have been a breeze. It may not sound like a long time and you might be thinking that I’m being a martyr. I assure you, I tell myself to (wo)man up constantly. We have been following a schedule for the last 11 days, and we have not deviated from it much, unless necessary. My only job is to make sure we stay on schedule.

And that nothing happens to me.

Or him. But mostly to make sure we are on schedule.

The boy who couldn’t speak or understand why we were rushing him out of the house and disrupting his schedule has been replaced by a giant who follows instructions, communicates clearly with me about what he wants and understands that he needs to behave for me. We even went to a gala dinner together! He has enchanted the staff and the other guests. He is aware that I am alone and that I need to be taken care of as well. I know he knows because I occasionally get a kiss I don’t ask for or he looks back and holds my hand. My baby brother has grown into a beautiful human and that is all I want for Christmas for the rest of my life.

Some of the difficulties we have faced these last three days include:

– Having to check the time constantly to make sure we are on time. He does this on my phone approximately every 5/7 minutes.

– Always taking the same route to the same places. I tried to vary our walks slightly and had to deal with a tantrum because of it. He adapted quickly after a stern talking to and threats to call mum.

– Constant reassurance that we are keeping to schedule. He repeats the schedule to me constantly and I have to confirm it every time, with a smile and a kiss. Even as i write this he is telling me that he will be listening to music at 17.20 at volume 50.

– Brushing teeth. I have to count to 60 so that he brushes his teeth properly.

– Exercise. I’ve only been able to convince him to take a walk with me once in the 3 days we have been here. But at least we did it!

– Stimming and echolalia in a crowded restaurant. His arm flapping and laughter or repetition turns heads but everyone has been very helpful and understanding so far.

– The volume. Of the TV, the laptop, the game boy, his voice. It’s a constant negotiation of numbers and compromise. I am amazed at how willing he is to cooperate.

On this day, 13 years later, I am content that my family knows I adore them. I am assured

img_8423-2 that whatever happens I have people in my life that will always find me. I set goals and I have accomplished most. I’ve done most of what I wanted to do and I have plans for the things I haven’t been able to do yet.

Yesterday was all about self-indulgence, presents and personal happiness. Today is about remembering and honouring the 220,000 who didn’t get the chance to do what they wanted by living out our own lives to the fullest.

No doubt our visit to Sri Lanka has been impactful. Everyone in our vicinity has been touched by autism. Everyone has learned something new. I hope this means that the next autism family to visit Amaya Lake will be in for a treat!

Be kind. Share the love.

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The Sri Lanka Diaries

Christos, Dad and I are in Sri Lanka for 13 days. Note that this is the first time Christos has travelled without my mum. The prospect of travelling with an autistic adult who towers over both his father and sister was daunting. However, the only restless Pereras were the neurotypical ones. Christos cruised through the airport security, the airplane, the food, the transit and the overnight flight.

He adjusted to life in Sri Lanka just like a true traveller. All he asks is what the schedule is for the day. At our number one hotel we had a suite, a pool and 3 buffets. The staff were curious about Christos and keen to help in any way possible. By day two, everyone knew who he was. They knew what breakfast he liked and what ice cream he preferred. They even learned that ‘Efharisto’ means ‘thank you’ in Greek. Christos has no reservations when it comes to being in Amaya Lake. Even though it’s been 7 years since he last visited, he remembers it as if he has been there this whole time. His memory is impeccable.

The way of life, the culture is the first thing you notice when you get off the plane. Everyone is smiling, everyone wants to talk, help, and everyone stares. I can speak for Cypriots and Brits when I say that staring is not ‘polite’ and not encouraged. However, here it’s unavoidable. Staring here is not malicious because if you have an issue with someone you will sort it out immediately. Staring is education. It’s a revelation how little it bothers us here in comparison to Europe. The chasm between these two continents is evident in its people.

We talk about how lucky we are with Christo every day. There are families that can’t even dream about a vacation with autism. Yet, here we are. Talking to people who don’t know the word and explaining to them what this spectrum is all about. We are literally walking, talking, breathing awareness. Just by walking in a room Christos captures their attention, he evokes questions and he bestows new knowledge. This information will be talked about with friends, with family, and it will change someone’s life; maybe not here, maybe not now but one day.

I’ll go into the details of this adventure in later posts. For now, let me just remind you to respect and understand each other. We are only here for a limited time, and in that time we can make wonders happen. Remember that you may be the missing piece to a puzzle we all want solved.

Happy Holidays from the Pereras.