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21 and Atypical: Christos

There are 180 posts about Christos on this blog so I will spare you the repeat and link you to the one that describes how I see him best. I wrote this on his 18th birthday and contributed it to Ambitious about Autism’s International Day of Families campaign.

Click to read: To Christos, on your 18th birthday: https://christos90.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/to-christos-on-your-18th-birthday/ 

Christos Profile: 

Born: 06.05.1998

Diagnosed: 2001

Loves: Music and Food

Loathes: People singing and ruining the music, sharing food.

Character: Cheeky monkey

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My mum does not recall the exact age but she remembers him being very “difficult” on his first birthday. We were recently watching old videos of all the cousins and in one video he is running after the camera, responding to his name and in the next he doesn’t turn around even after 4 -5 times of hearing his name.

Over the next few months/years my parents watched their big eyed, pointy eared little monkey become isolated. They took him in for hearing tests and were told there was nothing wrong. He started walking on his toes and at 2 years old he still hadn’t spoken any words. My parents saw a speech therapist who referred them to the general hospital in Nicosia for further exams on nothing specific. At the age of 3+ he was diagnosed from mild to moderate autism. At the age of 4+ he was diagnosed again in the UK.

The family were distraught. Would he go to school? Would he speak? Would he be able to take care of himself? Would he have friends? Fast forward 16 years and we have a young, gentle man full of promise, love, compassion, who has friends, who takes care of us and has a lot to say. He takes care of the people he loves and makes sure his friend Stephanos always has the swing next to him at break time.

My baby brother is iconic.

#21andatypical

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21 and Atypical: Stephanos

young stephStephanos was born on 21.06.1998. His mum remembers his first words being ‘Mama Papa’ before he was even 1 year old. His 5 older siblings showered him with love because he was the baby, the centre of attention. They were all enchanted by that big smile. Just like any other infant he ate a variety of fruit jars, fruit cremes and mashed potatoes and carrots, packed full of flavour and smells.

At 11 months, he stopped reacting to his name. He stopped eating colourful food and stuck to Cerelac, biscuits and Farley’s rusks. He closed himself off, deaf to his family’s calls for affection. They remember it as him regressing instead of progressing. He stopped saying ‘mama papa’. He started stimming – hands in front of eyes, flapping hands, tiptoeing and making sure all his trains and cars were in the right order.

At 2 and a half years old he was diagnosed with ASD.

Stephanos’ family quickly jumped into action. They tried most of the alternative therapies for autism as well as speech therapy, occupational therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy, Applied Behavioral Analysis, one to one teaching and of course used PECS. With PECS his family started communicating with him again. With music therapy they got to see that smile again. With speech therapy his speech resurfaced. Little by little, they got an inch of him back at a time.

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With the support of his big, strong family Stephanos was able to express his artistic side. Nowadays, he has an art studio next to his home where he takes daily lessons. He loves painting horses, having started with a basic drawing and slowly adding the horse mane and the tail to eventually win an Erasmus award for one of his paintings. He also has music sessions three times a week and he loves it! In fact, he knows most of the Disney songs off by heart and he loves Grease the film – and I mean, who wouldn’t? His mum describes to us how on school days they have to play Peter Pan, El Dorado and Robin Hood in the morning, have a little dance and roll and only then are they ready to go to school and start the day.

Even through his verbal communication has declined over the years, Stephanos is a major part of the Prodromou familia. He makes them all laugh, he makes them proud with his art, he overwhelms them with pride when he simply picks up a piece of cheese from the fridge and makes himself a mini sandwich. Stephanos’ own milestones and accomplishments are the product of a long and difficult journey.

Through his ups and downs, he has grown into a thoughtful, caring, compassionate and talented adult who approaches you when you are upset and gets excited when his siblings visit. Perhaps the greatest thing Stephanos has done is inspire the people around him. His family, friends, teachers and other kids get to see his progress and have hope.  Stephanos’ story gives hope to newly diagnosed families that it will get better and even if it doesn’t there is a group of people who will stand by them. He has inspired his parents and my parents to take action and to speak up for him and for all the autism families who need it.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when getting to know Stephanos. I’ll be telling you all about what he likes, dislikes, his calming routines and even his bad days – because who doesn’t have one of those once in a while? We’ll dive into a beautiful, atypical friendship between two boys who accept, acknowledge and respect each other. For example, Stephanos does not like it if you touch your own face or head (same for Christos), yet! somehow they don’t bat an eye lid when one of them does it. Boys eh!

#21andatypical

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21 and atypical: Friendship

Countless interactions, conversations, memes and quotes indicate that friendship is voluntary mutual respect, support, loyalty, laughs and a connection that lasts a lifetime. Your classic examples of a friendship are images of people hanging out, going out, sharing experiences and emotions.

Would you consider it a friendship if the two people involved had never uttered a word to each other? If they had met when they were 7 and gone through primary school, high school, speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy together without having a play-date or sharing a secret? Is it a voluntary friendship between the two boys if the parents were the ones that fit the friendship description above? If it was the parents who supported each other emotionally, mentally, called, shared their deepest darkest fears and found strength in their shared experiences?

Dr. Suzanne Degges-White , a friendship expert, explains that “True friendships are hallmarked by each member’s desire to engage with the other – it’s about mutual interest in one another’s experiences and thoughts, as well as a sense of ‘belongingness’ and connection…Friendships require reciprocity – of admiration, respect, trust, and emotional and instrumental support.

Christos and Stephanos met in 2005 when they started primary School in Ayia Napa. They were 7 years old and had been diagnosed with ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since then, they have grown up in each other’s presence.

52158514_408230119981576_493427098757627904_nThis year, they are turning 21 in May and June. This year, they leave school together. This year they find themselves facing a new challenge because governments don’t offer suitable support for adults with autism. This year, once again, they carve out a new path – their own path – which will be one that will enable other adults with autism to follow. Our boys will lead the way – again. They will inspire – again.

Over the next few months we (the two families), in collaboration with the Famagusta Autism Support Group, will be campaigning to raise awareness about autism in adults by attempting to give you a glimpse into Christos’ and Stephanos’ silent friendship. A friendship that is purely mutual respect and acceptance. A friendship that is as unique as the two gentlemen behind it.

The mission of the 21 and Atypical awareness campaign is to document how one pair of children with autism grew up to become adults with autism. We want to shed light on the highs and lows of their journey to adulthood through stories, memories, dreams and ambitions with an aim to create a world in which they are simply ‘adults’ accepted and accommodated by our societies. We hope that their story will inspire you to help us or your local autism group/organisation/neighbouring family build foundations for adults with autism to grow, set down roots and pave the way to a more positive future.

 

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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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Under the Sea

18618642_10155212899245030_1725112754_oWhen visiting friends and family while Chris was growing up my parents needed a distraction; that was either food, or Disney. My dad had friends who worked for a museum in Larnaca and we used to visit them often and eat yummy food. They had a little girl who owned ‘Magic English’ cassettes. For those of you who don’t know, they were an aid to learning English by using Disney characters and movies. He took one look at the opening theme song and that was it: obsession acquired. (Episodes here) I know that my family is probably reading this and remembering the theme song in their heads right now. ‘Magic English, Magic English, have fun with Disney everyday‘.

Naturally, we had ALL OF THEM.

When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to learn both Greek and English and so growing up bilingual. When Chris started speech therapy, he had his Magic English tapes. He watched them non-stop. He didn’t play along, or speak, or use the same words but he paid attention. So, for example, when he saw Flounder he knew he was a fish, when he saw Mickey he knew who that was, what he was doing and why. He just couldn’t express it. You see, the problem with the world today is that we value spoken word over unspoken. We have been programmed to believe that someone who doesn’t ‘like’ your picture on social media thinks you’re ugly. Someone who doesn’t share their feelings is up to no good or doesn’t care. We stopped reading between the lines and somewhere between those lines is my brother.

There is one scene that I remember most of all. It’s using the Little Mermaid, introducing all the characters and ‘Under the Sea’ is playing. Sebastian is singing away, being all Sebastian about life under the sea, I think it was part of the Friends learning cassette. I remember him smiling, dancing, and enjoying that scene. I remember how much of a teenager I was thinking this was silly because it was so basic. I remember it now, and I wish I was back there pushing him to repeat words, to learn them in English, dancing with him and just enjoying his happiness. Hormones are such nasty things. (Magic English – Under the Sea). Before Aladdin and the Lion King, Chris was obsessed with Pinnocchio, the little boy who wished to be real. He loved it when Pinnocchio and Jiminy were under the sea meeting random fish and trying to find Geppetto; and he would hide when the whale was on screen. That scene is also in the cassettes.

Those cassettes were a big part of our childhood and yet another part we owe to Disney.

He loves anything that has to do with water or the sea. You may remember that it was during a Sandy Holiday that we first thought of autism and how he loves swimming on his own. Aquatic treatment is also one of the alternative therapies I mentioned earlier on: We’ve found that water provides a safe and supported environment, which not only supports Chris, but also provides him with hydrostatic pressure that surrounds his body in the water. This pressure actually soothes and calms him, providing him with the necessary sensory input he craves.

What awoke this memory you wonder? Or maybe you don’t but you’ll find out anyway. The Scarborough Sea Life centre introduced an autism-friendly morning last Saturday (13th May). The centre will opened an hour early for an “Autism friendly session”, “with an accessible quiet area, considerate lighting, reduced sound and exclusive use to help families enjoy the aquarium experience in a relaxed and understanding setting.”

If you are in the UK: Max Card is a card you can apply for with your local city council if you are a family with additional needs, not just autism. The scheme is designed to help families save money on great days out at castles, zoos, bowling alleys and more. With local, national and international businesses becoming more autism aware this card might be used more than you think! Autism-Friendly events are expected throughout Merlin Entertainments attractions including Alton Towers and other Sea Life centres in the upcoming months to make sure all children in the UK have the chance at experiencing a magical day out. For more information and booking details are online at www.mymaxcard.co.uk/venues/autism-friendly-day .

I encourage you to use the Magic English aids (^they are all on YouTube, link above^) whether your child is in speech therapy yet or not. Its an entertaining way to spend the afternoon and you may not see immediate results but it does make a difference.

Remember, just because you can’t see progress, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

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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.