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2020, what the f*ck was that??

I shall refer to these as “The pre-therapy years”

I have not blogged for a long, long time. The daily fire fighting of surviving 2020 with my mind intact has been enough to cope with. But since we approach the end of the year, I want to reflect on what has happened and look forward to the future.

This time last year I was doing a lot of really fantastic voluntary work with some incredible outdoor education veterans. I was learning and loving my new work every day. I was married. I had financial security and life plodded on. In the last 12 months, all those things have gone up in smoke.

Being locked in a house with someone for 15 weeks obviously makes or breaks you. Everyone around here is either having a lockdown baby, a lockdown puppy or a lockdown divorce. (I would recommend the dog option, it is by far the cheapest). My two boys and I have had to evolve into a new state of being. I realised that our communication skills, especially with our emotions, were critically under par and we needed to upskill rapidly. We had been locking away our hearts and our pain, but with it we had locked out the joy and happiness too. A sense of duty kept us all just edging along our existence with a blindfold on.

I had picked one hell of a year to go freelance!!! On the 23rd of march all my work went up in smoke (only one of which was paid of the 4) and I could not access any government aid as I have been self employed for less than 12 months. Thank God we had really good weather for most of those 15 weeks so we were all able to get out and go for walks and bike rides. So many friends have spoken to me about how they really, truly loved reconnecting with nature. They bonded with their families while going for long walks. They found new interesting pockets of nature right by them in the city. But for me, I had been born again, the year I started “52 new adventures in 2019”. That was the start of this whole journey, the blog, this website, my new career.

Coming out the other side of 2020, I am filled with hope, even still with so much uncertainty. My little business has really grown in success and I am now having to turn people away. My autistic Forest school class has had a massive upgrade from the local scout hut (with one tree and plastic grass) to the spectacular 20 acre Tortworth Arboretum. I have accidently carved a niche for myself in being able to deliver 1:1 tuition to ASC children. I have seen them slowly uncurl and blossom and have the confidence to be their true selves. And the work I do with adults recovering from addiction honestly makes my heart sing. These women are some of the most resilient, strong, charismatic and interesting ladies I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with. If these guys can stay optimistic, what right do I have to feel melancholy? I find me giving myself a little metaphorical slap after each session with them.

But this much I have learnt: When your life suddenly implodes, you really see what people are made of. Bristol, I salute you! What an amazing community of love, support, connection, cake, what’s app calls to check in, tea and tears. I look forward to 2021 knowing that the sisterhood is here is hold each other up. The thing that has made this year so hard is that we have had 9 months without the very thing that makes us human: Connection. Real, physical and emotional connection.

Happy Christmas people! And a VERY happy new year.

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D is for dick head

I have been quiet for a while. But today I feel compelled to speak. D is also for diagnosis and if you have had a child who is different, who struggles and has been a source of worry for you, you may have come across a short film called “A is for autism.” It was made a long time ago and explains a little of what autism means.

This week we sat in a consultant paediatrician’s office where she delivered the results of 12 months of testing. “Your son has Autistic spectrum condition.” She then paused to see f I would burst into tears. After 4 years of wondering wtf was going on with this child, it has not come as a surprise to me. I have read every book in the library, I have joined all local support groups and been on a 5 week course. Friends and family have asked me how I feel. Some days I feel blessed to have a child who views the world through a different lens. Other days it feels like a death sentence. Having fought so hard for a diagnosis, it can now not be taken back.

My brother came round recently to play Minecraft with the boys and from the kitchen, I heard one son ask “Can I make an axe?” My brother answered. The spectrum son asks “Can I shave a panda?” On days like this we laugh till we cry, and he is able to join in with the laughter. On another day, he would smash the house to pieces and cry for 20 minutes.

But I feel that very, very few people know even a tiny bit about Autism but feel compelled to give you their opinion and advice regardless. Schools are the starting point for this mis-information and 80% of teachers have had no training on it whatsoever. I say this, having been a teacher for 16 years. So I just want to give you a few pointers, just in case someone you know is dealing with a similar situation to us.

1) Don’t say the sentence “Well, we are all on the spectrum.” No we are not. And by saying that you are not showing empathy, you are demeaning the experience of someone who finds some things absolutely crippling.

2) Don’t talk to them about Rain man or ‘The curios incident of the dog in the night’. They are both works of fiction which cannot accurately represent the multitude of ways in which Autistic people experience the world. This can range from being non-verbal to being Prime minister.

3) Don’t give parenting advice. My child has not slept through the night in seven years. He wakes somewhere between 4 and 5 but it can be earlier. He does not go back to sleep. There is literally nothing I have not tried. Please don’t talk to me about sleep routines or behaviour boundaries.

4) Don’t ask what things the child struggles with and then reply with “Oh, MY child does that. ” If I tell you he cries on the way to school, I doubt it is in a neuro typical way. He cries about finding socks, about the toothpaste being too spicy, about dropping some breakfast on the table, about not finishing the programme he was watching, about being too cold, or too hot, or because it is raining. He can cry 20 times before 8:30.

5) Most of all, please don’t alienate us. There is a lot of writing about how Autistic people feel left out and lonely. But this can actually be applied to our whole family. I know there are friends who invite families round for gatherings, and I know that we are not invited. We miss out on Halloween parties, birthdays, and New years. We know we can be really challenging to deal with, but we will take ourselves off if it is becoming difficult. We want to feel part of the community too and have love to offer.

This year, I have put my career on hold slightly, so that I can fill out the millions of forms and attend the multitude of meetings in order to find some provision for my son that works. I have started my own Sensory art and Science class, design for children on the Autistic spectrum. Each week we have 9 children who vary in age from 7 to 14. We have 4 activities, all of which are optional. There is one art/ creative activity, one science build, one sensory bin activity and one cooking and eating table. These children are beginning to free themselves of the idea that they are a burden on their school class, make real meaningful friendships and learn in a relaxed and child led way. Each week I theme the sessions based on one of their “Special interests.”

Last session, I asked the class (both children and adults) to write on a post it note, one thing they like about the sessions. This is something I learnt during my Forest School training and it absolutely blew my mind. I had never done anything like this in my teaching career. I was in charge, I did not care what their thoughts were on the session. Well, I did, but it is not standard practice to ask children what they actually think! What a crazy idea?

And so, in conclusion, D is for dick head. Not for the professionals who did not spot my son’s difficulties, not for the families who ostracise us, and not for my son who can drive me to the very edge of my sanity. I am in fact the biggest dick head of them all. Because if I can be a teacher for 16 years, and not see this shit coming, it can definitely happen to anyone.

Sensory stimulation for the soul

Pembrokeshire coastal path with crashing waves

Last weeks of Easter break have been incredible. I managed to squeeze 4 adventures in, and I have been able to share them with my favourite people.

Adventure #22 : pack a picnic and your toothbrushes and see where you end up.

We stayed in an unusual b&b and ate at a local pub with a kids play area and open grass. I sat inside and enjoyed the peace while the other three played fotty. We feasted on steak and lasagne and things we would never eat at home.

The beach was deserted as we went after breakfast and we enjoyed chasing the squealing gulls. At the end of the beach we found Victorian gardens abloom with carefully selected fauna to create a reason to be present on the cusp of spring.

Bridge building

The point at which we stop playing is the point at which we have lost joy in our lives.”

Syreeta

The next day of weather was terrible. I had found a new forest park to explore, but everyone else was reticent to say the least. Heldon forest park is cultivated for people , to be sure, but it has the charm and usefulness of all forestry commission sites. It is 3,500 acres of woodland just 15 minutes from Exeter. There is a really good cafe with a covered outdoor eating area and a log burner inside if the weather turns funky. We sat and drank hot chocolate while the windows turned blurry with rain. Eventually it did ease off and we stomped up the hill through majestic trees. The boys were singing and I was breathing deeply the smells the fallen rain had thrown up from the forest floor.

One of the activities we did at a Forest School training the week before was called sitting tree. You choose a spot and sit for 10 minutes. As she said it, I could feel panic rising in me. I have always suspected that I have ADHD. This would feel like 3 hours. I would immediately ‘out’ myself as a weirdo with no concentration. But an interesting thing happened. I took my shoes off and felt the grass below me. I felt the breeze on my face. I listened to multiple bird songs. I touched the different ferns around me. When the tutor finally called us back I was surprised. “How long do you think you were there for?” I was convinced it had been less than 10 minutes. “It was actually 20.”

Smells of wild garlic in spring

“How was it that I don’t have ADHD in the forest, but struggle to be in a room for 2 minutes? And how is it that my son has autism in school, but is suddenly cured at the beach?”

The world we now occupy is ever more 2 dimensional and this is getting exasperated by screen culture. On a screen you are seeing, and maybe hearing something but that is it. What we probably call naughty behaviour in children and depressed behaviour in adults could be seen as types of sensory seeking. A craving, if you like, for those parts of the brain we are not exercising. People are under the impression that over stimulation stops kids concentrating, but what if it is the other way round? Nature is a beautiful multilayered, multi dimensional feast for the mind. Interesting smells, sounds and textures are bombarding us from all directions. And are also constantly changing. We did not evolve inside four walls. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years living in and with our natural surroundings.

Perhaps the reason we all have a connection to nature because we actually feel at home and the man made buildings are actually the alien environment. Important neural connections are made by tiny babies who are touched and spoken to. Baby sensory classes are very popular because of research telling us that this is important for brain development. What if, in fact, this does not change with age?

My quest for 52 micro adventures has created in me the headspace to reconsider all of the reasons I thought I felt stressed and tired and stuck in a rut. I have been emancipated by my adventures. And dear reader, this is the most impressive part! You don’t need a shit load of money, nor time, nor permission from anyone. You could go and find a micro adventure right now.