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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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I know you

I’m writing this for the families.

I recognise you when I see you; in the street, at the shop, on the train, at a restaurant. I see you, I know you; we think the same even though we don’t live the same life and  I know you see me too.

You live with autism:

If your kid, brother, sister etc has never told you about their day.

If you have spent the most part of a day repeating one sentence over and over again.

If you wake up and wonder who will take care of them after you die. (If that sentence put a weight on your chest right now)

If the sight of a teenager shaking their hands and hopping in the queue at the shop makes you smile and cry at the same time.

If you find it strange to have a conversation with a five year old.

If you pause before answering “How old is he?”.

If you are an expert on graceful declines for when you get invited somewhere.

If going to a restaurant isn’t something you do for fun, ever.

If you haven’t focused entirely on a conversation with another person in years.

If when you leave the house you carry a bag full of their ‘favourite distractions’.

If you have ever wondered whether they will have a friend.

If you cried when they became teenagers.

If you know what “stimming” means.

If you know what these stand for: IEP, SPD, BCBA, EEG, GF, CF.

If you know what a decompression chamber is.

If you know that achievements mean different things to different people.

If you appreciate ordinary days.

If your answer to “How do you do it?” is a smile.

If you never wonder what you are made of.

 

I’m writing this for the others.

Our children, brothers, sisters have enriched our lives in so many ways.They are fierce, and bright, and beautiful; they make us fearless. They know what they want, and are uncompromising in their pursuit of it; we know what we want and we are ferocious in our pursuit of it for them. They make us better people; because of them we are hungry for knowledge, we have purpose, we have strength and we can face anything.

Here are the top ten things that people who live with Autism, every day, want you to know:

1. Don’t feel awkward when we say they are autistic. Don’t ‘Aww’.

2. Yes, they are different but they don’t need your consolation. Yes, you will need to treat them differently, but they are adored.

3. Don’t say “He’ll grow out of it”. They won’t, the sooner they get diagnosed/treated the better.

4. When you see/hear them on a bus, a plane, the shop, the street, don’t try to discipline them; hell hath no fury like a parent of autism.

5. Don’t stare. I always think I’d love it if the people who stare would just ask me about him.

6. They are children. They are innocent. Their love is so pure and overwhelming. They bring us more joy than hardship.

7.  Give the family support; not pity.

8 . Accept our kids the way that you assume we will accept yours.

9 . Teach your children about autistic children in a special needs class at their school. Ask questions. Educate yourselves about Autism.

10. Remember – every day for us is a battle, a battle we are happy to fight, a battle we will fight forever.

We know you when we see you, so get to know us too.