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21 and Atypical: The stories we don’t tell

I remember so many 2am’s almost drifting into sleep when I would hear Christos whisper “Oh” and wait for me to repeat it. If i didn’ respond he would climb int bed with me until I did. Sometimes I didn’t use the right volume, tone or accent so he repeated it until I did, all night and as long as he wasn’t asleep himself.  By the time 6am came around and all three of us struggled to put his socks on, the right way. They need to be put on perfectly, if not you start again. If you touch the wrong spot, or accidentally stroke his ankle, toe at any point you have to start again. If you tickle him or give him an inadvertent ‘Lets go’ pat, you start again. If you don’t start at the right end, if both sides aren’t moving up at the same pace, if its too high or too low, you start again, you start again, you start again. No loose ends, no marks, no holes otherwise you start again. Even if its not visible, is it a new pair? Are you sure they’re a pair? Start again, just in case. Then come the shoes. Something’s not right; is it the shoes or the socks? Take everything off and start again. By the time we were ready for school we had already lived an entire working day.

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Stephanos, while in bed at night will hear his mum – or whoever is downstairs – clear their throat and he will run down the stairs, go straight outsidem, lie flat on the ground in the garden and sing a song until he is not upset and he is ready to go back to bed. Just like anyone of us the boys have characters of their own. They get angry when people don’t understand them, when a sound is so loud or a light is so bright that it interferes with their welbeing – wouldn’t you? Sometimes, they shout, scream and lose control – don’t you? The difference is that you can communicate your frustration, you can talk about it and find ways forward.

But what if you couldn’t?

Christos’ triggers could have been anything when he was growing up. We were all learning, trying to get to know this ball of fire that was gifted to us. Sometimes the consequence was a million ‘Ohs’, sometimes it was scratching at a mosquito bite until it was raw. I remember his arms, legs and face bear the scars of his incessant picking at every bit of his skin and tearing off any protection we tried to offer. He twisted his arm, legs and head hair to the point of pulling it off. Other times, he would be hitting his head with a closed fist so hard it left a mark, punching his arms and legs while clenching his jaw in frustration to whatever it was we had done wrong. What could we do? He was obsessed with every little spot on him, us, clothes items around the house. We would wipe and wipe and wipe until our hands we sore but whatever it was he could see was still there. When he became a teenager his frustration grew, and so did he. He is 6ft something and 90kg, he overshadows me at 5.2ft (and whatever weight I am depending on the year) and the rest of our family, teachers, friends. He would throw anything that was in his hand. I remember him once throwing his school bag over a tall bush and into the middle of the road. I remember him squeezing my fingers in his palm until I cried or squeezing my nans arm until he got yelled at by mum. He dug his nails so hard into his own skin that it bled and then he would cry.

At 13, Stephanos broke a window in his home. His injuries were so bad that he needed surgery. The next day, he woke up in pain, disorientated, and with stitches. He ripped them off during his meltdown despite his family’s best and desperate efforts to help. His self-harm started during his puberty. He used a closed fist to hit the side of his face so hard that he caused the retina in his eye to detach. His family lived with his rage and self-harm every day for years, this had become commonplace. He didn’t communicate to say something felt off but one day his mum noticed a whiteness in his eye and took him to the doctor who confirmed that Stephanos is blind in one eye. To help control his outbursts, his family used medication to calm him down but they say they never got to the root of the aggression, which peaked at 16/7 years old. Was it pain? Was it sensory? All they know was that they felt lost.

The families all feel guilt for not doing enough and for any harm the boys inflict on themselves, for every behaviour, every sound or scream. Not only are they judged and stared at for every atypical behaviour, they judge themselves always striving to do and give more. What parent doesn’t feel that? Our parent’s stood up, against all odds, in a society that didn’t even know the word ‘autism’ and created functioning, well-behaved adults who understand, laugh and love. What were you like as a teenager? And if you weren’t taught to refrain yourselves would you know how to?

Sensory sensitivity can be a real struggle. We could lie and say we are used to it after 20 years but it’s still frustrating and I still get annoyed and fight with Christos. The only advice that exists is keep at it, you’ll get it right at some point. It’s not their fault, and it sure isn’t your fault. We don’t understand what they see, hear or feel and that is in no way your fault. To everyone else who doesn’t live with autism – sometimes we don’t even hear the screaming because we live in a ball of scream. Other times, we don’t react to the hitting or pulling or scratching or throwing because we live in a world where silence is not the typical. Once the 100th storm of the day has passed, Stephanos’ calming depends on which behaviour has been triggered. He may go lie down by the front door, run to the back of the house, sing a song and stim with his index finger or stay flat down reciting a song. He will shred flowers, grass and weeds through his fingers, at day or night and for hours. He goes back in the house, he smiles and suddenly the slate is wiped. You have the strength to take on another 7 storms. Once the millionth ‘Oh’ has been said, Christos will just repeat our names over and over until we look like we are happy. He will shower us with cuddles and make us apologise for what we did to cause it. He will laugh until we laugh and he will cry if we cry. He will apologise and smile. Suddenly my fingers don’t hurt anymore and his kissy face makes it all ok.

So what happens when we aren’t there? Where will these reactions be housed? Where 11165285_10206036337501718_7756282778690047842_nwill they find forgiveness? How will they be understood? How do you size them up, find what they need and keep them safe? In Cyprus, in our case, the answer is to create something our government doesn’t offer – or can’t offer quickly enough. We work to find ways to fund high quality facilities which are based on ethical and inspiring opportunities for children and young adults with autism in the Famagusta area. To recruit and ensure that their education and development doesn’t stop just because being ‘typical’ means you leave school at 18. The members of the Autism Support Famagusta charity work all day, take care of their family and rack their brains to facilitate activities and growth based on individual interests and skills. Two of the boys going into this home will be Christos and Stephanos will you help?

The stories we don’t tell are the stories where we are all to blame for not making this world a world we can all live, grow and be in. They are stories in which our pursuit for comfortable and easy conversations are depriving young adults their future. They are the stories in which we are the villains for not caring enough because it’s not our ‘problem’. Christos and Stephanos hide from the Disney villains on the TV and they turn the villains around them to warriors. Which one are you? And what will you do this April, for autism awareness month, to make sure everyone has a place in this world? Until every last piece of the puzzle fits?

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Our Golden Hat will go on – #APD2017

It’s Autistic Pride this Sunday – 18th June 2017. In honour of the day I will be writing about different foundations from all over the world and how you can help.

“After watching A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism with my daughter, she turned to me and asked, “What if I wasn’t able to tell you I love you, mummy?”” – Kate Winslet (aka Titanic aka A-list Hollywood actress aka autism advocate).

Co-Founders Kate Winslet and Margret D. Ericsdottir met when Kate recorded the English narration for Margret’s documentary, A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism, which captured her journey to find a way for her nonverbal autistic son, Keli, to communicate. Throughout her journey she visits scientists and families all seeking  a way to get to know the person behind autism better. To get to know her son.

The Golden Hat Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the way people on the autism spectrum are viewed by society. They focus on abilities and potential, education and career training. Long-term goals include the establishment of innovative post-high school campuses designed for people on the spectrum.

This is a great organisation to support and follow. Here is what you can do:

  • Learn more about the organisation
  • Subscribe to the monthly newsletter
  • If you are in Texas, attend one of the Meetup Groups and share your experience
  • Volunteer
  • Donate
  • Visit their blog

In July 2015 I wrote an article for Autism Daily Newscast: 5 things my brother’s Autism stole from me and the Golden Hat Foundation shared and retweeted Christos’ story.

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This boy had a golden hat.

The hat was magical. It could talk.
The boy did not have any voice. He had autism.
His hat was always with him.
His hat was lost one day.
Now he had no way of telling them his stories.
His mom and dad became sad.
They taught him spelling on a letterboard.
It was hard.

I think the great thing about The Golden Hat Foundation is that it is a partnership between two mothers, whose experiences with motherhood are exceptionally different. Yet, they come together because they are both mothers. Just like we need to come together, despite our lifestyle differences, because we are human.

Happy Autistic Pride Week!

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The [A] Word: [U]nanswered

What causes Autism? We don’t know but there are theories; genes, nature & nurture, too many ‘connections’ overloading the brain.

What is the cure? We don’t know but there are educational and habilitative treatments.

Is it genetic? Which genes? We don’t know but genes are being researched and discovered almost daily that are associated with Autism; this will allow for more in-depth analysis, prenatal testing and a better understanding of how the autistic brain develops and differs from the typical one.

Autism has increased significantly in the past decades, the question is: why? We don’t know but there are theories. For example, something in the environment that triggers autism in a susceptible child. But what? We have the immunizations and thimerosal theories, but evidence and research is strongly against these being the cause. An infection of some sort? Some sort of environment pollutant? Something in the diet? Allergies? We don’t know.

Is autism really on the rise? We don’t know but some believe that can now assess it with more accuracy and proportionately to the increased awareness of autism and the means to diagnose it more readily and at a younger age. Additionally, high-functioning Autism wasn’t diagnosed until recently, which has added to the numbers. However, we don’t have substantive evidence of this theory – we don’t know.

17ea9f8964df5913aadceadbfcc6a23aWhat is the best educational program for an autistic child? We don’t know but because it is a spectrum disorder some can find solace in the fact that an autistic child might receive ABA therapy or cognitive therapy or speech therapy or a combination of two or more alternative therapies depending on what works best for his/her own individual needs. The wide range of alternative therapies discussed in Be creative – Alternative therapy and Projects for Autism – Swimming are more than worth trying.

How young do we need to start? How intense does it have to be? These questions have an even more frustrating answer than “We don’t know”, it becomes “It depends”; it depends on how old they are, it depends on their sensory sensitivity, it depends on their social abilities, it depends on their attention span, it depends on how much and how long you will dedicate to searching for what will work.

Where does being a “quirky child” end and the “autism spectrum” begin? This is my favourite question, it encompasses how little we actually know about Autism, how easily it can be shooed away. The answer is WE DON’T KNOW; and then comes the dilemma, which is dealt with in such a subjective way it is both infuriating and heart-breaking. If a child has some traits but not enough to seem fully autistic, is it better for them to carry the “Autism” label or is it preferable to be called a “weird kid” whose individuality is not defined by any label?; the other side of the coin is that without an Autism diagnosis the child will be deprived of the degree of special education services and the access to treatments available to cater (maybe) to his needs.

 

Autism is a puzzle so read, research, educate, make people aware until all the pieces fit; it’s all we have.

 

*For answers to different questions, tips and guidance look at 15 answers about Autism.