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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: 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: Stephanos

young stephStephanos was born on 21.06.1998. His mum remembers his first words being ‘Mama Papa’ before he was even 1 year old. His 5 older siblings showered him with love because he was the baby, the centre of attention. They were all enchanted by that big smile. Just like any other infant he ate a variety of fruit jars, fruit cremes and mashed potatoes and carrots, packed full of flavour and smells.

At 11 months, he stopped reacting to his name. He stopped eating colourful food and stuck to Cerelac, biscuits and Farley’s rusks. He closed himself off, deaf to his family’s calls for affection. They remember it as him regressing instead of progressing. He stopped saying ‘mama papa’. He started stimming – hands in front of eyes, flapping hands, tiptoeing and making sure all his trains and cars were in the right order.

At 2 and a half years old he was diagnosed with ASD.

Stephanos’ family quickly jumped into action. They tried most of the alternative therapies for autism as well as speech therapy, occupational therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis, one to one teaching and of course used PECS. With PECS his family started communicating with him again. With music therapy they got to see that smile again. With speech therapy his speech resurfaced. Little by little, they got an inch of him back at a time.

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With the support of his big, strong family Stephanos was able to express his artistic side. Nowadays, he has an art studio next to his home where he takes daily lessons. He loves painting horses, having started with a basic drawing and slowly adding the horse mane and the tail to eventually win an Erasmus award for one of his paintings. He also has music sessions three times a week and he loves it! In fact, he knows most of the Disney songs off by heart and he loves Grease the film – and I mean, who wouldn’t? His mum describes to us how on school days they have to play Peter Pan, El Dorado and Robin Hood in the morning, have a little dance and roll and only then are they ready to go to school and start the day.

Even through his verbal communication has declined over the years, Stephanos is a major part of the Prodromou familia. He makes them all laugh, he makes them proud with his art, he overwhelms them with pride when he simply picks up a piece of cheese from the fridge and makes himself a mini sandwich. Stephanos’ own milestones and accomplishments are the product of a long and difficult journey.

Through his ups and downs, he has grown into a thoughtful, caring, compassionate and talented adult who approaches you when you are upset and gets excited when his siblings visit. Perhaps the greatest thing Stephanos has done is inspire the people around him. His family, friends, teachers and other kids get to see his progress and have hope.  Stephanos’ story gives hope to newly diagnosed families that it will get better and even if it doesn’t there is a group of people who will stand by them. He has inspired his parents and my parents to take action and to speak up for him and for all the autism families who need it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when getting to know Stephanos. I’ll be telling you all about what he likes, dislikes, his calming routines and even his bad days – because who doesn’t have one of those once in a while? We’ll dive into a beautiful, atypical friendship between two boys who accept, acknowledge and respect each other. For example, Stephanos does not like it if you touch your own face or head (same for Christos), yet! somehow they don’t bat an eye lid when one of them does it. Boys eh!

#21andatypical

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The beach at Christmas

We are in Sri Lanka again this year for Christmas. Christos has not joined us but we spend 90% of the time imagining he was here, talking about what he would be doing (and eating) if he was and missing him so so much. Everywhere we go we are asked about him. The people of Amaya Lake were enamoured by him and are looking forward to seeing him again next year.

You may remember that last year we were alone on Boxing Day and how proud I was/am of my gentle giant. Well, this year my dad and I are in Kandy and Christos is spending Christmas in Cyprus absolutely surrounded and crowded with people who love him. When I spoke to him yesterday he was having his tea, completely dazed with happiness and reminding me that I need to go back on 28th because he’s waiting.

Every year, on this day, I say a humble thank you. On this day, I remember all those who weren’t as lucky as I was; those who were lost, who lost people, always remembering and paying tribute to the victims of the tsunami of 2004. I never take for granted how lucky my family was that day to have escaped without a loss. When I look at the Indian Ocean I am reminded of the fear it caused on 26th December 2004 and it can never seem the same again. I am reminded that that’s how quickly life can change.

This year has been good to us. Next year will be a new adventure. With Christos turning 21, we are exploring new options for his day to day life. I’m hoping to share with you later in the year how we tackle this new milestone. No doubt, it will be with an army of autism families by our side. This year has reminded me to never take anything for granted. One second I’m watching Frazier, next second my mum is telling me how her car is trashed and how narrowly she escaped. That’s how quickly life can change.

This year, on 23rd December, Indonesia was struck by another tsunami. The death toll so far is 429. 16,082 people in tsunami-affected regions were confirmed as displaced. It is expected that more buildings are at risk of collapse or being hit by new waves as the volcano is still active. A concentrated death toll of 106 has been confirmed at Java’s Tanjung Lesung beach resort. A pop band was hosting a party on the beach when they were swept by Saturday’s tsunami. That’s how quickly life can change.

Yesterday, we were at a gala dinner, opening presents, eating too much, drinking even more, enjoying and celebrating. Today, is a reminder to give back. Remember, honour, be generous and, most of all, be kind. Love who you love and let others love you. Appreciate, respect and take nothing for granted. That’s the holiday spirit.

Happy hols my kindred spirits ♥️

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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.

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Sibling Dance

The unusually hot UK summer has come to an end  on Christos’ last day in the UK – and he has just finished shopping in Oxford Street, London.

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The last week has been full of giggles and pleasant surprises. I am constantly amazed by how he has grown into a beautiful, mature adult with autism. And I am so grateful to our family for creating and sustaining this human who I can call my soulmate.

His basic schedule is simple – wake up, get dressed, eat, talk about when we will eat again, play his game boy, eat, talk about when he will snack, snack, talk about when he will eat again, talk about the schedule for the next day, talk about what we will eat the next day, eat, shower, tea, sleep. Anything out of this routine is discussed and it fits into the rest of the programme once agreed upon.

The fear of transport, restaurants and public spaces is not as big of an issue as it used to be. He will repeat what he wants to eat and drink and then he will patiently wait for the rest to finish. He adapts to change in plans and new environments like a pro. Like I said in my previous post it’s just the rest of us that stress out about all the above.

His maturity and adaptiveness is a credit to my mum, my dad and our grandparents. It is a credit to all our family how they love him, know him and praise him. The autism discourse used to focus only on the person on the spectrum, however it is their support system which moulds them and creates the adults that go off into society. We are seeing more and more studies and representation of parents and siblings of people on the autism spectrum and it would be naive not to include them in our journey to understanding autism.

Thing about soulmates is that we signed up to do this dance together even before we were born. If I had a choice now, 20 years later and knowing all the things I know, I would choose to spend all my lifetimes with him.

If you are into Netflix, Atypical Season 2 airs on Friday 07.09.2018. You can read my take on it here. If you’re in the UK, The A word delves deep into the family unit, together and individually. Each person is portrayed as a person. You can read my review here.

Tomorrow he travels back to Cyprus to resume the sleep, eat, repeat routine on home turf. Wish him a safe journey back and read something new about autism if you get a mo. I’ve gathered some articles below:

Schools ‘exclude autistic pupils through lack of understanding’

Bricks for autism: how LEGO-based therapy can help children

Autism: ‘If only I knew then what I know now’: Special school teacher Siobhan Barnett shares what working with autistic students has taught her about autism

Autism – five signs of autism spectrum disorder to look out for in children

‘Taboo’ autism seen as ‘disease’ in ethnic communities

How incy-wincy spider could show if your child is autistic

‘Autism and Learning Disability’ To Be A Priority in NHS England’s Upcoming 10 Year Plan

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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: