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Christos’ dental journey

I recently got a message from Christos’ dentist, Ioanna, to tell me about his most recent visit and the progress he has made. I also wrote about one of his visits in 2015 – Back to the Dentist. I asked Ioanna if she would be willing to contribute to this blog and here is the result.

My first encounter with autism was 15 years ago when Christos was referred to me by his family dentist. He was the first child on the autism spectrum I had in my private practice as a young pediatric dentist. I knew nothing – as I realised later – about autism, but Christos inspired me to get involved and learn as much as I could.

And that’s how I was introduced to the world of autism. I am so lucky to have had the best guides! Unique Christos and his special family!

He was only 4 1/2 years old when I met him. His dental problems, the behavioral restrictions due to his young age and the difficulties due to autism made it easy to choose a full dental treatment under general anesthesia. The first goal was achieved. Our next goals – and most difficult ones! – were helping Christos brush and have good oral health as well as gaining his trust and cooperation for the frequent dental visits over the upcoming years.


Dental treatment doesn’t differentiate between people on the autism spectrum and other patients. Rather we have to be aware of behaviour management and accommodate the needs of the patient. This is a real challenge! Sensory disorders make it even more difficult. What I’ve learned, in the last 15 years, is that I have to be armed with patience, understanding, persistence, flexibility, creativity and love when I work with people on the autism spectrum…and with people in general!

In the beginning, I used to see Christos every 2-3 months. This was to help him become familiar with the dental office and, of course, with myself. I could see how hard it was for him to adjust and take in all those new things; smells, lights, doors, drawers!!!!  I must admit, it was hard for me too. I had to interpret his behaviour and the only reason I managed to do it was because of the great help of his parents. I felt them to be some kind of translation between me and my patient!

It took Christos 3 visits to finally sit on the dental chair and open his mouth. I tried to teach him and his parents how to brush. His mum and dad were so brave to fight that battle at home! (I think Dora described it once in one of her articles – Thinking about the things you don’t think about: b) Attack of the Toothbrush). You can see why brushing can be a real struggle for people on the autism spectrum! After that we managed to put some fluoride varnish – that’s one with the strange taste! – on his teeth! 2 1/2 years later we managed to do the fissure sealants on his newly erupted first permanent teeth! That meant that he would have to sit for a significantly longer period of time with his mouth open, tasting too many strange things with odd tastes and feeling all the weird textures. But we made it!

A moment I won’t forget is when I got a phone call from Christos’ dad one weekend. He was so happy and proud that Christos said my name while showing his moving tooth!!! This was Christos’ way of explaining that something was going on with his tooth and it was his dentist’s job to take care of it. It was another milestone in his personal progress and I was so excited and happy for him!

Another memory I have is of how anxious I was when we decided to extract two teeth to make space for the new ones. We needed to make sure the teeth settled and were arranged well as it wouldn’t be possible for Christos to have braces. I had to give him local anesthesia with an injection. However, once again Christos surprised me. He acted like it wasn’t a big deal at all! His parents and I were so relieved and so proud of him!

Step by step, Christos knew he had to accept and follow my rules; but I also had to follow his! I couldn’t break some of his routines. I had to accept and try to understand many strange (to me) behaviors and obsessiveness, especially at the start. For example, he wanted to drink water immediately after the fluoride application and throw the plastic cup in the dustbin. During every appointment I would try to convince him not to do that and …guess what? We made it last time!!! After 15 years!!! What did Christos teach me? Never give up on my goals! Keep trying!

His last visit also came with some very interesting parts. Christos took on the role of a role model for another special boy! The boy who had the appointment before Christos came back into the room when he saw him entering my office. I asked for Christos’ permission first but he didn’t look bothered by this other new person in the room. From Christos, this is a permission! If he didn’t want someone there, he would make it very clear! At the end of our appointment, I asked Christos’ mum if we could take a photo to send it to his sister with his progress. To my surprise, she had already done it!!! Not only that, but after the appointment I also got a warm sms from Christos’ dad! The people around him are so sharing, so loving and so alert.


A couple of years ago, I was part of an internet conversation with colleagues from other parts of the world to share useful experiences and knowledge about autism and dental treatment. I got a message from one of them saying “You don’t want autistic patients!” His words shocked me. I thought about my long journey and realised how valuable it was for my career, my personality, my view about people and life to meet Christos.

One of the interesting parts of my job – and it’s one of them that I love! – is that I can follow the changes in the life of my young patients and their families. It’s amazing! I had the chance to see Christos growing, starting to talk, improving his communication skills, being happy after his trips to meet his sister, being a teenager with a big change in his behaviour and becoming an adult. His family shared some of their worries, some of their endless efforts to give support to their hero, some of their philosophy about life with me.

Christos gave me the first piece of the autism puzzle and it is a precious one! I want to really thank him for it!

Thank you Ioanna for your words. But mostly, thank you for your patience, kindness and love over the time my family has known you. I can only say that I hope you are a role model to your colleagues in the same way that you are an inspiration to those around you.

PS: The green thing Christo is holding in the photo is a mirror so he can watch exactly what Ioanna is doing. Did someone say control-freak? 

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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.

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5 questions about autism and how to ask them

There’s no such thing as a stupid question‘. I mean sure, when you are in education. But we all know there is such a thing, and we experience it every day. For example, when your tummy is rumbling and someone asks if you’re hungry. Or when you hit your knee/toe and someone asks if it hurts. Or ‘Would a fly without wings be called a walk?’. No.

One of the great things about awareness is that it gives you the knowledge to transform a stupid question into a meaningful enquiry. So, here are 5 stupid questions I’ve been asked about autism and how you can turn them into meaningful enquiries.

  1. Have you tried disciplining him?
    • Apologies stranger, I can’t hear you over my child writhing in sensory pain and screaming bloody murder in the middle of this busy supermarket parking lot.
    • Think: How will taking away his favourite toy, switching off his favourite music or making him stare at the wall for 20 minutes cure his sensory sensitivity? Discipline is taught when children are naughty. For example, when I was a child and I was disciplined by my parents because I’d done something they had expressly told me not to. Being overwhelmed by sound, smell, colour and touch is not something people with sensory overload can control. Christos wasn’t reacting to an instruction or a restriction with his tantrum. He was reacting to physical pain. You can’t discipline him for that just like I can’t discipline you for asking that question.
    • Meaningful Enquiry: What’s bothering him/her?
  2. Maybe he’s just hungry/thirsty?
    • Thanks.
    • Think: Every parent is paranoid about their child’s nutrition. With autism and sensory overload you have the additional hurdle of them not eating everything and their heightened sense of taste. The second post I wrote for this blog was about Christos’ food – Best Food Critic in Town – and the Gluten-Free diet. My dad spent hours developing new recipes which incorporated all the vital nutrition he needed and adding it to the 5 things he agreed to eat (egg and lemon soup, pasta with tomato sauce, curry, chocolate cake and halloumi). It got to a point where our mum and dad’s food was so delicious, he wouldn’t eat at a restaurant. We took food with us; hell, we tool grated halloumi with us. He’s obviously a lot better now, he eats salmon, cremes, chicken, fish curries. I think the weirdest thing he doesn’t eat is potatoes. But hey, I don’t eat beef so I guess we’re both weird. When they are young PECS is a massive help in terms of communication and hunger. I definitely recommend implementing it at home, but also having a travel version for trips to the restaurant or market.
    • Meaningful Enquiry:  Can I get them something they like?
  3. Autism? Does that mean he’s really good at maths?
    • Maybe.
    • Think: No two people on the spectrum are the same. Chris is good at math, but he’s also really good at other things. He has great memory, an amazing sense of direction and he can cook. Stereotyping people on the spectrum and not realising that, just like all of us, they can be unique in their abilities is one of the biggest downfalls of understanding autism and befriending someone on the spectrum.
    • Meaningful Enquiry: What does he/she like to do?
  4. Does he/she understand? 
    • Do you?
    • Think: Yes, they understand. It takes time, alternative therapies, PECS, speech therapy, studying, learning, testing, preparing etc but yes, they understand. Just because someone doesn’t speak your language doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. That’s what autism is, a different language. All we have to do is understand it. There are so many unanswered questions, facts, about autism that we have yet to come to grips with.
    • Meaningful Enquiry: How can I tell them [something]?
  5. What’s wrong with him?
    • The short answer is: That question. That is what’s wrong.
    • Read: Autism has been in the limelight over the last few years. Just a Google search of the word and you get articles, organisations, news items etc. The basic information is there. I have so much admiration and respect for all the parents (including my own) who raised extr-aut-inary humans without this information so readily available to them.

For those of you who are willing to go the extra mile, I will be starting the Autism Awareness Diploma with Online Academies which is currently on Groupon for £19. Netflix is also streaming a new series in August called ‘Atypical’.

Learn, read, educate yourselves. Read/watch the sad stories, the happy ones, the scientific ones. Each one has something to teach you.

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Dog Treats, Ice Cube and Rutgers University for Autism

What is Silver Linings?

I go to Silver Linings to watch for any balloons we can reach and move to our world, and here are the ones I have been following in the last couple of months:

  1. Finley’s Barkery in Minnesota “embraces neurodiversity and empowers people to do what they love. 80-90% of adults with Autism and other developmental disabilities are unemployed or underemployed. Finley’s Barkery set out to change that statistic. By utilizing one’s unique strengths, our team takes pride in their roles from handcrafting the treats, to marketing and sales.”
  2. McDonald’s in Indianapolis: Leif, is 7 years old and has autism. His mum explains that “A classmate brought one of the toys to school and Leif saw it and spent the next two weeks hardly talking about anything else with us. He gets really fixated on things and creates stories around toys.” So, like any mum, they went to Mc Donalds and asked for the toy. Unfortunately, the toy had been sold out. *Enter Awareness*TaQualliyia, a 16-year-old employee, overheard that encounter spoke to her manager about the situation. With the manager’s approval, TaQualliyia spent 15 minutes dismantling the display behind the counter as Kandel and her family were eating lunch to get the toys for Leif. Read the story here.
  3. Results of a new study have revealed that brain scans might help predict autism in babies before symptoms appear. “We see an increased rate of growth in the outer surface of the brain, the folds, the sort of waviness of the surface that’s followed by an overgrowth of the brain in the second year,” says senior study author Joseph Piven, M.D., of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The overgrowth of the brain they observed coincided with autism-related behaviors that start to emerge when the child reaches their second year, the researchers said. Read the story here.
  4. Represent, a social merchandising and marketing platform that enables influencers to create and sell custom apparel, announced their collaboration with Ice Cube in launching a limited edition apparel campaign to benefit Autism Speaks. Ice Cube is very vocal about his autism family. “I’m proud to support the great work that Autism Speaks does, a cause that is so important to me,” said Ice Cube. “My goal through this campaign is to not only help raise awareness but to also support this great organization’s efforts in promoting solutions for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
    Ice Cube’s design is available on a variety of products for men and women, starting at $24.99, available at Represent.com/IceCube.
  5. In Oklahoma: Children on the spectrum were able to practice their pre-flight skills and how to be an airline passenger through the Wings for Autism program. The free event, which was held Will Rogers World Airport for families, brought children from across the state to participate in the program and had a waiting list. Watch the video here. Wings for Autism will be held in Allentown, PA May 6, 2017, Fresno, CA May 13, 2017, Appleton, WI – May 13, 2017, Denver, CO – May 13, 2017.
  6. Special Books by Special Kids: Founder and teacher, Chris Ulmer, began Special Books by Special Kids (SBSK) to share the unique talents and incredible personalities of the students in his special education classroom.
    Special Books by Special Kids is leading a global acceptance movement that brings awareness to the joys, needs, and struggles of the special needs community and promotes the acceptance and celebration of neurodiverse individuals by all. You can watch a beautiful video of Jon teaching his classmates about planets here.
  7. Legoland Park, Florida: Since 2016, Legoland has been working with Autism Speaks to make its amusement parks more friendly for guests on the autism spectrum. The resort in Winter Haven, Florida, explained some of the features it has added since then including “quiet rooms” and a pass specifically for guests with autism who may have difficulty waiting in line in a press release. Disneyland Paris also offers this.
  8. Speaking of Disney, as always. Disney, in association with Amaze announced an Autism-Friendly Performance of Aladdin – The Musical will be staged in Melbourne. This special performance will be held at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 12th August, 1.30pm. Aladdin was one of our favourite Disney films growing up.
    You can watch the video here.
  9. Stem cells research: This is the story of Gracie. Gracie is 7 years old and was one of 25 children who took part in the first-of-its-kind study at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The study’s goal was to assess whether a transfusion of the children’s own umbilical cord blood containing rare stem cells could help treat their autism.
    The results? More than two-thirds of the children showed reported improvements. A larger second trial is underway, one its researchers hope will lead to long-term treatment for children with autism.
  10. Autism Involves Me: Cathy Lomond is the owner of Hotel Port Aux Basques in Port Aux Basques, Nfld. Cathy, working with Autism Involves Me, decided to create a space where those with autism disorder spectrum (ADS) can relax and enjoy their vacation. “The hotel has a lounge with a calming mural, a swing, a climbing wall and a sensory boat to create a comfortable environment for children with autism. There’s also a kids’ menu available with pictures of the food items, which can help foster independence for children who may have trouble speaking.”
  11. 9 million donation to open Britain’s first international autism centre: The money will be donated by Phones 4U billionaire John Caudwell.  The research and therapy centre will be based at Keele University and will cost £18 million. It will specialise in autism. “I have been deeply affected by the families I’ve met whose lives have been devastated by autism, and rebuilt thanks to the support of the charity. I am proud to support what is set to be a landmark development in the provision of services for the millions of people who are affected by autism on a daily basis.”The Caudwell International Children’s Centre (CICC) will include state-of-the-art assessment suites, a sensory garden to help children interact with nature, family training suites, training kitchens for cooking classes to encourage a healthy diet. It looks beautiful and it stand for something you cannot describe, only feel.
  12. Ambitious About Autism: The Ambitious College has opened its doors at Pears Campus at College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London and West London College. Ambitious College was created to give everyone the opportunity to lead a fulfilling, happy and rewarding life; and this includes young people with autism.“Our learners are at the heart of everything we do, their curriculum is highly personalised to help them achieve their goals.” Read more about it here. You know that I have worked with Ambitious on various different projects, therefore this College is very very close to my hear and I cannot wait to watch it succeed and become part of this amazing opportunity provided to the autism community.
  13. Have you stopped reading yet?
  14. Maryborough Correctional Centre: A pilot program in Queensland has had overwhelming success with inmates training special needs assistance dogs. Unexpected? Over 10 months, the prisoners taught the dogs complex tasks including wheelchair work, opening doors, picking up dropped items and turning on lights, all to prepare them for life with a special needs child. Smart Pups CEO, Patricia McAlister, said the pilot program had been very successful as the increasing demand for trained dogs was “huge” and outweighed the number of assistance dogs available.
  15. Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services (RCAAS), based in Rutgers University, will “..feature a comprehensive program that is designed to support adults ages 21 to 60 with mild to moderate ASD through a wide range of services specifically tailored to meet their individual needs.” Will offer up to 60 adults with autism, and who live off campus, university jobs supported by clinical staff and graduate students. The second phase of the center will offer a pilot residential program for 20 adults with autism who will work on campus and live alongside Rutgers graduate students in an apartment-style residence.

I chose to end with Rutgers because this time last year we got emails from Rutgers University wishing Christo a happy birthday as part of #Project324. Avramis and Florentina were the 2 friends I asked to distribute the cards and so Rutgers because a familiar name during those months. I’ve copied some below because reading them makes me happy and I hope that reading them will prove to you that awareness is everything.

I hope that with all these new initiatives and stories circulating in the media, not a day will go past without you hearing the A word.

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Hope in Disney

553829_10150760901390030_1000986510_nI watched the Beauty and the Beast trailer on TV last night and I felt so emotional. People will say its cliche, or call me a princess because I love Disney films. I watched them all, every day, I know all the songs, the punchlines. It’s a world away from home. It’s how Christos and I bonded when we had nothing else in common.

Facebook drowned me in memory pictures this morning and reminded me that 5 years ago was the first time we took Chris to Disneyland Paris. I had been there the year before to scope it out. I was 22, he was 13 and my mum was exhausted. I had very little patience back then so shout out to my mum for being a saint and dealing with an overgrown teenager and an autistic son all on her own.

He was overwhelmed when we walked in. He didn’t know what was coming, what to expect, what to listen to or see first. The crowds were overbearing and we held on to him tight. By day two he was acting like a local. We were getting off the shuttle one morning and he fell. Suddenly in our heads alarm bells are ringing, the National Guard is summoned. You can see from the pictures that he was a big 13-year-old. He fell, but he didn’t cry. He limped because he still wanted to go to the park, however, he kept wanting to sit down. So, we went to the medical centre and we waited to be seen; after about an hour they just said it needs rest, so we sighed with relief, got him a wheelchair and used it as an excuse to give him anything he wanted. Every day at 5pm he wanted to go watch the parade, he identified his favourite rides, which we visited every day, his favourite crisps and the best ice cream. I won’t repeat myself, you can read about our Disneyland Adventures (volume 2 in 2015) in the  Mickeyminniegoofydonaldydaisypluto series of posts.

This month’s hope is also found in Disney.

Growing up with a brother that didn’t respond to his name, want to play with you and who broke things or rolled around on the floor in anger left little room for bonding. Don’t get
me wrong, I was connected to him from the day we found out he existed, but he never seemed to feel the same. Back when VCR’s were a thing, we had 2 drawers, a big cabinet and a small cabinet full of tapes. Mums family are all film fanatics, they love to chill out watching something and we have definitely inherited that habit. We would record them when they were on TV and then label and put away for watching later.

Despite his aversion to playing with me, he always joined me for a movie. I would put it on, and it would get his attention. Maybe it was that we all went silent when it started, maybe it was the music, the funny voices or maybe it was how much we laughed and how the atmosphere changed when a Disney song came on. We watched them religiously, nearly every day. On weekends we would watch Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck on TV and then in the evenings we would watch the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Aladdin, Hercules, Toy story, Lion King, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc. He picked it up quite fast and soon he knew the scenes off by heart. But when Frodo, Jafar, or Maleficent, or the Evil Queen were making an appearance he would hide behind the couch;  listening, but not looking.

Soon after, he started choosing what we were going to watch, he started fast forwarding the parts he found scary and he made sure each box had the correct tape in it. Cute right? No. He also needed all the stickers and covers to be perfect, which they were not because we used them every day. He wanted us to cut off the worn out bits, but cut them straight, and cut them right otherwise you needed to cut more and more and more until there was no sticker or cover left. He would also watch the whole movie, and then would rewind it and watch it in reverse. And because our VCR was old, some of the tapes got caught and were destroyed. My tapes. My Disney tapes. My escape. My world, the one without autism, the one where I was in control because I knew every word and I could count on all the happy endings.

I’m not bitter. Well, maybe a little bit.

It didn’t stop when DVD’s came out, he still ripped them to shreds, he scratched the discs, he ruined the plastic covers. I remember once, I had cleaned one of the discs with a cloth about 150 times. He would look at it touch it, and hand it back. So after the 151st time, I broke it in half. I was like “There, now it doesn’t matter if it’s clean”. Petty right? A bad sister right? The thing is I never treated him differently as a little brother because of his autism. I’d still deny that I had made him cry when mum would ask, I’d blame all broken stuff on him. I stole his food, he broke everything i owned. We yelled at eachother until we cried and we slapped eachother around a little bit. I’d put my foot in his face or throw my socks at him, and he would keep me up all night repeating words until we were both exhausted. And while this is how neurotypical siblings would bond, it wasn’t the same for us.

428326_10150752441475030_1462595363_nI remember how much I missed him, how my friends’ little brothers were so close to their sisters and how much they looked up to them. When I couldn’t get him to hang out with me, I would put on a Disney tape and put the volume right up. I’d hear the game boy music stop, the rustle of a blanket and tiny footsteps running up the stairs. And he would sit, ask me to apologise, turn the volume down and watch the movie with me.

I see a lot of Disney headlines that remind me of those lazy afternoons singing about a whole new world, or those Friday nights at our nans repeating the same old Lion King jokes with our granpa.

For example, Disney’s hit new musical Aladdin, playing in the West End, has announced its first dedicated Autism-Friendly performance will take place on Tuesday 29 August 2017. Wicked did this last year and The Lion King is staging its first Autism-Friendly performance Sunday 4 June 2017.

You may have heard that ‘Life, Animated’ was nominated for an Oscar this year. ‘Life, Animated’ follows the Suskind family and its unique way of communicating with their son — through Disney animated films. Inside his head, Owen created his own stories where he and Disney sidekicks battle villains who represent bullying, depression and even autism itself. The director has said that “Life, Animated” is a testament to the strength of family, the imagination of childhood and the power of story; “Owen is living a meaningful life and it’s not up to us to decide what that is. I’ve never met anyone more happy and content and open and honest about the world around him.” You can read more about it here and you can download it on iTunes or watch the trailer here.

Disney films don’t always have to be about the princess.