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21 and Atypical: Happy Birthday Steph🍾🍰

Stephanos is 21 years old today!

19358841_10154713771921238_1693404057_oJust like his bestie, he won’t be preoccupied with this day. His birthday will serve as a reminder to his family of how far he has come and how many Steph milestones he has reached. A birthday is too typical to be atypical like our boys. Stephanos won’t get excited about presents, or friends coming over for a party. His phone won’t be beeping with Happy Birthday notifications and he won’t feel the social pressure we feel when we reach a certain age.

Stephanos doesn’t live to please social norms, or to meet society’s expectations 27752278_10155332857716238_3880961810554679579_nof what a 21 year old ‘should’ do. As his mother has so beautifully put it “He may not accomplish University, marriage, or having children like in a “ typical ” world but he has been totally loved and supported by family , friends, schooling and society. I am positive if he could speak he would confirm in a verbal manner how blessed he is on this subject. Autism is part of society nowadays and we all do our “ bit” to accept and embrace because after all we are just human. We have all learned that a “ typical” world isn’t always for everyone. Society has its beautiful exceptions and Stephanos is an example”.

Stephanos lives to break the ‘norms’, exceed expectations, inspire and pave the way to a new and more inclusive world. He was the inspiration for so many actions taken by his family that have shaped and given meaning to my life. He inspired our group, the special unit in Ayia Napa, the summer schools for children with autism in our area and eventually the SMILE project. In a world where everyone wants to be an individual, Stephanos is the most inspiring of them all. Because Stephanos has allowed so many others to be themselves, to be individuals and to be exceptions just by being himself.

Happy birthday Steph. Thank you for inspiring my family, for opening doors for us we never thought possible. Thank you for being my brother’s friend.

Stephanos’ birthday closes my 21 and Atypical series (although I will be referring back to it with updates from the boys). So join me in wishing him a very happy birthday.

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21 and Atypical: Steph’s Got Talent

You will remember that Stephanos loves the arts. Playing music, singing, drawing, painting, crafts etc. He uses his talent to express words and emotions in a different way – like a true artist!

Over the years, he has taken major steps in improving his skills through weekly lessons and “he will improve much more as he grows and has the potential for much more that what we give him credit for” his mum reminds us. He loves painting horses, having started with a basic drawing of the outline and then moved on to slowly adding the horse mane, the tail to eventually winning an Erasmus award for one of his paintings.

60342861_295902934633404_3523312190037688320_nA friend of the family was part of ESIPP and Erasmus: ESIPP stands for Equality and Social Inclusion Through Positive Parenting and aims to provide parents with accurate information, effective practical strategies and improving outcomes for individuals with autism and their families. Parental autism education has not been available everywhere in Europe and through the work undertaken and the findings in the project ESIPP has made key recommendations for policy makers. The ESIPP project was established to develop a locally appropriate Parent Education Programme (PEP) for families living with autism in three south-east European countries (Croatia, Cyprus and the North Macedonia). The project is led by the University of Northampton and includes eight other partner organisations from across Europe.

ESIPP asked for design submissions for the project logo. So the society rounded up about 15 paintings from the Famagusta area. The Autism Famagusta Support society runs a yearly summer school in Ayia Napa where the children who attend undertake a range of activities – and they always keep kids work. Stephanos was one of the first for Cyprus.

Nowadays, he has an art studio next to his home where he takes daily lessons and showcases his art. At School, Stephanos loves art class and creating things in woodworking lessons. While the equipment was usually left to be handled by the teachers, a couple of months ago Stephano’s mum was sent photos of his latest woodwork creations from school where he actually put together this wood placemat with hot glue alone.

Stephanos also paints most of the clay money boxes that we decorate and sell at events.

 

Currently, he is working on creating occasion cards as another way to promote Autism Support Famagusta, autism awareness and earn money from selling cards created with Stephano’s input. I’m already putting in my order so all you summer babies that I love so much will be getting a Steph card! While he doesn’t come up with the occasion designs all alone, he follows instructions and does all the drawing and colouring.

Every single one of you express yourselves in a different way – with emotions, physical strength, volume, writing, activism. Which means that, at the end of the day, the only thing we have in common is that we are all different.

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You can donate to our society here.

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21 and Atypical: The stories we don’t tell

I remember so many 2am’s almost drifting into sleep when I would hear Christos whisper “Oh” and wait for me to repeat it. If i didn’ respond he would climb int bed with me until I did. Sometimes I didn’t use the right volume, tone or accent so he repeated it until I did, all night and as long as he wasn’t asleep himself.  By the time 6am came around and all three of us struggled to put his socks on, the right way. They need to be put on perfectly, if not you start again. If you touch the wrong spot, or accidentally stroke his ankle, toe at any point you have to start again. If you tickle him or give him an inadvertent ‘Lets go’ pat, you start again. If you don’t start at the right end, if both sides aren’t moving up at the same pace, if its too high or too low, you start again, you start again, you start again. No loose ends, no marks, no holes otherwise you start again. Even if its not visible, is it a new pair? Are you sure they’re a pair? Start again, just in case. Then come the shoes. Something’s not right; is it the shoes or the socks? Take everything off and start again. By the time we were ready for school we had already lived an entire working day.

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Stephanos, while in bed at night will hear his mum – or whoever is downstairs – clear their throat and he will run down the stairs, go straight outsidem, lie flat on the ground in the garden and sing a song until he is not upset and he is ready to go back to bed. Just like anyone of us the boys have characters of their own. They get angry when people don’t understand them, when a sound is so loud or a light is so bright that it interferes with their welbeing – wouldn’t you? Sometimes, they shout, scream and lose control – don’t you? The difference is that you can communicate your frustration, you can talk about it and find ways forward.

But what if you couldn’t?

Christos’ triggers could have been anything when he was growing up. We were all learning, trying to get to know this ball of fire that was gifted to us. Sometimes the consequence was a million ‘Ohs’, sometimes it was scratching at a mosquito bite until it was raw. I remember his arms, legs and face bear the scars of his incessant picking at every bit of his skin and tearing off any protection we tried to offer. He twisted his arm, legs and head hair to the point of pulling it off. Other times, he would be hitting his head with a closed fist so hard it left a mark, punching his arms and legs while clenching his jaw in frustration to whatever it was we had done wrong. What could we do? He was obsessed with every little spot on him, us, clothes items around the house. We would wipe and wipe and wipe until our hands we sore but whatever it was he could see was still there. When he became a teenager his frustration grew, and so did he. He is 6ft something and 90kg, he overshadows me at 5.2ft (and whatever weight I am depending on the year) and the rest of our family, teachers, friends. He would throw anything that was in his hand. I remember him once throwing his school bag over a tall bush and into the middle of the road. I remember him squeezing my fingers in his palm until I cried or squeezing my nans arm until he got yelled at by mum. He dug his nails so hard into his own skin that it bled and then he would cry.

At 13, Stephanos broke a window in his home. His injuries were so bad that he needed surgery. The next day, he woke up in pain, disorientated, and with stitches. He ripped them off during his meltdown despite his family’s best and desperate efforts to help. His self-harm started during his puberty. He used a closed fist to hit the side of his face so hard that he caused the retina in his eye to detach. His family lived with his rage and self-harm every day for years, this had become commonplace. He didn’t communicate to say something felt off but one day his mum noticed a whiteness in his eye and took him to the doctor who confirmed that Stephanos is blind in one eye. To help control his outbursts, his family used medication to calm him down but they say they never got to the root of the aggression, which peaked at 16/7 years old. Was it pain? Was it sensory? All they know was that they felt lost.

The families all feel guilt for not doing enough and for any harm the boys inflict on themselves, for every behaviour, every sound or scream. Not only are they judged and stared at for every atypical behaviour, they judge themselves always striving to do and give more. What parent doesn’t feel that? Our parent’s stood up, against all odds, in a society that didn’t even know the word ‘autism’ and created functioning, well-behaved adults who understand, laugh and love. What were you like as a teenager? And if you weren’t taught to refrain yourselves would you know how to?

Sensory sensitivity can be a real struggle. We could lie and say we are used to it after 20 years but it’s still frustrating and I still get annoyed and fight with Christos. The only advice that exists is keep at it, you’ll get it right at some point. It’s not their fault, and it sure isn’t your fault. We don’t understand what they see, hear or feel and that is in no way your fault. To everyone else who doesn’t live with autism – sometimes we don’t even hear the screaming because we live in a ball of scream. Other times, we don’t react to the hitting or pulling or scratching or throwing because we live in a world where silence is not the typical. Once the 100th storm of the day has passed, Stephanos’ calming depends on which behaviour has been triggered. He may go lie down by the front door, run to the back of the house, sing a song and stim with his index finger or stay flat down reciting a song. He will shred flowers, grass and weeds through his fingers, at day or night and for hours. He goes back in the house, he smiles and suddenly the slate is wiped. You have the strength to take on another 7 storms. Once the millionth ‘Oh’ has been said, Christos will just repeat our names over and over until we look like we are happy. He will shower us with cuddles and make us apologise for what we did to cause it. He will laugh until we laugh and he will cry if we cry. He will apologise and smile. Suddenly my fingers don’t hurt anymore and his kissy face makes it all ok.

So what happens when we aren’t there? Where will these reactions be housed? Where 11165285_10206036337501718_7756282778690047842_nwill they find forgiveness? How will they be understood? How do you size them up, find what they need and keep them safe? In Cyprus, in our case, the answer is to create something our government doesn’t offer – or can’t offer quickly enough. We work to find ways to fund high quality facilities which are based on ethical and inspiring opportunities for children and young adults with autism in the Famagusta area. To recruit and ensure that their education and development doesn’t stop just because being ‘typical’ means you leave school at 18. The members of the Autism Support Famagusta charity work all day, take care of their family and rack their brains to facilitate activities and growth based on individual interests and skills. Two of the boys going into this home will be Christos and Stephanos will you help?

The stories we don’t tell are the stories where we are all to blame for not making this world a world we can all live, grow and be in. They are stories in which our pursuit for comfortable and easy conversations are depriving young adults their future. They are the stories in which we are the villains for not caring enough because it’s not our ‘problem’. Christos and Stephanos hide from the Disney villains on the TV and they turn the villains around them to warriors. Which one are you? And what will you do this April, for autism awareness month, to make sure everyone has a place in this world? Until every last piece of the puzzle fits?

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21 and Atypical: Dancing with the Stars (aka Sisters)

Christina is Stephanos’ older sister and she shared this story with me earlier this week.

53423695_926770284324454_1836469629984178176_nWhen I was around 15 and Steph was 14 we used to listen to this song “I will survive” by  Gloria Gaynor and we used to just dance to it“. Christina is a year older than Stephanos and has loved dancing since forever. So , she decided to make up a choreography to the song and include Stephanos! Her many choreography stunts included lifting her little brother which she finds hilarious now as he is much bigger and taller than her.  They rehearsed it and danced to that song all the while sealing their sibling bond and creating memories that would last forever and would end up being shared on this blog, with you! As they got older and Christina moved to the UK for her studies their dance faded into their childhood. Christina remembers “after approximately 5 years, we were just sitting around with my mom and Steph listening to the radio when the song popped up! I looked over at him and said ‘Steph it’s our song!’ For a moment he looked at me like he was trying to process which song it was but when I stood up and positioned myself he immediately stood up as well and walked to the exact position he had to, to start off our choreography. I was so amazed by his memory. We started dancing to it again and of course half way through I forgot it but he remembered it all.” 

483721_10151540249360030_589832536_nFunnily enough, when I went home recently we were watching old home movies and going through old pictures and found videos of me and Christos dancing in our flat in our pyjamas. We would listen to same song repeatedly, switching off all the lights and run around with flashlights.

Growing up with a younger sibling with autism we couldn’t help but wonder if we can handle it, if they would ever speak, if we would ever be able to communicate with them. At first we were afraid, we were petrified and kept thinking we could never live with this diagnosis by our side. But, we survived. We look back at those years now thinking how we spent oh-so many nights just feeling sorry for ourselves, crying because we thought we’d crumble. Yet, we survived. We more than survived. We were pushed, inspired, lifted and moulded by them. We are us because of them.

As sisters we were tied to this dance even before we were born. But, and I’m sure Christina will agree, if we had a choice, 20ish years later and knowing all the things we know now, we would always choose to spend all our lifetimes dancing with Christos and Stephanos.

Read about more amazing sisters I have met through this blog here.

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21 and Atypical: More than meets the eye

Autism traits are not immediately visible all the time. It may take a while to notice the stimming, the echolalia or the sensory deprivation. For decades we have been trying to be as mainstream as possible, but the tables are turning now and our uniqueness is being celebrated. People are telling their stories and we are telling Christos and Stephanos’ stories with the hope being that you look a bit closer, stare a bit less and learn a bit more next time you meet a family on the spectrum. 

Christos and Stephanos are just 2 neurodiverse adults. They communicate through PECS or simple sentences, they reach milestones at their own pace, they love, laugh and feel the same as you. They are a bit more sensitive to light or noise and may come to a conclusion a different way but they are an equal part of ‘your’ world. This society we have conjured up, with its timeframes, standards and expectations is in constant motion and it is up to us to make sure no one gets left behind just because they don’t fit into a make-believe box. The perpetual need to fit in is what makes up most of the worries autism families have. Will he fit in? Will she support herself? What if they get lost? Will they find their way? Who will be there when we’re gone? The therapies they undergo are for their own quality of life, but the social conditioning they go through – no flapping, no screaming, no stimming etc – comes from fear of being different. It stems from the desperation of wondering what society will do to them if we aren’t there.

Then, they do something amazing and we forget all about society’s fictional rules and its illusions of greatness. Because we witness greatness every day. Our kids are living proof that just because someone said it was impossible doesn’t mean it is. That just because they didn’t speak until they were 8 doesn’t mean they don’t understand what we say. They stomp all over misconceptions and create worlds that work on inspiration, love and growth. We see this every day with our kids but we spend so long worrying and sheltering them that we forget how intelligent they are and that they have been watching us and learning for years while we were too busy talking. 

thumbnail_8C5CE67D-701A-4313-916B-8E79ACC208CDStephanos’ mum remembers a cruise trip to the Greek Islands with all 6 kids. “On the second day we were all upstairs playing cards and Steph was stimming around us, in our line of vision. There were 6 pair of eyes focused on playing cards but also watching Steph. At some point, in a split second, he was gone. We lost him. Steph’s verbal abilities at that age were limited but he could say “toilet” and “help”. Immediately, the 6 of us had spread out on both sides of the ship, on all the floors, in the lifts and asking people if they had seen him. Finally, some restaurant guests who knew us from Ayia Napa said they had seen him in the lift going down. We went to our floor immediately and found him in the loo. He used the lift, went to the correct floor and corridor and knocked on his brother’s room door which was different to our own! What is amazing to me is that he knew our room was empty and so knocked on his brother’s door instead.” It may seem menial to you, going to the loo when you need to, but it was a milestone for Stephanos. It was an eye-opener for the family, and a reminder that just because they are overprotective and Stephanos doesn’t speak  it doesn’t mean that he is not fully aware of his surroundings or capable to make rational decisions to fit his needs.

Last year, when Christos and I were travelling back from Sri Lanka we were sat on 29746571_10156190751480030_515778963_othe plane repeating his schedule and what times he would eat what. So we’re cuddling under the blankets talking about pasta when I realised I had to explain time zones to my brother who is obsessed with time. IMAGINE, trying to explain time zones to someone with only numbers and the words – dad, mum, Christos, Theodora, airplane, and (obviously) pasta.  I showed him the time in Colombo and said this is dad, the time in Doha which is where Christos and Theodora are going, and the time in Cyprus where mum is. Then explained that the airplane would take off and land in between Colombo and Cyprus at Doha. He was staring at the phone and me while I’m making grand gestures and airplane noises and showing him numbers. I wasn’t sure he got it, I underestimated him. Then we got to Doha and he asked me to change the time on my phone to the local time, for which he had done the math in his head, and did the same when we landed in Cyprus. Now, he has a globe in his room and can point to where we all are and where we’re going next. 

We’ve seen these boys grow, learn and make progress in front of our eyes. Yet, somehow these false thresholds set by our communities seep into our subconscious and make us forget how extraordinarily ordinary they can be. They quickly catch us by surprise, always a step ahead, whether it’s giving us directions or using words we didn’t even know they knew and remind us to not stereotype but to learn about the talents our kids have and to stop thinking there’s a limit to their potential.

Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs” – Neurotribes Read more about Autism Advantages.

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21 and Atypical: Christos

There are 180 posts about Christos on this blog so I will spare you the repeat and link you to the one that describes how I see him best. I wrote this on his 18th birthday and contributed it to Ambitious about Autism’s International Day of Families campaign.

Click to read: To Christos, on your 18th birthday: https://christos90.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/to-christos-on-your-18th-birthday/ 

Christos Profile: 

Born: 06.05.1998

Diagnosed: 2001

Loves: Music and Food

Loathes: People singing and ruining the music, sharing food.

Character: Cheeky monkey

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My mum does not recall the exact age but she remembers him being very “difficult” on his first birthday. We were recently watching old videos of all the cousins and in one video he is running after the camera, responding to his name and in the next he doesn’t turn around even after 4 -5 times of hearing his name.

Over the next few months/years my parents watched their big eyed, pointy eared little monkey become isolated. They took him in for hearing tests and were told there was nothing wrong. He started walking on his toes and at 2 years old he still hadn’t spoken any words. My parents saw a speech therapist who referred them to the general hospital in Nicosia for further exams on nothing specific. At the age of 3+ he was diagnosed from mild to moderate autism. At the age of 4+ he was diagnosed again in the UK.

The family were distraught. Would he go to school? Would he speak? Would he be able to take care of himself? Would he have friends? Fast forward 16 years and we have a young, gentle man full of promise, love, compassion, who has friends, who takes care of us and has a lot to say. He takes care of the people he loves and makes sure his friend Stephanos always has the swing next to him at break time.

My baby brother is iconic.

#21andatypical

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An autism sister watching Atypical Season 2, Episodes 3-10

It took me a while to get through this season because it is so emotionally charged. It’s a bit too relatable for me.

Ultimately, I want you to watch it and see these 6 things.

1: In episode 3, Sam walks out of his class at some point due to sensory overload. The way he walks out reminded me of my brother. The eyes, the mouth twitching, the hand shaking, the urgency in his step. He walks out of that class as if his life depended on it. Sam has autism spectrum disorder. Keir Gilchrist, the actor, does not. Creating a single, accurate portrayal of living with ASD is impossible. Therefore, to create something relatable to as many people as you can you endeavour to make connections through different interpretations of ASD. It is a colossal credit to the people behind Atypical that Keir was able to remind little old me of my autistic brother in that scene. You can hear what he has to say about the show here, at Autfest 2018 hosted by Autism Society of America. In the same breath, we are introduced to an autism group with a range of individuals. These actors are all on the spectrum in real life. Again, they do not represent the entire autism community but they are there, on the screen with their own traits teaching all of us that autism has as many faces as the ‘normal’ cult. We see that they are honest, they have insecurities we can relate to and they care and look out for each other.

2: Doug and Elsa 44333001_353571598538233_179029183383470080_nare encouraged to promote awareness after an incident with Sam. I don’t want to state the obvious but that’s what i’m doing with this blog, that what we are going with the autism support group in Cyprus, that’s what my dad does with hiring people on the spectrum to work with. It’s not me being me when I say that our people are inspiring. As soon as they waltz into our lives they start tearing down walls, they press a reset button and draw a line between who we were and who we are meant to be. They push us out of our box, and pull us into unknown territory. They open our eyes and give us the gift of purpose.

3: Bullying. We experience Sam’s school life without Casey and although it is heartbreaking to see, watch and relate to we are also reminded that people outside our family have our kids back as well. It’s daunting for an autism family to let go and not be in control. It is nearly impossible to trust when it comes to them because of how cruel our society can be to anyone who is not neurotypical. We are reminded that they will have friends and foes wherever they go, and that their friends are capable of loving them and defending them as ferociously as we do. We experience more of the friendship between Zahid and Sam in this season. It is refreshing to see a portrayal of non-family members and how attuned they are to the needs of the person on the spectrum. It demonstrates the impact a neurodiverse person can have on everyone around them. Zahid gives as good as he takes in this friendship and when he feels he’s out of his league he calls in the big guns – Casey.

4: Sam explains that autism is not an accomplishment. It is not something he worked towards or something he has overcome. For neurotypicals it’s easy to think of someone’s progress as ‘overcoming’ their autism but that’s not an accurate observation or conclusion to make. Autism is something he was born with. Autism it’s part of his physical, genetic, cognitive and behavioural development as a person. He can’t overcome it, because he is it. To Sam, autism is like having fingers and toes. Think of it this way: Some people’s toes are long, some toes are longer than others, some are tiny. Some fingers bend to the left or the right, some have big nail  surfaces some barely have any. No two toes or fingers in the world are the same which means that there are 7.6 billion different pairs of toes in the world. Some people can bend make different shapes with their fingers, some can paint with their toes. Some are ambidextrous, some don’t have all ten.  Who’s to say what a persons abilities are based on their fingers and toes?

5: Casey – Which I talk about extensively here.

6: It is painfully obvious how immense and substantial the research was when the concept of Atypical was cooked up.  The crew, the directors, the writers and the actors show us in every single episode that they are trying to understand all the hundreds of layers that exist beneath the surface of an autism family. Every member is their own person. They don’t have the answers, they don’t do everything right because an autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a manual. Their characters are not superficially drawn up scripts that react to autism. Not all their decisions or actions relate to the person with autism. Each member is a complex human being, who struggles with their insecurities, their past, their future, their friendships/relationships, and autism. They are deeply relatable and painfully real.

Bonus tip: It’s so so worth watching.