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Shopping with Autism

The thought of writing this post makes me smile. It’s that smile you have when you have overcome something and then you look back on it years later and think “How was that my life?”.

In 2015 I spoke to you about Christos’ traits in “Why fit in? a) Gestures“: [He] likes to shake his arms in the air a lot, quite forcibly and he makes this laughing but not laughing sort of sound. When we are in big open spaces he’ll run like the wind. When we were in supermarkets, when we were in Disneyland, generally in places where he feels comfortable. 

Looking back on that now, it’s quite funny to think that I used supermarkets as an example of a place where he feels comfortable.

Up until the age of 8 (?Mum correct me) going shopping with Chris was a nightmare. I’m not exaggerating. It was like walking into a living breathing nightmare. Most of the time mum and dad wouldn’t take him. But when you’re on your own and you have a 10 year old and a 2 year old, and they need milk, or nappies, or food, you gotta pack up and go to the supermarket. It wasn’t something we could avoid.

Just thinking of driving up to the supermarket makes my palms sweat. It was loud, it was cold, it was too much. His sensory sensitivity was off the roof. He cried, he was on the floors, he was red, his clothes would come off, he was screaming and there was nothing we could do to console him. We would return home traumatised.

A couple of years later, we could stop the screaming, by getting him chocolate and crisps. Then came the years where we would go in and didn’t need to drag him across the floor to the till. My mum stopped apologising to everyone. When he got a bit older, we would make a list, he’d know where everything was and there was no crying. He would organise the shelves. If something in Isle 4 was supposed to be in Isle 12, he knew and he would fix it.

Now? Now it’s one of his favourite places. You can tell him what you want, he’ll tell you what he wants, you’ll try and offer a compromise, you’ll lose and everyone goes home happy. No crying or screaming involved. This is a testament to my parents. Not the strangers around us who, instead of helping, stared in disbelief, not being able or willing to understand that my brother was not naughty he was just in incomprehensible pain. My parents made this progress possible. Milestones are different to all of us, and this is a millionstone (trademarked).

When I left home in 2008 he was 10 and in the organising phase. My dad worked nights so in the afternoons it was just Chris and mum running errands, going shopping. I remember her calling to tell me they had been ‘banned’ from a supermarket. Chris was sorting out the chocolate shelf (without pay) like he always did, while mum was picking some other stuff up from a bit further down. Chris found an open chocolate bar and he kicked it under the shelf. [LOLLING] I mean, why was there an open chocolate bar there in the first place?? Who’s fault was that?

Anyway, one of the staff found my mum, told her he was disturbing or stealing or that he was part of the chocolate mafia; I don’t know what. So, they asked them to leave. Now, those of you who know my mum can imagine. Those of you who don’t, let me just tell you that she’s not like me. She’s shy, polite, kind and was shocked. In her state, she was unable to express herself and instead just stopped going to that supermarket.

My rationale was to call the supermarket, from the UK. I was quickly convinced not to. Instead, I told everyone who would listen that this had happened in that one supermarket in my home town. My sister (who broke the World Guinness record for the 4th time, as mentioned in previous post #justsaying) was outraged. I remember us driving past the supermarket and always remembering, bringing it up.

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I was so resentful of that brand, that when I moved to Brussels and it was the neighbourhood supermarket, I hated myself for sometimes forgetting to make a list and going somewhere else and instead having to buy milk from there. That’s right, I can hold a grudge. The original supermarket recently closed down, and I would be lying if I didn’t feel a tinge of happiness that that place, where my mum was made to feel inadequate and my brother was singled out for being himself, was no longer there.

In recent years, many big supermarket brands have introduced measures to help their autistic buyers. For example, The Asda “Quiet Hour”, earlier this year Tesco trialled a ‘quiet hour, Marks & Spencer has launched a uniform range to help children with Autism etc. This year the National Autistic Society (NAS) has launched the “Autism Hour” to help draw attention to the difficulties that people with autism can face in noisy environments.  If you want a glimpse into what its like, watch this video.

In the first week of October, businesses will turn down music, reduce announcements and dim lights to help create a calming and less daunting environment. A number of major retailers have already signed up to the initiative, including Clarks and Toys R Us and we hope to see many, many more name brands on the list.

I hope this is a success. I can’t help the voice in my head screaming that this is making autism the exception instead of teaching acceptance. However, the other voice in my head (i know how this sounds) is reminding me that all the people involved in this initiative will go home and talk about it with their family, their kids, their friends. I am reminded that this is awareness at it’s best because it helps you understand and take away only the best. I hope that this paves the road to us shopping together, with more understanding than judgement, more humanity than dread and with more knowledge than ignorance.

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The end of Chapter 3

Earlier this week I found out that i have finally passed my Legal Practice Course; an LPC is the vocational stage of training to be a solicitor that must be taken after completing a law degree and before practicing. This means that after 8 years of being a law student, I am done. I was trying to describe to my friends how happy I was to receive the news and I couldn’t find words.

If you are a regular reader, you know that this was part of my life plan. I moved away from home, I’ve been studying since 2008 and working alongside my studies to set down the cornerstones of the life Christos will have to join eventually. This last month has been a tough one. My nan was in hospital for 3 weeks. My nan, or my 75137_10150101622680030_3087748_nyiayia, is a 2-time cancer survivor, she’s worked since she was 14 and she raised us all with such love. She loves a good sing-along, a western cowboy film, she knows how to throw a good party, she loves a good beer with her lunch and a whiskey on special occasions. She looks amazing; i know I’m biased but look at her! She always takes care of herself even though she worked 16-hour days, she never said no to a customer or an ill aunt, she was never too tired to run around after her grandchildren and I’m so proud of her – I used to borrow my yiaya’s jewelry and shoes, that’s how cool my yiayia is. She’s one tough cookie. I love my yiayia, she makes the best food, the best tea, toast and jam, she makes the best cakes (she owned a confectionery), she cries every time we speak and she rubs my feet even though hers are way more tired. I love my yiayia the most though because of how she treats Christo. I talk a lot about how our family felt after the diagnosis but my nan and granddad were right there with us. They went through all the emotions, all the ups and downs. They picked us up from school, babysat, they took Christo to speech therapy, to the oxygen chamber appointments, they watched the Lion King a thousand times, they picked up after  a tantrum, they always had a stash of calming treats, they stopped singing because he doesn’t like it and they never gave up on him. She has been a support to us and to Christo for as long as he has been with us. She knows his language, his schedule and how to bribe him for kisses and hugs. Christo knows he has to respect her, he knows which buttons to push and he knows that every time he says ‘yiayia’ she is ready to give him the world. I love the way they love him because it looks like the way i love him. It’s my only consolation, knowing he is loved that much every day I am not there.

By completing the course, I’ve ticked off a big box on my preparation list for our future. It’s something I have been working on for years, it’s the one thing I’ve worked so hard on, it’s what i will base the rest of my life on. And it’s done, it’s just there now waiting to be built on – waiting for me.

The end of the LPC is the end of the first big chapter in my life. 2 years of 4000 words every 10 days, 17 exams, sleepless nights, lots of wine, and lots of tears and it’s over. I breathe a sigh of relief before I move on, i take a moment to leave this behind and digest what it all means. In my head, everything i did was a step closer to the end game – the LPC was about 150,000 steps. I can look at my brother now with confidence, with certainty that we are going to be okay. I like to think that if he knew he would be proud, I like to think that deep down he knows. I can look back to when I left him to study in Lancaster and not be struck down by guilt; because after 8 years i did what i left him for. I think of all the birthdays i missed, all the tantrums, all the times he needed me and even though i can never go back and be there, it wasn’t all in vain.

Stay tuned for Chapter 4 of Life with the Pereras.

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School bells

Memories.

I have recently become more aware of the fact that i have blocked large chunks of my childhood and school life from my memory. There are things I don’t want to remember so at some point in my adult life i decided to put all those years in a black box and bury it somewhere. Unfortunately, that means that I also buried a lot of Chris’ early years, so many fun times with so many good friends that I only remember when they remind me. Even then, it’s like a dream, like it never happened to me. In primary school, i was bullied for the majority of my time there. All I remember is being super in (puppy) love with a boy, a doll house on my f74945_10152065431390030_291941620_nirst day, my favourite teacher and lots and lots of tears. I was bullied because i am not white; even though everyone in Cyprus is tanned. I was thrown down stairs, spat on, thrown in holes, in SKIP bins and verbally abused almost daily; I have scars on my knees, arms and face to this day. In high school the abuse settled and I made friends that I have to this day. Life at home was not great and I don’t remember most of those years either. I have a tattoo and a piercing to reassure me that i did go through a rebellious phase. I don’t remember what people thought about me, who wanted to be my friend and who didn’t. I don’t remember feeling like an outcast or being popular. I don’t know who i had lunch with every day. I know i had people that loved me, and that’s so enough, and so comforting.

I read this recently.

Several times lately I have tried to remember my time in middle school, did I like all my teachers, do I even remember them? Did I have many friends? Did I sit with anyone at lunch? Just how mean were kids really? I remember one kid on the bus called me “Tammy Fay Baker” bc I started awkwardly wearing eye liner in the sixth grade, I remember being tough and calling him a silly name back, but when he couldn’t see me anymore I cried. I do remember middle school being scary, and hard. Now that I have a child starting middle school, I have feelings of anxiety for him, and they can be overwhelming if I let them. Sometimes I’m grateful for his autism. That may sound like a terrible thing to say, but in some ways I think, I hope, it shields him. He doesn’t seem to notice when people stare at him when he flaps his hands. He doesn’t seem to notice that he doesn’t get invited to birthday parties anymore. And he doesn’t seem to mind if he eats lunch alone. It’s one of my daily questions for him. Was there a time today you felt sad? Who did you eat lunch with today? Sometimes the answer is a classmate, but most days it’s nobody. Those are the days I feel sad for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He is a super sweet child, who always has a smile and hug for everyone he meets. A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption “Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son” I replied “who is that?” He said “FSU football player”, then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my sons school today. I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes. Travis Rudolph thank you so much, you made this momma exceedingly happy, and have made us fans for life!

Leah Paske – Bo’s momma

School is.. an experience. Some of us forget, some of us grow out of it, some despair and some thrive. We were all insecure, we all had self esteem issues, we all wanted company. How much easier would high school be if we just didn’t care though? If we didn’t shield ourselves, change our habits and go over and over every single word, pause and comma we used throughout the day? Some may say it’s because they don’t understand; that’s not true. Chris understands so much more than we give him credit for. Our kids are free, they are untouched by the weight of fitting in. Their spirit is unspoiled.  They get to be themselves without the fear of judgement. They can sit and have lunch alone without a care in the world, without trying to impress. I’ve talked about this before; the things we worry about are reflections of how much we are affected by the standards imposed on us by our community. We worry when they play alone, when they don’t get invited to parties, when people stare. We worry because we don’t understand what it’s like to live life without constantly trying to fit in.

I’m grateful for his autism too Leah. I am thankful i get to look up to a boy who is completely, carelessly and overwhelming okay with just being himself.

For the first day (back) at school if your kid has autism:

  • Dress them in their favourite clothes. If they have a uniform (get it from M&S) do a couple of trial runs before the first day so that if there’s anything uncomfortable you can sort it out before.
  • Pack their bag with them. They should know what’s in there and they should have a say in what’s in there. Make sure it’s stuff they have used before and it’s not all new and shiny.
  • Take them for walks around school (if you haven’t already) to familiarise them with the area. If you can meet teachers before hand – even better! Take the backpack with you, with lunch and maybe even wear the uniform. This way they know it all goes together.
  • Make sure the teacher knows how to handle questions, and that you are available to talk to the classmates about autism. Pretending like autism is not there is not the solution, it’s not acceptance.
  • If they have stimming toys, pack them.
  • Do a trial run of the early wake up.
  • Make a schedule and sit down and go over it with them.
  • Don’t make it a big deal. I mean, it’s the biggest deal EVER, but don’t create expectations they have to live up to.

If your kid doesn’t have autism talk to them about it. Chances are, they will come across someone on the spectrum during their education and you have to be able to answer questions. Learn about autism, educate yourselves, your children, your family. School doesn’t teach us everything, so be proactive, be positive, be generous and be inclusive. By teaching your kid about autism you are making someones school year bearable and you will make an autism family’s life just a little bit better.

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Stay awake for this September

It’s nearly September, and this means one thing – school.

Christos enjoys school. Obviously, we have had incidents involving bloodshed and tears but he has been good for most of the experience. I don’t really remember the routine we all had getting up in the mornings and getting ready for school. When it was just me, my mum would do the mornings as she had to go to work and dad worked late. When Chris came along the whole house was up. We would wake up begrudgingly and have tea, I would brush my teeth and wash my face, get dressed and then wait. I remember screaming, i remember clothes being thrown around, i remember socks thrown in the bin (the Sock Wars).

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.

I can’t help but laugh thinking about it now. But let me assure you, we were not laughing at the time. I imagine it took months/years for my parents to teach him how to dress himself. I think of all the mums and dads out there trying to figure out how to make the nursery-to-school transition, teaching their children how to dress themselves. I don’t remember what his first ever day at school was like, i was a teenager – I wouldn’t remember where i went to school if my mum didn’t drive me there every morning. I remember general memories of nursery, and the special unit at regular school. I remember visiting, spending days there, observing, picking him up and being so proud of him. I will have to talk to mum and dad and write separately about that.

The point of this post is clothes.

schoolMarks & Spencer has launched a uniform range to help children with Autism, called ‘Easy Dressing’. It covers ages 2 to 16 and has been developed with the help of the National Autistic Society. Some of the adaptations to the ‘regular’ uniform include the replacement of buttons on the t-shirt with Velcro, and trousers being pull-ups instead. This will eliminate a good portion of the morning stress for both the parent and the child (and the siblings). This is not to say that they shouldn’t learn how to do buttons or laces but it means that that tricky first year will run a tad smoother, and once they tackle the change in routine and the woes of school, they can do anything.

I’m so excited for this I might pop down to M&S and have a closer look. It’s so great to have a household name designing a line just for the spectrum. It means that when parents go shopping and their kids ask why they aren’t shopping in that section or why that kid gets pull up trousers, the parent is given the opportunity to have the ‘talk’.

An estimated 120,000 children who are on the spectrum will be joining the school system this September. Every child’s first day is overwhelming, but if your kid has the ability to make someone else’s school experience better, or even tolerable, wouldn’t you want to teach them how? Think a year, 10 or 30 years from now, when people talk about school kids helping their ‘other’ classmates, when they commend them for being inclusive, when the ‘other’ kids grow up and look back at their school experience and they remember that kid that picked them up when they were down, asked them to prom, invited them to parties – don’t you want to be the parent who says ‘Yeah, that’s my kid.’ ?