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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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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: Proud Pereras

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Being back to life without Christos is harder than I thought.  The first couple of nights I kept waking up at 4.30 looking for him. This holiday was different because we depended on each other. Whatever he needed, I was the one he would come to. No back ups, no saying ‘yeah later’ and then never getting round to it. It was a surreal glimpse into our future.

I’ve written about the challenging parts of the holiday, now it’s time to go back to gushing over how great he is.

1. His routine: Christos works out his day in hours. So in the evenings, we would set out a plan for the next day hour by hour. For example:

  • 7.30 tea
  • 8am walk
  • 9am toast with jam and cheese (maybe chicken sausages)
  • 10am tennis/badminton
  • 11am go to the pool
  • 12.30pm shower
  • 1pm lunch (pasta with chicken or rice and curry)
  • 2pm game boy/or laptop (Shrek or The Road to El Dorado)
  • 3pm pool
  • 4.30pm shower
  • 5.20pm listen to music
  • 6pm tea/chocolate/fruit
  • 7pm listen to music
  • 8pm dinner (pasta with chicken or rice and curry)
  • 9pm bedtime

This wasn’t as rigid as it looks. For example, I could negotiate an extra half hour at the pool if he was in a good mood. Or we would skip the walk or the pool if it was raining. The night of the christmas gala dinner we stayed at the restaurant until 10.30pm! Also, if we were travelling the schedule looked different. He even let me explain to him how there are different times in different countries.

IMAGINE, trying to explain time zones to someone with onlyimg_8364 numbers and the words – dad, mum, Christos + Theodora, airplane, and (obviously) pasta.  I showed him the time in Colombo (dad), Doha (Christos + Theodora), Cyprus (mum) and explained that the airplane would take off and land in between. I wasn’t sure he got it, until we got to Doha and he asked me to change the time on my phone to the local time and did the same in Cyprus. I CAN’T EVEN.

 

2. His food: I’ve talked extensively about his eating habits on the blog and how far he has come from the days when mum had to pack a bunsen burner to take to the Maldives. He ate all sorts of chicken, and all sorts of rice and all sorts of pasta and sauces. He had a variety of options and made his mind up quite quickly. It didn’t bother him that it wasn’t always the same rice, and he never went for white. It didn’t bother him that the chicken was curry, or jamaican, or spicy, or salty, or lemony. He ate what was there, what caught his eye and was willing to switch in between. The chefs were on standby to make him something special, but we never needed to. In fact, all the staff were at his beck and call. I am so grateful to all the great people at Amaya Lake for their kindness; I wrote a review for them here.

3. Packing: He is the best at packing. I’m okay at packing – dad is not great (sorry daddy). Every time I lost something, Christos knew where it was. Every time I was packing he would bring me things I would have DEFINITELY forgotten. He is in his element – bossing us around and organising. Thanks to him, we went back home with all the things we had taken with us.

4. Compassion: While in Sri Lanka my aunty had a bad fall and had to be operated on. When we got to the house it was 5-6pm and Christos had warned me that he wanted chicken nuggets that night for dinner at 8pm. But: Which ones? Breadcrumbs or batter? Smooth or bitty? SPICY OR REGULAR? Or maybe a little img_8415bit spicy? Point is, it wouldn’t be the chicken nuggets he’s thinking of. I obviously always say okay and figure out the rest later. When we got there, it was obvious that we needed to make sure our aunty was okay first. Dad was mega stressed and there were millions of things he had to sort out and think about. Nuggets were not a priority. Christos played with his game boy from 5pm to 8pm that day. Why? Because he knew something was off. He knew the schedule was off. He didn’t ask to listen to music, or anything. He just played his game boy and stayed out of our way. We had pasta that night for dinner and it was okay. That was our proudest moment of the whole trip.

5: Affection: He was constantly holding my hand, giving me kisses, looking out for me. When I had a tummy ache, when I had a headache, when I was stressed – he was there for me. It was hard going back to Cyprus because his priorities changed. He was home. That meant he had our mum and nan who take care of him every day, all day. He didn’t need me anymore. Kisses were rushed, and cuddles were cut back to only when necessary. It really, really hurt. But! Let’s be real, he sees me 10 days a year. At the end of the day, I was only there for him for 13 days so obviously I’m not number one. I’m probably top 5. I hope I’m top 5.

This holiday meant so much to the three of us. There’s so much I’d like to tell you, but I can’t express it in words. This holiday was a feeling. When I think back to those 13 days, I feel a weight on my chest, it makes me cry, it makes me grin ear to ear and it makes me proud.

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The A word – Acting

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Episode 1 of Season 2 introduced us to Mark. He is cast as the son of one of the mums in the autism support group that Joe’s parents attend. He holds his plate and tea and stands in the background while mum has a conversation. You can’t miss him, even in the background, his TV mum jokingly mentions that he’s 6ft3. He doesn’t sit until his mum asks him to sit down and tells him exactly what they will do; he will sit and have his tea while mum has a conversation and then they will get on the bus and go home. He repeats this back to her.

For a lot of people this interaction will mean nothing. For me, this interaction is why I will be watching The A word again tonight. That moment is our entire life with Christos. Telling him what the plan is, every hour is accounted for. It started with pictures (Picture Exchange Communication System) on a board, then printed out schedules on the fridge, and finally it became a conversation. I remember my mum putting together this schedule for him every night; at 6.30am we wake up, at 6.40 you brush your teeth, at 6.45 we get dressed, at 7.00 we drink tea and at 7.15 we get in the car to go to school.

image (17)We used to have the whole week planned out and changing the plan was a nightmare. As his speech therapy progressed we put pictures and words together and formed sentences which he had to say before he got what he wanted. I found some examples which you can see in this picture. Once he familiarised himself with all the pictures and the sounds, he didn’t need them anymore. He could form sentences all by himself and name anything in the house. Now he has a weekly plan. He knows months off by heart and has a sense of how far away or close they are. So, for example, when I will visit again, or when he’s going to start going to the beach, which days he stays with my mum or dad and which days he goes to my grandparents etc.
Travis Smith, who portrays Mark, is an actor with autism and this episode was his acting debut. Travis is working at ABLE Radio through an initiative which aims to boost the employment prospects of 1000 young people with a learning disability and/or autism. Engage to Change. He secured the ABLE Radio placement which has been helping him develop his skills, and is working towards realising his dream of acting and singing for a living. “There is nothing else that matters when I am acting,” Travis says. “Just before I do it, I am petrified but, once I am singing or acting, I lose myself.”
Joe is not the kind of autism I grew up with, but Mark is. A gentle giant that is shy and loves a plan. I feel that we will be seeing more of Mark as the show goes on, and I hope that we will see many more representations of autism. When you watch tonight’s episode of The A Word (BBC One at 9pm GMT) look at the details, don’t just listen to the words. Notice the hidden looks, the things parents do that look like routine to them but aren’t routine for you. Look out for Mark and you might see a bit of Christos in him too. It is breathtaking to get to witness a young adult with autism do what he loves. It is inspiring to watch Travis break free from the stereotypes of what people on the spectrum can and cannot do.

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Atypical:

Just binge-watched the much anticipated Netflix Original series ‘Atypical‘. The series follows Sam, who is on the Autism Spectrum, on his journey to finding love.

Even though its sold as a comedy, the show made me ugly-cry a lot more than it made me laugh out loud. The show presented many big and small moments that I have experienced first hand. The autistic lead is sincere and very well portrayed. You can see the extensive research that went into developing the ‘Sam’ character and he delivers quite well, in my opinion. Obviously, not everyone on the spectrum is like Sam, but I think this series is more about the family rather than the lead.

I can’t think of anything I disliked about the show, although you’ll hear a lot of self-proclaimed experts throwing shade at every opportunity. To them I say, appreciate the effort of incorporating an autism story into something as mainstream as Netflix. To you I say, watch it. Remember, not every person on the spectrum is like Sam, but this is a good starting point.

What was the inspiration for the story?
Robia Rashid says: “After working in network TV for a while, I just wanted to do something for myself. I was very aware that more people were being diagnosed with autism, and it was interesting to me that a whole generation of kids were growing up knowing that they were on the spectrum and wanting independence. That point of view seemed so interesting to me — and such a cool way to tell a dating story. You’ve seen the story of somebody looking for independence and looking for love before, but not from that specific point of view. I really was drawn to that. I was a little annoyed because it sounded really hard! I had to do a lot of research. A turning point was when I figured out that I wanted to use Sam’s voice-over. But it was both helpful and harder because it made the project much harder to write.”

Your son has the same desire to be loved that we all do.” This was the sentence in the trailer that made me want to watch Atypical. (I write about love here a lot)

I saw a lot of myself and my family in the Atypical family. The mum’s passion, making her life all about autism for so long that she forgot to live her own. The dad’s sweet disposition, feeling a disconnect to his son but making silent gestures to show his everlasting dedication to his family.

And of course, the sister. Sam’s sister spoke to me more in what she left unsaid. Watching the show as an autism sister I saw in her all the thoughts I have had in the last 19 years. I have so much in common with her and her family life. Not the obvious, as I am anything but a track star. Her triumphs are overlooked, her life is dependant on her brother’s and her future hangs in the balance. Sam says his sister never lets him get beat up as she instinctively steps in front of him when someone asks what’s wrong with him. Yet throughout the series she playfully punches him, hits him, climbs over him and jokes about his quirks. Casey (the sister) is so well written as a character she made me cry every time she was on screen.

Casey’s success is overshadowed because her family is preoccupied with Sam. When she meets up with them, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When her big news is obscured by what will happen to Sam, it’s her boyfriend who makes a scene about it to the parents. Casey knows Sam is paramount, she knows because she wants him to be. She struggles with deciding whether to ‘move on’ and do what’s best for her or to stay and help Sam through the hard times coming in the household. I lived this struggle. She is fearless when its comes to her brother and telling people to back off. She is his.

I can’t wait for season 2 of Atypical and I know it will be just as touching as the first. Well done Netflix. Well done to Robia Rashid for taking this on and doing it so well.