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Hear me roar (about autism): 2013-2014

I am saying goodbye to my 20s this year and will be fundraising for the Smile Project by Autism Support Famagusta. Smile is the first and only day care centre for adults with autism in Famagusta, Cyprus – and it hosts my brother. 

To donate please follow this link and use the hashtag #30smiles

After my graduation I was a bit lost. I didn’t know if I wanted to pursue a career in law, I isolated my self and spent most of my days on the couch or in bed. I had decided not to return home (to Cyprus) all the pursuit of happiness and love. Only, after three years of living away from home I still wasn’t any wiser re the happiness and completely lost about the love bit. One gloomy day, I was re re watching an old series when an episode about writing spoke to me. Coincidentally, I had a little run-in with blog writing at a temp job where I wrote a post about unemployment and the woes of being a law graduate in the state of today’s economy. The process, as well as the response, made me think this was destiny (I believed in destiny when I was 22, just like you did). So, I got out of bed and did some research. Ok I sat up in bed and did some research.

The blog tips I got from various internet sources, sitcoms and friends were “Be yourself”, “Spell check” and “Pick a theme, write about something you’re passionate about” – so what was I passionate about? Looking back now, it was so obvious and I don’t know why it took that long to find the answer. I was still learning about myself and crawling my way out of my own personal dark ages for the previous ten years so I had to dig deep and shed all the layers and masks I had on. One night, I was Skyping home and Christos was being a tiger on camera. After that I spoke to dad about the issues he was having at school. I hung up, cried and realised I’m passionate about him and his future. Destiny (i thought) struck again when I read a guest blog article on BBC about how autistic children are presented with special jargon phrases. Mark Neary captured it completely; it made me laugh out loud and at the same time gave me the courage to create this page and write my first post .

199123_10150167935090030_1697873_n (1)The next two years where a blur. The blog took off in a way that I never expected and so did I. I had so much to say, share, relive, consider, reflect on and learn. Writing all this down made me cry every time. Suddenly, in two years I went from re re watching series in bed and avoiding my feelings to advocating for rights in Canada, Australia, France, the UK and writing articles about us in Greek, writing to MPs and governments around the world. I was approached by autism charities, organisations, radio stations, TV stations about my story (links to articles under Published tab on main page). There was no hiding anymore, no masks.

Writing became a regular thing. It got me out of bed, it made me think, it made me angry, it made me change things and perceptions around me. I had found my voice and the roar I had been suppressing was bursting out of me. My life was filled with people from all around the world who were going through the same thing I was, who wanted guidance, help or advice. People who had just gotten a diagnosis, or who didn’t know which therapy to go for, or parents who worried about how the siblings of the kid with autism would be affected. Writing about autism brought me the happiness I was looking for and it made me look at me in a different way. I knew so much more than I gave myself credit for. I had so much to give and the sadness and anger I felt transformed into inspiration and were channelled into this blog – which made a difference in other peoples’ lives but, perhaps more importantly it mended my ties with my family, and myself. I learned so much about myself through writing about Christos – yet another gift he has given me.

I published 52 posts on the blog in 2013/2014 and, today, this is my 201st post. On the second day of 2020 I won’t set any resolutions because it doesn’t matter what you think you want to do or what is expected of you – what you are is already you. So I am grateful for transformation my brother inspired in the last 21 years, I am thankful for all the friends we have around the world through this blog and I am more inspired than ever to continue advocating for this cause.

I hope you will join me.

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The girl with the Dora mask: 2011-2012

I am saying goodbye to my 20s this year and to counteract the selfish need to reflect on the last decade I will be fundraising for the Smile Project by Autism Support Famagusta. Smile is the first and only day care centre for adults with autism in Famagusta, Cyprus.

For more information: Smiling September

To donate please follow this link and use the hashtag #30smiles

While the turmoils at home seemed to be neverending I thought that being away from it meant I was indestructible. I had started an LLM in a new city and it was intoxicating. In those years (my social years) I made friends for life, lost a few on the way but most importantly I found a way to not be me and it felt great. I was masking my sorrow with a mask no one knew about – not even me. Needless to say my social years didn’t last long – i’m a house cat at heart. So after too many jagerbombs, heartbreaks and too many late nights I buckled down, did the work and got my first masters. It felt like an accomplishment but not my own.

After this, I made the decision to stay in the UK permanently. It may sound selfish but I could never find out who I was in Cyprus; I was a child of divorce, sister to a boy with autism, wanted a career in law, but I didn’t even know basic things about myself; what food I liked, what music moved me or even how I liked to dress. Up until that point I was just faking being me trying to be the me I thought I was supposed to be.

So I cut ties with with all that, got a job and started working towards getting a training contract.

Today: I look at my brother who has lived his life so openly. No masks, no pretending – he has known who he is since the start. Who knows what mask he would be forced to wear if he was like us? What he would be forced to suppress/do just to fit in. So today, after years of mistakes and learning from my brother, i can proudly stand next to him without a mask. I don’t have peppers in my food because I don’t enjoy them, i don’t like horrors/thrillers, i prefer rain to sunshine and Pizza Hut to Dominos (that’s right), and I’d rather stay in all day and hang out with my bro (even though we annoy eachother) than go out into the world without him.

 

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Then and now: 2010

I am saying goodbye to my 20s this year and to counteract the selfish need to reflect on the last decade I will be fundraising for the Smile Project by Autism Support Famagusta. Smile is the first and only day care centre for adults with autism in Famagusta, Cyprus.

For more information: Smiling September

To donate please follow this link and use the hashtag #30smiles

Hindsight is an incredible feeling isn’t it? I look back at who I was then and I can see clearly how I got to where I am. My last decade plays like a film in front of my eyes and at centre stage is Christos because there is nothing I am more proud of in life that to be his other half. To live up to his expectations every day, to earn and keep his trust, to walk beside him in life.

It wasn’t always my priority though. Even though he was the driving force behind my decision to move to the UK to study, my teens are a blur for the most part. See,  we all have ways of getting by and mine is that I block out parts of life/the past I don’t want to remember.

I was lost, looking for meaning, love, somewhere to belong and in a constant battle between the need to be selfish and take care of me and feeling guilty for not being selfless. But with the bad there was good and I’ll try to focus on those. Through all the family drama, heartbreak and late nights that consumed my 2010 there was light.

This picture is from Halloween 2010. Because, I don’t have any other pictures of me and my brother that year. It was a selfish year and but looking back, 10 years later, it had to be. There’s a part of my heart that will always be hollow with all the moments of Christo’s life I missed out on before he outgrew us all. But like any family unit, we have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of each other – we just didn’t know back then. Mum took him to a parade in Cyprus and he dressed as Woody from Toy Story, it was one of his favourite animation films. We watched it over and over and over, and knew all the words. I remember him asking to watch it and when Sid would come up he would hide. 

This year? We get to spend the entire day together in Sri Lanka, making memories and cementing our bond. The difference is that this is a selfless year. We have both overcome our individual obstacles and experiences that weighed us down – Christos has moved to a new school and is tackling issues bigger than him or us. He has paved the way for other families of kids and adults with autism to look forward to a future which doesn’t condemn them to sit on the sidelines of a society that doesn’t have money or time to invest in their abilities.

I’m not going to lie and say it’s been smooth sailing because we had a tough day yesterday. I travelled through 5 time zones in 3 days and it took its toll. The repetition of the routine and his need for everything to be the same is exhausting at the best of times. But today, we are both rested, we have a plan and we are back on track. 

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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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Smiling September

I think September is a great month because it starts off the end of a calendar year. While it signals the end of summer, the beginning of autumn is the start of a new school year, the countdown to many widely celebrated holidays, apple pies, leaves turning all sorts of beautiful colours and in general it is a preparation for new beginnings.

Having just finished yet another arrivals week at my place of work, I caught myself being a bit resentful this year. So many children are starting school, university, college etc because the right to education is reflected in international law in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 26 states:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The Cypriot government, while responsible in making education accessible and available for all, has failed to understand autism and to provide establishments which can cater to adults with autism living in the Cypriot society. Hence, it is left to autism societies, organisations and groups to create their own places of education and development of character. But what happens to areas where such an organisation doesn’t exist? Or it doesn’t have the funds?

Adults with autism over 21 years old in the Famagusta area are left to their own (and their family’s) devices. Parents are faced with an impossible choice of whether to provide privately funded development opportunities and care, or to cease education  and/or to admit these persons to centres which bear a label stating “for people with disabilities”. Such abstract grouping is not only impractical but it is a disadvantage to all persons – despite abilities. While we are calling for a specialised unit/centre for adults with autism it is important to understand that the aim is not segregation – it is safe specialisation. So, how does the Cypriot government expect the same centres that houses for the elderly to cater for Downs, autism and learning disabilities? Or for parents and family to arrange transfer to the nearest autism facility without additional funds while providing for the family?

Ignorance – is why our kids are not included in the planning stages for education, social care etc – the inability and unwillingness to understanding these individuals and the arrogance in not seeing them as individuals.

Grouping them together and imposing a further financial burden onto the families is a manifestation of how we mistreat people with abilities that do not “fit” into the preconceived notions of “mainstream”. Denying them inclusivity from the moment they don’t meet the made up milestones that dictate our education system is only the beginning. Our society continues to outcast them in employment, relationships, friendships, social ‘norms’ and  education. This is how the SMILE Project was born.

The Autism Support Famagusta organisation was formed by parents and friends of people with Autism Spectrum Conditions in the Famagusta area. Our kids grew up and had nowhere to go. So we stepped up and created a place for them in a world that tells them they don’t have one unless they comply. The members of our organisation work tirelessly, incessantly and face every obstacle because they want to provide a safe place for their children where they can grow, develop their character and claim their rights just like every one else. Thankfully there are people, businesses and municipalities in Cyprus that contribute to our work, keep us going and support us. There are amazing people that apply to spend time and educate our kids so that they can cultivate their qualities, skills and provide them with new experiences. Every person involved in the SMILE project was once just like you. None of us knew autism until it burst into our lives. But we started learning, growing, getting stronger and stumbling the whole way here – to this moment when action was needed yet again. So here we are, getting back up and marching forward, hoping that you will be a helping hand (or smile) by our side. 69027189_359207548341415_839973041910841344_n

This September remember that the things we take for granted aren’t granted to everyone. All over the world there are people that have to fight for the right to education either because of lack of funding, lack of space, materials or study requirements. All over the world the reason people are deprived of this right is because of their governments. What can you do? Simply learn about us, our organisation or a society near you. It may be that you know a person with autism in your school , your work, your network, your neighbourhood so find them and talk about it. Open up your world to include others and be kind because knowledge is power. If you want to do more you can donate, send supplies and even! take a volunteering holiday and help organisations build schools in different places around the world. There is always something we can do. Always.

Throughout autumn term I will write more and more about the SMILE project so that we can show you what we are doing and how we are giving our kids education and support that they should have had.

Our page for donations can be found 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