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21 and Atypical: Hakuna Matata

It means ‘no worries’ for the rest of your days.

IMG_6995Christos and Stephanos grew up loving Disney, Warner Bros, Dreamworks, Pixar etc – also we love all those films so it was one of the repetitive actions that we didn’t worry about or mind as much. Among their favourites are Anastasia, Hercules, Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Pocahontas, Cars, The Road to El Dorado and dozens of others. Our houses were always full of Mickey, Minnie and all the heroes and heroines they grew up watching and imitating. In this post we’ll talk about the Lion King. Since its debut in 1994 The Lion King, won two Golden Globes, two Academy Awards and that’s not even listing all of them! The musical version won a Tony for Best Musical and numerous awards for Best Costume and Lighting. Later this year, summer 2019, Disney are releasing a remake of the Lion King using virtual cinematography technology. Basically, we’re obsessed with the Lion King.

I was lucky enough to go watch the musical in London a couple of weeks ago. Listening to that opening song I was transported back to our living room where I am desperately trying to get my little brother to notice me and play with me. After the age of 1 Christos started ignoring us and tantrums were just ordinary. As a big sister I was enamoured by him and his smile – the one that was too big for his face – and wanted his attention so badly that I let him destroy all my dolls, all my board games, all my Disney VHSs. One of the only things he would let me do with him was watch animated films, like the Lion King. In fact, we watched it almost every day for years. He would play the whole film and then rewind it and watch it in reverse, or he would fast forward scenes that he was scared of.  It got to the point that we had to limit it to only watching it when we visited our grandparents. My grandad, wanting to be part of his world like all of us, would sit with him and watch it whenever he got a chance. He often tells us stories about Christos being afraid of the hyenas and at a specific scary scene (elephant graveyard/Scar’s song) he would  hide behind the couch and listen carefully until it was safe for him to go and take his seat in front of the TV again. Christos wasn’t much for emotion back then (he’s a big softie now) but our grandad remembers how happy he was each and every time he watched it and how he lived every different scene every time. My love affair with these animated films was reignited when I realised they were a world where I could talk to my brother. Through scenes, colours, songs and music I saw my introverted brother react to sounds, express fear, amusement and sadness. Simba, Timon and Pumba unlocked something in Christos that I thought I could never access. Of course, he doesn’t let us sing along or dance or say the lines but there are rare occasions when he does. Like dancing to “A whole new world” with my mum on his 18th birthday or letting me watch The Emperor’s New Groove even though he would rather Peter Pan. Anyway, there I was watching the Lion King musical, weeping at how beautiful it was and at how grateful I am for that first song, the song that brought my brother back to me.
Stephanos’ sister, Christina, has told me about how they watch the Lion King as a reminiscent of what they used to do as kids. When the ‘Hakuna Matata’ song comes up they literally both jump up out of their seats, just like they used to do, and they start imitating Timon and Pumba; she’s Timon and he’s Pumba! She describes how fascinating it is to see Stephanos so full of excitement and joy and how well he can imitate these characters. It’s a great feeling seeing your brother engage and show off skills that you would otherwise miss. It reminds us that while our boys are capable of imitating and pretending, they are also making the choice to just be themselves. Stephanos loves music. His mum was telling me about his artistic side which has developed over the years and what a big part of his life music has become. You may also remember that music is used as a form of alternative therapy many reasons but also for people with ASD. Stephanos jumps into place as Pumba, the big loveable friend who never gave up on Simba, and he hits the exact notes of Hakuna Matata – the most wonderful phrase. Not only that but he also makes the background sounds of the music just with his mouth. His sister says “he is unbelievable and so talented”. Chryso, Stephanos’ mum, tells me about how he knows all songs, lyrics and scenes. He still watches them and he can become quite obsessive by rewinding and fast forwarding to specific scenes. Sometimes his brothers and sisters act out particular parts of  a film, for example “its a piranha its a piranha!” from Tarzan to Stephanos’ amusement. While for me it took years to break into Christos’ world, Christina remembers the Lion King singing as being just a part of the activities her and Stephanos shared. They danced to “I will Survive” and they drew together – even though when he was younger he was already a perfectionist and wouldn’t let her draw what she wanted but would take his pen and do it his way on top of her drawing.

In both cases the Lion King brought out something in the two boys that we hadn’t seen before. Their singing, acting and dancing abilities or their emotional and more child-like nature. In either case, they grace us with showing us a part of their character that others wouldn’t see because the autism label overshadows it. When you think back to what these animation films meant to you, or your kids do you see a difference? Did you not squeal when Jafar turns into a snake? Did you not bop your head or scream out the words to Hakuna Matata? Did you not feel the pride of Mulan going back home and taking her place in the world? Is autism even factor in on how we all felt watching these characters? In the end, whether we’re under the sea, on the road to El Dorado, or just around the river bend aren’t we all the same?

#21andAtypical

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Hope in Disney

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

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

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

This month’s hope is also found in Disney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Radar – Spectrum Singles

kids-loveFollowing on from “PS Love?

At the start of April 2015 a mum and daughter made the news. This was because they had just started a unique dating site, created solely for people on the spectrum.
Both mum, Kristen Fitzpatrick, and daughter, Olivia Cantu, are on the spectrum. I mean out of all the useless, creepy dating sites that exist in this world, we needed one that made an actual difference. Instead of relying on shows like “The Undateables”, that matchmake for viewing rather than love, these two women took it upon themselves to create a forum for the spectrum rather than adjusting the spectrum to the society’s forums. The anxiety of dating usually stems from one question, “Do I tell them I am on the Spectrum?”. Do you put it in your profile description? Do you categorise it under hobbies? What do you do with that information? The fear of rejection and the social pressure to fit a lifetime into a single profile, for people to judge you can be unbearable. The problem with the Internet is that you can be anyone. It’s not a space that encourages you to be yourself, its a space that encourages you to pretend to be what you think you should be.

Autisticdating.co.uk says “Autistic people have problems in general when trying to communicate, that is why they need special conditions for dating as well. We completely understand that, having spoken with and gotten expert opinions from many social workers and experts on autism, and we have designed a dating site that will make the entire dating experience much easier on autistic people.

Noble.

Point Number One: ‘Autistic people’ are not all the same – no two people on the spectrum are the same. It will make the dating experience easier on a fraction on people on the Spectrum, not all of them. Furthermore, not only does it generalise it also sheds a negative light on Autism by assuming that all people on the spectrum have communication problems. I tried to sign up for this, it wasn’t exclusive; it didn’t ask me if I was on the spectrum; it didn’t ask anything except it told me the website was over capacity. I wonder how long that has been the case.

A very, very similar site, AutismDating.co.uk says “Anyone who is on the Autism spectrum (or their close family members) all start asking the same question sooner or later; that is the question of love. Will I ever find someone to love who loves me? Will I ever meet that special someone? The answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!” especially if you give Autism Dating Service a try…. We have thousands of open-minded women and men from all over the USA and you could be among them, meeting them, setting up dates and exchanging experiences and details of your life with them, even right now”.

Fair.

Point Number Two: You cannot sign up for this site. Much like its twin, AutsimDating.com targets people with Autism as a whole. The use of the word ‘open-minded’ bugs me a bit too, however once you actually sign up there may well be open minded people to meet. Both these sites were developed by people who are not on the spectrum.

Olivia, 18, got the idea because she was tired of being misunderstood by her “non-autistic friends”, as she calls them. She wanted a place “free of the stigma”, free of the anxiety of being on the spectrum.

Spectrum Singles is a dating site for people enhanced-30499-1427990487-9 (1)on the Autism spectrum, created by people on the Autism spectrum.
Unlike other dating sites, it brings together all people on the spectrum for dating or friendships, but it is also unique in that it is able to acknowledge and integrate a person according to their position on the spectrum. The Spectrum Compatibility Test™ narrows down the prospects to match individual spectrum characteristics with a select group of spectrum compatible matches. imagesFor example, one of the options when registering for this site is that it asks whether you are verbal or non-verbal. This innovative test helps bring together, as best it can, people that share certain attributes with whom it would be easier to communicate and build a relationship or friendship. The test is basically 184 questions long and includes questions about social skills, what makes you uncomfortable, sensory sensitivity or deprivation, sexual preference and many other focus points. The algorithm was created by Kristen and Olivia created the questionnaire. How amazing is that? The test gives you a colour which is associated with your answers, likes and dislikes and then you can browse the site and find other members with the same colour.

There is a YouTube channel which is a series of short funny videos on dating, and tips, for people on the spectrum; you can watch it here. Michael McCreary and Olivia Goudreault, are both on the autism spectrum as well. They also have a Facebook group with articles and funny memes for the members; you can browse this here

Spectrum Singles removes the stigma and anxiety of the Spectrum. It’s basically what the world should be – free, no pressure, no stigma, no pity, no fear.

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Seventeen Candles 

IMG_7432Christos got a cake at his school today.

Chocolate for breakfast? YES,  PLEASE (Christos would say ‘se pakano’ – it sort of means ‘please’ in greek).

He feels happy. He knows it’s his day, but doesn’t quite know why. He waits for the song to finish, he blows out candles but only because he knows he’s supposed to and because he gets cake after. He eats cake for breakfast, who would complain? He sees his family, lets them hug him and opens his presents, he doesn’t really know why except for its been happening for the last 17 years, its routine.

But he does know, that on the 6th May 2020 he will be celebrating this day in Disneyland. Happy Birthday Christo my superhero, my extraordinary brother, my cup of tea, my heart.

On this day, think of people you may know that are on the spectrum and see how they are, say hello, even just a smile to someone you think is weird because they are flapping their hands or skipping or too old for the playground. It’s so important to remove the stigma of Autism, it’s so important that more people feel accepted, loved, understood. On this day, that my heart is filled with love for someone with Autism I think of Elspeth McKendrick.

Elspeth, 16, took her own life because she got an Asperger’s diagnosis. Elspeth felt alone, she felt like she had no one to talk to. Elspeth felt that sharing this with friends would stigmatise her. She thought she would be walking around school with a big blue ‘A’ target on her. Elspeth felt judged, overwhelmed and thought the diagnosis would deprive her of all the experiences she would have as a teen. She did not fail to come to terms with a diagnosis of mild autism, society failed her. We failed her. We cannot provide a universal support system for Autism, one of the fastest growing disabilities in the world.

Learn about Autism, please.

On this day, every day, with all my heart I think of Elspeth McKendrick. I think of Maxwell Webb, I think of Josh, Andrew Young, Faruk Ali. I think of of everyone that has felt alone, everyone that has felt like a victim because they felt like they didn’t fit in, i think of all the families out there who struggle every day with every single thing(even things you don’t think about – Socks, Teeth, DVDsRestaurants).

I think of you, my family thinks of you. We know you.

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Seventeen Candles – Not everyones cup of tea

This is my favourite present.
Now, the fear with the t-shirts is that they will not fit, however, the fear with the cup is that it may never be used. In other posts I spoke about when Christos gets too excited he hides things until he is ready to use them.

When I lived at home we always had our tea in the morning before school, a tea when mum came home from work and then a tea before bed. Christos always has tea in the morning, he always has tea in the afternoon and always has tea before bed. Maybe if he accepts to change his cup to this, I can have tea with him. Maybe he’ll think of me like I think of him. Since we cant text, of Facebook, or have a chat on the phone, maybe that will keep his memory of me there. He had his birthday party on Saturday. The family gathered, they ate, they sang, he blew out candles, he opened presents.

Like I said last year, (One Six)

Chris wont get facebook posts wishing him happy birthday, he won’t get texts, he won’t go out and celebrate with his friends, he won’t ask for money to spend, he won’t ask for expensive presents, he won’t make a big show of opening presents. When I call him to say happy birthday he won’t say thank you, he’ll kind of mumble and then when i say i love you, he’ll say i love you too and continue what he’s doing.

He was happy, and at the end of the day all that matters is that he is happy. A seventeen year-old boy who grew to touch so many lives, who has overcome so many obstacles. A boy who couldn’t communicate with us, who has gone through all kinds of therapies and who now can empathise, sympathise, love, care, talk, joke.

 

    

 

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Seventeen Candles – Normal

 This is the second present Christos will be getting tomorrow.

It’s black and white because Not everything is Black and White.

Because ‘normal’ is not black and white.

Because you, me we are not black and white.

Because Christos is not black and white.

‘Normal’ cannot and will not be defined – ever. ‘Normal’ changes as often as you change your shirt….That’s ‘normal’ now but in a few years who knows what ‘normal’ will be?

I wrote that July 30th 2013. What has changed?

‘Normal’ is hashtagging, ‘normal’ is that Suarez will bite someone every couple of years, ‘normal’ is that Australia will compete in Eurovision 2015, ‘normal’ is hearing about the growing number of refugees from Syria, ‘normal’ is talking about the number of transgender suicides, ‘normal’ is the risk of Ebola, ‘normal’ is a woman running for President of the United States.

Today he is still sixteen.

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Seventeen candles – “S”uperhero

It’s Chris’ seventeenth birthday in five days.

Seventeen years of struggle, pain, tears, breakthroughs, accomplishments and progress.

“S” is for superhero,

“S” because our kids Struggle.

“S” because they rescue us every day with their love and their Smile.

“S” because they give us Strength.

“S” because they Succeed; there are no small victories.

This series is going to be about Christos’ birthday, the countdown, the presents, the love.