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Fading into the background

A new study published here – Distinct Patterns of Neural Habituation and Generalization in Children and Adolescents With Autism With Low and High Sensory Overresponsivity – on pubmed.com explores how the brain can fade repetitive or familiar sounds in order to allow concentration in neurotypical persons and compares the workings of the same function in neurodiverse individuals.

For most of us, sensory stimuli such as noises or unusual textures trigger activity in the part of our brain which processes sensory information. The more we are exposed to this stimuli, the more our brain is able to recognise it as familiar and tamp or manage our response to it. This process, called habituation. It helps us tune out background noise/sensations so that we can pay attention and process new information. Let’s take a fan as an example – you hear it when it’s turned on at the start of the day, you feel it every time it turns towards you, but you don’t keep hearing that buzz or noticing the gust every second throughout the day, unless you choose to.

The article’s objective is to explore sensory overresponsivity (SOR), which is an atypical negative reaction to sensory stimuli prevalent in autism spectrum disorder. The study monitored responses in three stages of sensory processing:  initial response, habituation (i.e., change in response over time), and generalisation of response to new but familiar stimuli.

The new study, by lead investigator Shulamite Green  (assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles), found that some autistic children don’t show signs of habituation. This means that their brain does not fade out the sound of a fan, the gust of wind, a stray hair that tickles their neck but their brain keeps trying to understand the stimuli over and over again – which is overwhelming and exhausting.

You can read the very interesting findings at length through the link above. The summary is:

  • The team studied brain responses to sensory stimuli in 42 children with autism and 27 non-autistic children, ages 8 to 18 years, who have average or above-average intelligence.
  • The autistic children into two groups: highly responsive to touch and sound and those less responsive. 
  • Each child’s brain was scanned while it experienced a series of stimuli, each lasting 15 seconds: white noise, a scratchy sponge rubbed along the left arm, and then both at once. The sequence looped six times.
  • The team monitored the regions of the brain which process sound and touch, and the amygdala, which filter sensory information.
  • During the first two rounds of repetition, all children showed increased brain activity. The group with the less responsive children had a noticeable brain activity drop during the third and fourth rounds and remained low for the fifth and sixth.
  • The brain activity of autistic children with high sensory reactivity veered towards high for all six repetition rounds.

The team also exposed the children to one more round of stimuli using similar sensations but with a slight difference in texture and frequency. The brain activity for the group with the low sensory reactivity indicated that they recognised the stimuli as new but also that they were similar enough to tune them out. Whereas, the other group had high brain activity which may indicate that their brains were processing the stimuli as completely separate and new. It was also interesting to read that some children with autism showed no brain response to the new stimuli at all. This may mean that they could not tell that the stimuli were new, or that their brains had faded the response to the original stimuli so much that they couldn’t activate in response to the new information.

Next time you see a child covering their ears, a parent frantically trying to to put their sock back on, a crying toddler in a busy train/bus/airplane – remember that what you see is never the whole story. Our bodies and minds are vast and beautiful and different. Instead of getting annoyed let your brain fade it out so you can focus on something else – because you have that ability and they may not. Your brain’s natural reaction will be to habituate not to stare or glare or offer unnecessary parenting advice – so pop your headphones in, look out the window or engage in another conversation instead of focusing on the distraction – because you have a choice, people with autism may not.

If you would like a taster of what sensory overload can be like Autism Speaks has 5 video simulations that help you experience sensory overload.

Don’t let kindness, understanding and love fade into the background. See it, appreciate it, teach it and use your capabilities for good.

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21 and Atypical: Popping to the shops

In 2018 Sainsbury’s launched a new trial to help enhance the shopping experience for customers with hidden disabilities. The trial enables customers with hidden disabilities to collect a lanyard which indicates to colleagues that extra support is needed. The scheme helps those with hidden disabilities, such as autism, dementia, visual or hearing impairment by alerting staff that extra support may be needed while shopping. Lanyards are available to collect for free and are for each customer to keep so they can wear it every time they come into store! Not all Sainsbury’s stores have implemented the initiative yet. Sainsbury’s is the first supermarket to test the initiative, following Gatwick Airport’s successful launch and, by using the same sunflower lanyards as Gatwick and Heathrow Airport, Sainsbury’s sets an example for other retailers to follow.

In Shopping with Autism I described how, before Christos started school and was able to communicate with us better through PECS, going shopping with him was a nightmare. It was like walking into a living breathing nightmare. 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 after every trip – and there were a lot of trips. 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 literally 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 aisle 4 was supposed to be in aisle 12, he knew and he would fix it. Now? It’s one of his favourite errands. 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. 9 times out of 10, Christos will jump at the chance to go to the shop; big or small it doesn’t matter! He will pick everything and stand over my mum and shout and order her around until everything is unpacked and stored back home. Now, he has the skills to shop for himself. This growth, this maturity and his development is a testament to my parents’ unwavering will to prepare him for the trial and tribulations of every day life.

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Stephanos is not interested nor does he get involved in the shopping aspect of daily life.  He knows and trusts his family to provide him with food stuffs, he is adaptable in brand names and is happy with to have his small juice, ice cream or chocolate and let everyone else deal with the hassle of a supermarket. He doesn’t go to the shops and will not get involved unless he is asked to by his family. When he is asked, he kindly obliges and goes back to his snacks. Whereas, Christos will make you do it all his way. Stephanos’ shopping routine took roots when he, his dad and brother took him to the supermarket with and got him a juice, a chocolate or an ice cream. This simple action, possible done to distract from a tantrum, triggered a routine which he follows when he does participate in a shopping trip. The brands of juice, chocolate or ice cream are not always the same  but he always picks out the three items mentioned above. But, just like his pal, his early encounters with big markets, the sounds, smells, people, intrusion of private space would trigger him when he was younger. At 12 years old, Stephanos had a huge meltdown in a shop in the UK. His mum remembers it as a huge episode including self-injury and the worst she had had to deal with up until that time. Even though the family don’t usually take him to big markets so as to spare him the angst, when he does join he is much better equipped to deal with a mood, or someone clearing their throat. While he may get a bit upset and start stimming, overall he is happy with his treats. I mean, I order everything online just so I can avoid these places, why should our boys feel any different?

The reason we collate and write about these stories is to give you an insight into autism daily life. It’s not always easy but it’s not always difficult either! These boys have gone from kicking and screaming to young adults who know how to help their parents, how to negotiate and take a step back when it all becomes too overwhelming. Christos and Stephanos’ stories are being told so that next time, when you see a parent desperately trying to get their child off the floor, or a kid making sure all the water bottles are facing the same way you may see a bit more than what’s on the surface. You may see the need to help make this world more autism-friendly and you may remember that milestones are different for all of us. You might remember these stories and realise how this was a millionstone for both of them.

My brother is a controlling shopper and Stephanos would just let him get on with it.  When you see them and spend time with them you always get the impression that the boys have a full understanding of each other and respect each other’s character, boundaries and behaviours.

#21andatypical

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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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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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When Will We Learn?

I’m not going to write about the atrocity that was the US Election – here’s what i felt a year ago #Project324 Trump, Republicans and Disabilities, oh my.

I’m going to write about hope, the future. I’m going to remind you that you can change things, that you need to be strong in the face of racism, discrimination and unfairness. I’m going to ask you to take action, to not let this perversion become our legacy. I’m going to ask you to think about what world you want our kids to grow up in and what we can do right now to make sure they do.

Ambitious about Autism is an organisation i work with, they’ve put on projects like: #EmployMe for which I wrote –  What happens when you turn 18? UN International Day of Families for which I wrote – A letter to my autistic brother on his 18th birthday . Fun fact – I wrote this in 15 minutes and cried the whole way through, I haven’t read this since it’s been published. Maybe fun isn’t the word for it. Autism Friendly – Ambitious about Autism supported a London-based restaurant in winning the first of the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Awards. Making the world Autism-Friendly Back to School – School Bells

Their latest is called #WhenWillWeLearn. The ambition is to make the ordinary possible for children and young people with autism. They provide services at schools and colleges, raise awareness and understanding and campaign for change. 

And they don’t give up. Their campaign asks you to write to your MP (if you are in the UK). Those of you outside the UK can write to your local authority, or you can write to me – I would love to forward your letter to our MPs, because it doesn’t matter where you live. A small change can resonate around the world – that’s the beauty of awareness, it doesn’t have borders. Sign up to show your support: ambitiousaboutautism.org.uk/pledge-your-support or email me.

The campaign highlights that:
80% of children with autism experience anxiety every day about attending school;
45% had been illegally denied their right to a full education;
Over 1000 parents are forced to take legal action every year to get the support their child is entitled to;
42% of classroom teachers say their training doesn’t prepare them to meet the needs of children with autism; I wrote about this here.

So, please don’t give up. Because we have made a difference already; businesses introducing schemes to train people on the spectrum like Ford, Apple, Microsoft etc; stores introducing quiet hour to accommodate autism; TV shows are introducing characters on the spectrum; theatres/cinemas are catering for autistic youth; ‘neurodiversity’ is an official term and it’s all because of all of you, reading about autism and not giving up.

15007644_10154605350205030_2088488013_oI traveled to Venice on the 3rd November and, incidentally, it was also the day that Gatwick became an Autism Friendly airport. A ceremony was held but I didn’t know about it until later when i was stuffing my face with gelato and thinking about how much Christo would love it. The airport was presented with an award by the Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society to mark the achievement. Gatwick met a range of Autism Friendly criteria to help passengers, their families and carers, it has been praised for providing clear and accessible information for passengers about the airport and the assistance available to help plan for their journey. Staff have been specially trained to help assist autistic passengers and a hidden disability lanyard system has been put in place. HOW EXCITING. I wrote about Chris at the airport here. I know, I’ve referred to my own writings a lot in this post but it just goes to show that the information is everywhere, and it’s only a click away. So, click.

It’s up to us – we have to do this, we have to write, speak, call, email, visit, shout about all the things we want and by doing it for our own, we are doing it for everyone; one step at a time. Now, more than ever, we need to unite. We need to be one and we need to make our voices heard, because they did – so why can’t we? Now more than ever, we should recognise the power or the people. Because it was people that did this, and it will be people that change it.

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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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Summery Blue Balloons

A couple of posts ago I gave you a glimpse into my version of the world of Silver LiningsSilver Linings is a world we have created. In my head, it has very high ceilings and no stairs, or chairs or anything you can climb on. The silver linings are like balloons that deflate just a tiny bit every time progress is made. You go to silver linings when you are scared, because its a place of hope. It’s a place where fears and insecurities can be calmed because there are so may prospects and wonderful works in progress. 

There has been a lot of fear in July, all around the world we have witnessed inhuman acts of violence and hate. I forgot about Silver Liningsimg_3215. So, I spoke to my blue balloon, the one I will wait for forever the one that’s always just out of reach. He called me from the tablet we got him for his birthday. We said the usual: when I come to the airport he will eat bake rolls and drink iced tea. He kissed the screen and then asked mum to hang up so he could keep playing his game. I asked what he was doing now that schools are out and mum said that he is taking lessons with one of the girls. She has books, gold stars and even a red pen; she helps him with reading, writing, art and math. He is enjoying his summer, he is happy.

So, I went out in search for happiness, progress and deflated balloons and here’s what I found:

In Australia: Jack S, a 20 year old autistic man has landed his dream job in one of Sydney’s top restaurants. He will be working in the kitchen of award-winning celebrity haunt Catalina in Rose Bay. Jack has received a hospitality certificate at Meadowbank TAFE as part of his HSC and received an award for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Transition To Work program. He works three days a week in the busy kitchen at the restaurant, under the guidance of head pastry chef Berny Osorio. His main duties include mixing, kneading and baking bread; preparing fruit; making biscuits; mixing marshmallow; washing salads; and plating up. You might remember, or know, that my dad is a chef at a hotel in Cyprus. Chris and I grew up with a love for cooking; and by cooking I mean food. We are trained to love any activity that gets us food. Chris can cook pasta, curry, lentils, rice, tomato sauce and probably a lot more that he just doesn’t want us to know because then we’d make him make it himself. He picks it up so easy, and he loves it. Even if we are making a dish, I can ask him to wash the tomatoes for me, to add the salt and pepper to the pan, to stir/mix, to grate the cheese and turn the heat up or down. In the last 5 years, and especially 2015, we have seen an all time high in utilising the pool of potential which is people on the spectrum.

In the US: An Albany restaurant and tavern has opened doors and opportunities for a local teen with autism. At the Orchard Tavern in Albany, they’ve taken on board 13 year old Jonathon Wade who was diagnosed with autism and Tourette’s syndrome. Jonathon is nonverbal, he communicates through iTouch, a program. Once a week, along with his aide, he goes to the tavern and folds boxes; he folds them, spins them, and stacks them. Jon refused payment from the Tavern, instead he asks for pasta with butter and a side of sauce. Jon sounds similar to Chris. I just want to point out how brave the parent are in situations like these. I mean the fear of leaving Chris anywhere for any amount of time is crippling, but its also depriving him of experience that he could have had. Sometimes, in life with autism, the line between selfishness and selflessness is blurred big time. He is so much more capable than we give him credit for, and he can do so much that we just end up doing for him. I hope that one day a member of his community will present him with the opportunities being provided to adults with autism all over the world. I hope that they see his capabilities, his potential and offer him employment.

In Cyprus: A young boy with autism, called Stephanos, has been the talk of the island. Stephanos has been taking piano lessons over the last year and a half and has make some amazing progress. He is the first person on the spectrum to undertake musical exams. His piano teacher calls him disciplined, cooperative and hard-working. He can follow instructions and he is a perfectionist, he doesn’t stop until it’s perfect.  I took piano lessons for years and years. I remember my piano teachers with so much love, they always asked about him and never judged. My first teacher, Mrs Rea, was the first one to mention to me that music may help. I remember him sitting on the piano we had at home and making so much noise. I even taught him a couple of notes, but being the rebel he is all he wanted to do was step on the pedals and make a fuss. When I go back home, I try to play and remember the music i was taught. He sits on the couch next to me, mutes the TV and listens until I stop. Sometimes I even get a kiss at the end of it.

There’s no end in the potential we can find all over the world, all we have to do is open our eyes and minds and make the unlikely places likely. There is kindness and love everywhere, unfortunately, you have to remember to look for it.