Monday, 24 July 2017

Ups and Downs, I Daniel Blake, Mike & Angelo and Returning to Rickleton

As I write this entry, the events of my life together with how it has affected my mental health during July 2017 have been consistent with my experiences of living with Asperger’s Syndrome both pre and post-diagnosis, extreme ups and downs.

At the start of July, like many other people in the UK, including many also on the autistic spectrum, I experienced the disappointment of being turned down for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) at a Tribunal after my Disability Living Allowance (DLA) had ended in December last year. As obviously disappointed as I was with the decision, what was most upsetting for me though was the stress of the tribunal. After the agony of a six month wait, at the Tribunal I felt more like a defendant on trial in a court of law than a claimant who had been unfairly treated.

Dave Johns as Daniel Blake
Contrary to what certain sections of the media and some politicians will have you believe, Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, about the bitter struggle of a man (played by Dave Johns) who is denied employment and support allowance despite being declared by his doctor as being unfit for work, is not an exaggeration. As well as the obvious financial difficulties that removing benefits from some of society’s most vulnerable people, an even bigger danger comes with the unmeasurable emotional costs that it will no doubt bring, including depression and even suicide. Not only will this put more strain on services that society’s most vulnerable depend upon, but will also impact heavily on their families and carers.

Angelo, played by Tyler Butterworth, prepares to make an 'explosive
impact' with his power blaster! 
Like others affected, I am not immune to the stress and trauma that the process has brought for many. After coming away from the Tribunal hearing traumatised, the first thing I did, and something that the age of YouTube has enabled, was take solace in one of my favourite shows as a child, Mike & Angelo! After often having had a day having to deal with school bullies, I would find solace in television. But whereas then, you were restricted to the tea-time hour set aside for children’s television, now one can select what was their favourite show to watch back then on YouTube providing someone has uploaded it. For those unfamiliar, Mike & Angelo was a hilarious comedy about a young American boy called Mike who came to live in the UK with his mother Rita, but their world was turned upside down when they from they had a lodger from another dimension, Angelo! Able to walk on the ceiling and do all kinds of hilarious stunts, Angelo quickly became one of my ‘imaginary friends’. His hilarious mishaps, especially when all his inventions kept going wrong,  gave me an anecdote to what I had often been suffering from being bullied at school. To my delight, I found my favourite ever episode had been uploaded when Angelo entered a TV talent content and his home-made electric guitar blew up the studio, making a rather ‘explosive’ impact!

In my more recent past, what has often helped me come out of downward spirals, is giving talks and training on Asperger’s Syndrome. As well as obvious life experience of Asperger’s Syndrome pre and post diagnosis, the experience that I have gained from giving talks and training on living with the condition throughout the fifteen years I have been doing it I feel has also enabled me to grow and develop as a person, to the extent that I can give a bit a little of myself to who I am speaking to, which has greatly enhanced the personal joy I gain from it. And not long after such an awful experience, I had the opportunity to do what I felt was the talk of a lifetime.

  Rickleton Primary School, Washington, Tyne and Wear,
where I attended between 1982-1988
Though I have had the privilege to speak with the likes of Tony Attwood, Temple Grandin and a few others, what justified this as the opportunity to give the talk of a lifetime was that it was at one of my former primary schools, Rickleton Primary School in Washington, where I attended from 1982-1988 until year five before being moved to Sunderland. Rickleton Primary School opened in 1980 as a new build in what was then a new town, Washington in Tyne and Wear, so I was one of the school’s first pupils. It was the first time I had been back to the school since I had been a pupil there in what was an era largely unrecognisable from now, when mobile phones were a brick-sized status symbol and modern conveniences of smartphones, iPads, whiteboards (we had chalk and blackboards back then) and instant electronic communication that was only largely seen in the sci-fi films and cartoons of the time. Returning to Rickleton after so many years away, it felt like physically that the school had shrunk when the tables and chairs seemed to be so small, and even the classrooms themselves seemed smaller. Remembering what I did of the school as a pupil, being not too different in physical size and shape to the other children and then seeing it as it is now, not only did the pupils and teachers seem younger than they were during my time as a pupil at the school, but the parents coming to collect them also seemed younger than back then! Revisiting my memories stored in my collective un-conscious of being of a pupil at the school and then bringing myself back to the present, it almost felt like being beamed forward into the next century!    

Despite the social challenges and difficulties I faced, academic and social, as a pupil with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome at the school, I do also have some very positive memories of my time there. I recalled some of these during my talk, including playing the part of a Weatherman called ‘Michael Trout’, (a parody of former BBC Weatherman Michael Fish) forecasting a dull day explaining the old BBC Weather symbols we had learned about in class, the magnetic ones Michael Fish himself used to use that kept falling off! Back when I was a pupil at Rickleton, Autism was barely known of, not just Asperger’s Syndrome, but it was through observations that my former teachers made of me as a pupil that would lead to my diagnosis when I was 20-years-old. Some of these observations made back then are still partly true of me now, especially my pastime of reading and retaining volumes of information which I have a tendency to go on and on about and also that one of few situations where I was able to work effectively with others was in drama, as the other roles I was acting masked a lot of my difficulties. But what myself and my parents are grateful to the school for to this day was the way that they persisted with, even when I was being very difficult as we were with the other schools I attended. As such, I emphasised the importance of early diagnosis, as it can potentially help to reduce a lot of misunderstandings, especially as many of my former teachers often felt more frustrated with themselves, rather than with me, not knowing what to do to get through to me. After stepping back into my past, when arriving home I almost expected to see Stu Francis presenting Crackerjack on television, which I used to rush home from school to see! Especially then as we had to make use of the tea time slot children were largely confined to for entertainment!

Just like they had in my past, watching Mike & Angelo and giving a talk about Asperger’s Syndrome has helped me out of a downward spiral. I had been thinking about postponing it, after not immediately feeling up to such a thing after the Tribunal experience. Regarding my situation, I will admit that I am fortunate in that I have the security of a very supportive family, but there are undoubtedly many who will be so much worse off due to the controversial government policy of the move from DLA to PIP. Sadly, many affected by the stress that has come with having to go through Tribunal over rejected PIP claims are giving up their fight. This disgraceful change to policy has largely come about due to misconceptions about the level benefit fraud portrayed by sections of the media, whom I will not name specifically, only interested in what makes good copy that is likely to ‘rile’ people who put it at over 20 per cent while government statistics show that it is less than one per cent!

What I have experienced over the past two weeks as I write this entry is very like periods where I have gone through a pattern of ups and downs, where the downs have become ups after giving Asperger talks. Speaking to students and their parents/carers at the Education and Services for People with Autism’s (ESPA) Annual Graduation Ceremony, I mentioned that what we learn from coping with such negative experiences can often making stronger. To enable this, most importantly it helps us to face up to difficulties and challenges we face once we feel ready to do so. Once we are able to do this, rather than making life difficult, challenges can make the lives of people with Asperger's Syndrome both interesting and hopefully fulfilling.

Huge thanks to Colin Lofthouse, Head Teacher at Rickleton Primary School for inviting me back to Rickleton to speak. Special thanks also to my former Year 1 and 2 teacher Miss Anne Hutchinson, who helped me so much as a pupil as well as my brother and sister and parents, and who is retiring after 37 years of service to the school from when it opened back in 1980. I wish her well for her retirement.

Thanks also to Paul Cook, Principal at ESPA College for inviting me to speak at the ESPA Graduation. Paul is leaving ESPA. He will be a huge miss to ESPA, but we wish him well in his next adventure.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Indelible Memories Part 3 - Angels, Devils and Whitewater: The Power and Majesty of Victoria Falls

After the placid flow of the Okavango Delta's inlets, I was to experience the opposite with Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi River. Located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Known to the natives as Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning 'the smoke that thunders', one can see why the 19th century Scottish Missionary Explorer David Livingstone, historically recognised as the first European to see the falls, described the sight as 'so lovely that angels must have gazed upon it in their flight'.

Victoria Falls and rainbow, viewed from Zimbabwean side
As well as spectacular sights for the visitor when seeing the high columns of mist rising from the falls and the rainbows over the falls that it brings, over 150 years after Livingstone sighted the falls, for the modern tourist they also provide temptations of thrill-seeking with a range of extreme sports and activities. Whitewater-rafting, bungee jumping and zip-sliding are just some of the many activities to entice an adrenaline surge, but where Livingstone once though angels may have gazed, the Zambezi's flow allows visitors to get close to the edge, literally, courtesy of the Devil!

Sitting on the edge of the falls in the Devil's Pool
On the edge of the falls is the Devil's Pool, an eddy formed by a natural rock barrier, where during low season (September to December), the flow of the river is at a level where it doesn't cascade over the edge, allowing the adventurous to view the falls from right on the edge. The Devil's Pool is reached via a boat trip to Livingstone Island, where Livingtsone first glimpsed the thunderous mists of the falls. To reach the pool, a little swimming and mindfulness of walking is needed, taking care over sharp and slippery rocks, bearing in mind it is a surface resulting from the full flow of the falls during high season rather than being developed for human convenience. Stepping over and around rocks deposited by the flow of the falls during high season, one has to maintain constant awareness of each step before swimming a little to reach the Devil's Pool, where one can literally sit on the edge of the falls in safety under the supervision of a local guide and barring any attempts at selfie stunts which have unfortunately seen visitors fall to their death. By making nature your own while being mindful of your actions, making the natural rock barrier formed by the flow of the falls, one can witness the power of the flow and the smoky mists created by the falls close-up from within. A thrilling experience!

Hitting whitewater on the Zambezi
Rapids along the Zambezi made by the power and flow of the falls make it one of the world's most exciting places to go whitewater rafting. As well as it's adrenaline allure, whitewater rafting also provides the perfect opportunity to navigate nature's power and flow by making it your own. Starting from Boiling Point, at the base of the falls, the full course of the Zambezi's whitewater rafting route consists of 24 rapids, ranging from Grade 3 (moderate) to Grade 5 (very powerful). Each rapid presents a different challenge to rafters as well as a very different experience. Rather like within Zen thought, it helps to row with the flow than around or against it. In this way, a whitewater rafting excursion becomes almost analogous to a life journey. 

Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I often feel that each day is a new challenge, sometimes difficult, sometimes not so bad. other times it can be confusing. When negotiating a confusing challenge in whatever shape or form, sometimes I find myself having to weigh up arguments in my head between thoughts, almost like 'internal angels and devils'. The confusion often comes when not being anticipate possible consequences of being enticed by the devil's temptations, especially if it is a situation or in circumstances which I haven't previously experienced. Within a sight most likely admired by angels according to Livingstone, also lie the Devil's thrill-seeking temptations. And I was about to experience something for the first time!     


Entering Oblivion!
Just before hitting Rapid 18, we were told that there was a chance that the raft might flip. Nicknamed 'Oblivion', Rapid 18 is made up of three powerful waves. Since my first experience of whitewater rafting on Canada's Kicking Horse River in 2003 and having done it on four other previous occasions, somehow I had never previously been involved in a flip. Oblivion though was too powerful and I was caught in my first flip, which could have felt like going into oblivion, but using Oblivion's flow to guide me to calmer section of the river, I found myself able to relocate the raft so that it could be flipped back over and we could all climb back in for the next part of the journey. Whereas at one time I would have thought of such a thing as 'scary', it was a thrilling and memorable moment that occurred in a flash! 

First Wave!
Flip! 
Overturn
The relative calm after the storm
After the thrill and spill of my first flip on whitewater, the remaining rapids were much more gentle. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I find that the daily challenges I face, whether they be of a social, anxious or sensory nature are what can make life interesting. Opening to them, including to any setbacks that may occur with them, can thus enabled one to experience life's ups and downs with more freedom, much less constrained by fears and anxieties. In this way, setbacks e.g. depression, however awkward, can become both an opportunity to learn from and new start to a more positive period of life through what we learn by going through and overcoming them.

The two major rivers I experienced on my adventure through Southern Africa, the Okavango and Zambezi, take completely opposite journeys, one slowly grinding to a halt in a desert and one taking a more conventional and much faster path into an ocean. The different natural obstacles that the flows the two rivers encounter on their journey see them find a a path and outcome suitable to their flow. Similarly, overcoming different challenges that different people with Asperger's Syndrome and related conditions can enable them to take a lifecourse appropriate to their needs abilities with a hopefully suitable outcome. Ultimately, such life events and experiences may disappear into the past. Where they often remain in the present though, is in the form of indelible memories, which will likely remain etched on my consciousness for a long time. 

A huge thank-you to G Adventures once again, including my excellent guides DeWet Theron and Alfie Dovey.

Special thanks to Iain Harmer of African Wanderer for his insight into the life of the San (Bushmen) people.

Thanks also to Safari Par Excellence for a fantastic experience of Victoria Falls and the Zambezi. 

Rafting pictures courtesy of Safari Par Excellence.     

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Indelible Memories Part 2: Nature's Unconventional Journeys - Bush Camp in the Okavango Delta

One of my favourite aspects of travelling is passing through a variety of different contrasting landscapes, each of which not only has its own ecosystem, but has different and unique sensory experiences that await the travellers. After Namibia's deserts, crossing the border into Botswana, my next adventure in Southern Africa was to experience one of nature's more unconventional journeys, the Okavango Delta. A unique feature to Earth, the Okavango River, which starts its journey in the Angolan Highlands, is one of very few rivers than doesn't eventually flow into a sea or ocean. Rather, it is 'consumed' by the vast and largely flat Kalahari Desert.

The flow of the Okavango Delta seen from above
Travelling through such a contrasting landscape sometimes almost feel like hopping from one planet to another, but in noticing the journey's that the winds and rains have brought, together with the journey's taken by rivers, one begins to notice that rather than existing as separated worlds, the natural processes that contribute to different landscapes and geographical features are interwoven, and thus dependent on one another for their existence. The unique journey, shape and outcome of the Okavango River is best seen from above. Viewing the delta from a 6-seater plane shows not only how vast an area it covers, but how the flow of the delta has formed many islands, and where the extensive wet grasslands that the delta supports merges with vast dry sandy desert, a unique natural mix.

Mokoro polers in action on the Okavango Delta
The delta's meandering routes seen from above shows how dependent on the landscape the delta is for its course of flow, but the vegetation and wildlife, from the huge herds of elephants that migrate across the area to the many species of dragonflies and damselflies, are equally dependent on the delta's waters for their existence and survival. Partaking in a bush camp on Chief's Island, the largest island in the delta, gives the traveller not just an opportunity to view this fascinating natural inter-dependency at work, but also to be part of it, including making the flows of the delta your own, as the local Mokoro Polers. Guiding dug out canoes (mokoros), the Polers used the deltas inlets like natural canals, using their sense of presence to guide their mokoros around the reeds and the slow, gentle rhythms of the water's flow and a awareness of the river bed to guide campers to Chief's Island, where I would stay for a night.

Wilderbeest roaming the Okavango delta's grasslands
As well as its flows and rhythms, experiencing nature by being part of it during a wild bush camp also involves taking into account possible safety hazards, especially when the camp itself is part of nature. With most of the camps I had been staying on on my travels not only having the conveniences of access to water, electricity and bathroom facilities albeit limited and very basic, but also fenced off from wildlife, on Chief's Island, the camp was out in the open, including being open to wildlife. Throughout the trip and from previous travelling experiences (including a camping expedition in Svalbard earlier in 2016), I had got used to living in and out of tents, even if it was a step outside my daily living comfort zone, but a wild bush camp was another step outside of my comfort zone within a step outside my comfort zone. Often, stepping outside our comfort zone, in whatever way, we experience sensory feelings that we are usually otherwise oblivious to. 


Water lilies in the delta's inlets
Being aware of the possible health issues, including the possibility of dehydration, being bitten by an insect or even attacked by an animal, I had initially felt my Asperger tendencies of worry and anxiety kicking in, despite having had the necessary injections as well as having taken malaria pills, that something nasty or unpleasant could happen. In such situations, how well one is prepared with the right supplies including the necessary medicines, sun cream and plenty of insect repellent and enough clean water to last two days in the case of the delta, can play an important part in the quality of the experience. Before the camp, we were told to wear colours that blend in with the colours of the natural surroundings, preferably dark green, brown, dark blue or black so as not to stimulate or distract animals. Realising that the guides and Polers I was with were on hand in case of any such incident and that if I left any animals that happened to pass nearby alone, they would likely leave me and the other campers alone, while being aware of such possible occurrences, I began to embrace the experience a little more, starting with a swim in the deltas's waters. Swimming in the delta's calm waters and walking along its sandy desert bed unveiled a richness of plat life, including reed rafts and water lilies, that the delta's journey has brought to what would have otherwise been vast dry desert, similar to what I had experienced in Namibia. As the Okavango runs through what is otherwise a desert landscape, the river carries very little mud. walking along the sandy river bed, one notices heavy amounts of sand getting caught in the reeds, a process that forms the delta's many islands.

An elephant family in the Okavango Delta 
While the high volume of water enables such rich and varied vegetation in the area, their presence also attracts and supports large quantities of wildlife, whose movements often correlate with the region's contrasting seasons, notably elephants. With more than 100,000, Botswana has the largest population of African Elephants, who, led by a matriarch and senior bull elephants, migrate in thousands, along ancient routes from the nearby Chobe, Linyanti and Savute regions to the delta for its constant presence of water and availability of shade from its trees. Watching the world's largest land animals in action, one sees how they make use of nature in their own way, being able to use their trunks, tusks and physical strength to break branches off trees for food, and being able to make use of the inlets for ease of movement and cooling down from the hot sun.

The Sun sets on the Delta
The delta takes on a different dimension at sunset, where the colouring of the plant life and landscape changes dramatically in response to fading light, opening up a nocturnal living world in the process. The night I camped out on Chief's Island happened to be Halloween! After the Mokoro Polers treated us to a memorable singing and dancing display, during the night, a hyena passed by the camp, making a ghost-like laugh!





Part 3 of my African Adventure will follow soon, in which I recall my experience of the power and majesty of Victoria Falls


Thursday, 5 January 2017

Indelible Memories Part 1: Dunes, Cave Art and the Milky Way - Camping in Namibia's Deserts

Of the skills that artists and writers can call upon, as well as creative use of colour and language and eye for detail, is memory, all of which are well-documented strengths of many people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Though I am often told that I have a good memory for knowledge and information, but through simple noticing through being present with each moment, I find that sensory experiences from different landscapes, climates and lighting leaves almost indelible memories within my consciousness. Nearly three months on from my journey through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I find myself making use of what I have with these to share the memories here on this blog.
Sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Nambia

The first part of my adventure through Southern Africa saw me travel up the Western Cape from Cape Town via a kayaking excursion along the Orange River through Namibia's other-worldly desert landscape of Sossusvlei, A wealth of sensory experiences await the traveller who is prepared to open to the landscape and its properties, as well as being able to observe and experience nature's forces in action. As well as dune shapes, the formation of the landscape through journey's brought by the Orange River, where I started my journey into Namibia, and the currents of the Atlantic Ocean has also played a huge part in shaping its distinctive colouring. As part of an ever-renewing process over millions of years, the reddish orange sand we see in the desert today was originally deposited in the Atlantic Ocean via the Orange River, before the ocean's currents gradually brought it back where the wind carried it back inland over time where it has mixed with salt and clay deposits as well as other elements, including iron.

Dune 45, Namibia
Almost like the opposite extreme of Svalbard's glaciers, where I was earlier in 2016, sand dunes initially appear still to the naked eye, but are gradually changing slowing in response to the wind, temperature and air pressure. Through getting up close and personal with them though, we can experience how their shapes and texture are constantly changing and renewing them through our other senses.Trekking up Dune 45 (85 metres high), I found that as well as the effects of natures forces on its shape, I also gained an appreciation of nature's effects on the texture of the sand, the density of the sand grains and of the dune itself. Often overwhelmingly hot during the day as I experienced going up Dune 45, at night temperatures in the desert take on a different dimension becoming much cooler, occasionally dropping below freezing point. Cooler temperatures can occasionally bring fog from the Atlantic meaning droplets of moisture can find its way into the sand. This affects the density of the sand, thus also effecting both the sensory experience and difficulty of the walking on it. Having previously trekked on grainy surfaces, including volcano ash, I initially expected Dune 45 to be 'skiddy', but instead, the sand was rather firm. It was still early in the morning so levels of moisture within the sand were still heavy. 

The Milky Way viewed from Spitzkoppe, Namibia 
When in tune to sensory experiences of a desert landscape, as well as an appreciation of its physical qualities, one can also notice the range of colouring within the materials that make up the landscape with more clarity as well as how their hue changes dramatically in accordance with levels of sunlight. After the Sun has gone down, another set of colouring gradually becomes more apparent. Far removed from the effects of light pollution and overcast skies, more stars can be seen with the naked eye than usual, including an arm of the Milky Way. With concentrated observation, the colours within the stars, including white, yellow, red and blue also become much more apparent than usual, while the patterns that we often use to navigate our way around the night sky, the constellations, gradually fade within a star-filled sky.

San cave art, Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
When focusing on the night sky in the desert, an effect I felt that it had on me internally was that it helped me to expand my usual thought patterns. Being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find that I can be constrained by thought patterns and that my thinking can be clouded by emotions, similar to how my view of the night sky can sometimes be constrained to the constellations as well as hindered by light pollution. In this way, I felt that by expanding my attention externally towards the night sky, it also gave me insight internally to the workings of my mind. being able to understand the local surroundings in a different light, together with fascinating tours of cave paintings throughout my journey also enabled me to understand the world from the perspective of the indigenous San people, commonly known as 'bushmen'.

San bushmen, Botswana
It is said that Australia's Aborigines were able to see the moons of Jupiter. This would have been enabled not only by clear skies and an obvious absence of light pollution, but also, as hunter gatherers, their eyesight was well-adapted for such purposes. Similarly, the San have historically relied on the the stars to track down animals when hunting animals for food, fuel and clothing material. The way their eyesight adapted for hunter-gatherer purposes is visible in their art work in rocks and caves across the region, some of which is many thousands of years old. Though in an increasingly modernising Africa, the traditional ways of the San people have largely disappeared, they do give a fascinating insight into human relationship with nature, including how we adapt to it to survive.
  

Sunset over Sossusvlei, Namibia
The sensory experiences I felt I had camping in Namibia's desert also gave me an insight into how the San would have had to make use of all their senses for survival purposes in an extreme environment where resources are often scarce, as well as leaving me with memories of what were, for me, new and different experiences. Such memories often find themselves 'etched' within one's consciousness. My most indelible memories of Namibia's deserts though, which the present day convenience of cameras allow us to capture and store, were the night sky sights and the dramatic sunsets.

Indelible Memories Part 2, in which I recall my experience of the Okavango Delta, will follow soon.