Friday, 20 December 2013

A Christmas Krakow and Impromptu Mindfulness

What an interesting past few days it has been for me, starting with a Christmas break in Krakow, Poland, and a mindfulness seminar at the MAIN project in Middlesbrough which included an impromptu element.

As you may remember, my previous blog entry was about the magic of steam trains at Christmas. Something else that is often a wonder at Christmas is the atmosphere of a Christmas market in a medieval town square. For the past four Christmases now, I have had the pleasure of experiencing a Christmas atmosphere in a major European city, including in Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels and most recently, in Krakow, the former royal capital of Poland and home of the European Union's largest medieval town square. All four European Christmas breaks I have had have been beautiful, but here was something extra special about the Krakow Christmas experience. As well as simply just seeing Krakow at Christmas, I also felt that I got to sample a traditional Polish Christmas through a Christmas-themed tour of the city.

Christmas markets in Krakow's historic town square
Krakow's town square, with its elegant renaissance-style Cloth Hall at the centre and the imposing gothic facade of St Mary's Church in the corner from where a bugle called is played from the top of it's tallest tower on the hour every hour (which is broadcast on Polish national radio), as well as a historical monument, is also a vibrant centre of present-day commercial activity. The seasonal lighting, colours, scents and sounds that the Christmas market brings to the square also makes it a pleasant multi-sensory experience. On the Christmas tour, I was introduced to the colours of hand-made Polish-style nativities (szopka) on display during the annual Szopka competition held in the town square. The highlight of the tour though was getting to sing Christmas carols in Polish, including the following, which translates to 'glory to the heavens above and to the earth below':
A brightly-coloured Polish-style nativity (szopka)

Chwala na wysoksci (Hva-wah nah vee-sokosh-chee)

Chwala na wysoksci (Hva-wah nah vee-sokosh-chee)

A pokoj naziemi (Ah po-kooy nah zhe-mee)

Another multi-sensory experience I had after returning home from Poland was at a seminar on Asperger's Syndrome and mindfulness techniques I gave at the MAIN Project in Middlesbrough. In addition, I also experienced giving a seminar outside my comfort zone, which involved giving a presentation without the aid of Powerpoint slides! Sometimes, seminars deliver more for both the audience and the lecturer than was expected or prepared, and this one at MAIN was an example.

I didn't realise that I had had a full day allocated for me to give some training, so I had only prepared enough material for a morning session, which consisted of an introduction to mindfulness as well as how it may actually feel to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome. To imagine what it may be like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome for someone not on the autistic spectrum can involve coming out of your comfort zone. However, something I realised when giving a seminar about coming out of your comfort zone to practice mindfulness was that I was stuck in the comfort zone of giving a seminar on something I was familiar with! What followed was another hour-and-a-half's session which I didn't realise I had, and didn't have anything prepared for! At one time, this would have been a panic situation for me, but by looking at it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness by coming out of my comfort zone and give a presentation not using a Powerpoint presentation and totally impromptu, added another dimension to the event.

Giving a seminar at MAIN in Middlesbrough
In the afternoon session, I co-ordinated a small group session where participants explored the relationship between Asperger's Syndrome and depression, looking at feelings one may experience when relapsing into depression, before exploring how such feelings can trigger certain behaviour and the looking at the consequences that can come from behaviour and how applying mindfulness through simple noticing can help one change their relationship with them, this giving more control over their actions. Something that I felt we all learned from this, including myself, is that individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, when relapsing into depression can then almost feel 'locked-in', when becoming obsessive about such thoughts and feelings, to the point where it becomes very difficult to work their way out of it, rather like being a mouse trapped inside a maze. With mindfulness though, together with applying patience and non-expectation, the route out of such a mental maze can hopefully appear clearer.

From my last workshop of 2013, I felt I learned more than I actually taught. This year I have also learned that travelling can also deliver more than what was perhaps intended when initially setting out, often when you may least expect it. I would like to sign off by wishing all readers a very Merry Christmas and all the best for New Year..

During my visit to Poland, I also found time to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, which continues to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust as well as a warning to humanity. May the estimated 11 million victims of the Holocaust continue to rest in peace. 

Monday, 9 December 2013

An Early Christmas Present - The Magic of Steam

There is something special about steam trains at Christmas, almost magical! One of my Asperger-related special interests which came to me at a very young age, and is shared by many other adults with Asperger's Syndrome I have met to the point where it has become a stereotype, is steam trains. When seeing a steam train arrive at the platform I still feel just the same as I did when opening a present of a train set as a child on Christmas morning.  

Once again, this year, I have had an early Christmas present of a steam-hauled train journey from Newcastle to London Kings Cross on the Tynesider Special hauled by Class A4 Pacific 4-6-2 60009 Union of South Africa. This journey was special for me as it was the first time that I had gone the full distance down the East Coast Mainline steam-hauled, after having been up and down this route numerous times on more modern traction.

60009 Union of South Africa in Newcastle
Arriving at the platform at Newcastle Central Station during the early hours when it was still dark with old-fashioned carriages, Union of South Africa's entrance into a station dominated by more up-to-date rail traction including Virgin Voyager trains was atmospheric, arriving in a cloud of smoke with its accompanying steam sound. With the station lights on in the background and Christmas decorations in its old-fashioned carriages, the Tynesider Special almost looked like a magic train bringing Santa Claus down from the North Pole!

More than simply a journey, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome and also from a mindfulness perspective, a steam-hauled journey is also a sensory experience. Unlike on a normal modern train, as a passenger on a steam-hauled train, because in this day and age it is not obviously the norm to travel by steam-hauled train, one gets in touch with the with the distinctive sounds made by the locomotive, the smell of smoke and also, a feel of the gradient profile of the line. Whereas one is largely oblivious to gradients on a railway line when travelling on modern traction with modern suspension systems, including tilt trains, when going up steeper gradients on a steam hauled train, it can be quite a drama hearing the locomotive working hard and giving off huge clouds of smoke and exhaust steam, almost like a marathon runner taking longer breaths while working hard in getting up steep inclines of the route. So having been up and down this route numerous times, I haven't felt I have known the East Coast Mainline in such finer detail until now.

On the footplate!
As a passenger, you can almost feel a 'sigh of relief' when the train succeeds in going over a steep gradient as well as a sense of freedom when coming down a bank. Enthusiasts kept a close eye on their speedometers when Union of South Africa came down Stoke Bank, where fellow A4 Pacific LNER 4468 Mallard famously broke the official world record for steam traction, reaching 126mph on July 3rd 1938. When the train reached King's Cross, I had a special experience! After getting off the train to shake the driver and fireman's hands, to my surprise, I got to experience a childhood dream when they let me come onto the footplate! The train was diesel-hauled back to Newcastle, allowing me to spend some extra time in London, including visits to the Science and Victoria & Albert Museums.

Apologies if I have gone on too much about trains in this blog reverting to the Asperger tendency to go off on a tangent about a special interest, so I guess now is the time to change the subject. Meanwhile, back at Autism Works, as some may have already seen on Facebook, we have entered into a formal partnership with Socitm, who will be marketing our services under our trading name see:detail. Socitim is the professional body that represents people involved in the leadership and management of IT and digitally-enabled services for public benefit. Socitim's CEO Adrian Hancock is particularly optimistic about not just providing exceptional service in software testing, but also enabling Socitim to further fulfil its mission in embedding social value into public and private sector supply chains. Additionally, this could also be an opportunity for Autism Works to raise awareness of autism and Asperger's Syndrome through supply chains, enabling awareness with mainstream employers across all sectors, not just within IT.

More updates will follow as to how this partnership develops via our social media feeds.

Special thanks to driver David Blair and fireman Neal Woods for letting me come onto the footplate on 60009 Union of South Africa and to the Railway Touring Company for their hospitality.

RIP Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013. One of my favourite quotes from his long walk: 'After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb'. Let's hope Mandela's inspiration will encourage us to climb these hills.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Summit Success and New Book

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works! Sorry about the lengthy absence between now and my last post, but to say that I haven't been pre-occupied with other things would be an understatement! But the big news since my last post is, as some may already have seen via the social networks, is that I successfully managed to complete the second part of my double challenge to raise much-needed funds for the Daisy Chain project by reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak at 5895m!
Going through rainforests

After a week of trekking through some of the most variable sets of micro-climates I have experienced on a trek, from the sweltering heat of rainforests to mist-shrouded lava fields as well as sleeping in temperatures of lower than -10 outside, I began my summit attempt at 12.00 midnight the previous evening. What often makes mountain treks a challenge is that they are a big step outside your comfort zone, thus a good opportunity to practice mindfulness, but the Kilimanjaro summit attempt is a further step outside your comfort zone in that you are trekking in temperatures lower than -10 and in total darkness!

Magic moment - at Uhuru Peak, summit of Kilimanjaro (5895m)
Trekking in total darkness was a huge step into the unknown for me, but it worked in my favour. Aspects of life that as a person with Asperger's Syndrome I have experienced difficulty in coping with are doubt and uncertainty. Facing up to them during such challenges has enabled me to cope much better with them than previously. During a mountain trek, doubt can creep into the mind as to whether or not you can complete the challenge just by seeing the height and distance ahead. When trekking from 4650m to an eventual 5895m in total darkness with only a head torch to light the immediate way ahead, I couldn't see just how high I would be going! This helped me to stay focused on the immediate way ahead of me, and after trekking for eight hours, I reached the summit at Uhuru Peak and 8.00am in the morning.

Lion in Ngorongoro Crater
Coming back down from the summit was also challenging where I had to be much more careful with my footing stepping on scree brought down the mountain by melting glaciers. Still being dressed in multiple layers as well as hand and boot warmers that I had put on for trekking in temperatures lower than -10, it was only on the way down after experiencing feelings of triumph and relief when reaching the summit, when I also began to notice that I was 'toasting' after the temperatures shot up after the sun rose. After the journey to and back from the summit, I went on a safari through the main game parks of Tanzania including Lake Manyara, Tarangire and the Ngorongoro Crater. The safari was an experience that was just as memorable, seeing a variety of animals in the wild, with the largest concentration of animals being in the Ngorongoro crater, the world's largest caldera (volcanically-formed crater). The herds of elephants, zebras and giraffes were spectacular against unmistakably African landscapes of grassland and Acacia trees. For me though, biggest thrill was seeing a family of lions in the crater. Kilimanjaro may be the roof of Africa, but for me, the Ngorongoro Crater is Africa's 'Garden of Eden'.

Giraffes at Lake Manyara National Park
As readers of this blog will know, the eight-day Kilimanjaro trek has been part of a much bigger journey over two years starting with training and fundraising activities for the 2012 Bupa Great North Run before focusing on Kilimanjaro, from which I have learned so much. It has had its ups and downs, but I have felt that by being with each moment during the journey, has enabled me to face up to each challenge as it has unfolded, rather like coping with being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and the life challenges that the condition can present.

Readers may also remember that in my previous post, I had another exciting announcement when I get back home, which is that I am publishing a third book in December! The title of my new book, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, is Mindful Living with Asperger's Syndrome: Everyday Mindfulness Practices to help you tune into the Present Moment. This has also been a work in progress for quite some time. Unlike my previous book, Asperger's Syndrome and Mindfulness: taking Refuge in the Buddha, this book is about mindfulness in a secular, rather than spiritual context, and includes some simple techniques and ways to integrate and apply mindfulness into daily life, including coping with ups and downs Asperger's Syndrome can present, such as stress, anxiety and depression, just by being with them, rather than resisting them or working against them. To find out more about it, click on the cover image on the right:

With funding falling within many autism charities, especially local charities, and the need for more access to services to both people and families affected by autism, which many charities formed by local champions have provided, there may well be another challenge out there somewhere for me, who knows? Stay tuned to see how this unfolds.

Friday, 27 September 2013

This Is It!

After months of anticipation and of extensive training - this is it! As I write this entry, I am shortly due to set out for Tanzania where I will attempt the part two of my double challenge to help raise much-needed funds for the Daisy Chain charity, which is to hopefully reach the summit of Africa's highest peak and the world's highest free-standing mountain Kilimanjaro at 5895m!

At Daisy Chain's centre, Norton, Stockton-on-Tees
As readers may remember, the first part of my double challenge was to complete the 2012 Great North Run, which was a huge step outside my comfort zone, having never previously attempted a half-marathon. Though I have feel I have had some good experience and recent practice for what I can anticipate I will likely experience when attempting Kilimanjaro with my trek to Everest Base Camp and more recently, the Laugavegur trek in Iceland, where it will also be another huge step outside my comfort zone is that it will be my first time in Africa, so the cultural experience will be a huge step into the unknown for me.

Through both the physical activity and mindfulness practice, I have found that coming out of my comfort zone, whether it is assuming a physical position I am not used to when practising yoga, visiting a place that is new to me or undertaking an activity with people I am not familiar with, it helps to reinforce how I cope with aspects of Asperger's Syndrome, including confusion, stress and anxiety. Also getting to know different people and their outlook on life on a trek in a different, and often extreme environment, I have found has been really good for my continual development of social skills. What makes a group trek so conducive to development of social skills for a trekker with Asperger's Syndrome is that each day is a new start and a new and different challenge, so if you make a social mistake or say the wrong thing one day, fellow trekkers tend to 'move on' from it the next day.

Ultimately, what mountain treks and other related activities can teach us is how to take care of ourselves in extreme environments and situations. Testing human ingenuity in extreme environments from the north and south poles to the Moon has been known to aid innovation. For me, it has helped to reinforce coping skills of being able to adjust to different situations as well as constantly changing climates, both mentally and practically, including knowing what clothing to wear and necessary equipment to have. Such approaches have helped me with independent and coping skills in normal life, including making the best possible use of resources available, including situations where solutions to a problem of ways of coping can't be 'bought'.

Plaque depicting Robinson Crusoe, Hull
One of my favourite stories as a child, and one that partly inspired me to seek adventure, along with various NASA space missions, was Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. In later life, I learned that this story was used by Karl Marx in his work Das Kapital to illustrate economic theory, where money only has value and use where it can be exchanged for goods, which can't be done on the uninhabited island Crusoe finds himself shipwrecked on as there is no commercial activity, so the gold that he rescues from the shipwreck has virtually no value and instead the tools and materials that he saves from the wreck are more crucial to his survival e.g. use of sails and wood from the wreck to build a shelter. This concept is of great relevance to a mountain trek, where in many cases there is nowhere you can buy supplies from along the route, but certain items in your day sack that can't be purchased along the route will be of importance to coping with different conditions. In anticipation of how varied the conditions are likely to be along the Lemosho Glades route (the route I am taking), I have packed sun cream and hand warmers!

Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to see how part two of my double challenge for Daisy Chain unfolds and for another exciting announcement I have on return.

A huge thank you to all who have very kindly donated to my challenge, you have helped Daisy Chain raise over £1,000 which will make a huge difference to many families affected by autism. Donations can still be made via my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/ 


Friday, 13 September 2013

Ageing and Asperger's Syndrome, Zen and Drum Dancing

When we talk about autism and Asperger's Syndrome in general conversation, one of the areas we tend to focus on extensively is children and young people. Though we may also touch on issues that affect adults on the autistic spectrum, particular those that either 'hot-topic' or 'flavour of the month' such as employment and levels of awareness of autism within adult services, but what we often forget about is autism in later life, something we are all subject to.

At conference I attended at Newcastle University on ASC Lifecourse and Ageing this week, I was introduced to some research on how adults on the autistic spectrum are likely to be affected in later life, as well as how it also affects those around them, especially their immediate family. The themes talked about at the conference went even further than old age to something that inevitably comes to us all, death. Death and old age were two aspects of life, along with sickness that Prince Siddhartha saw when he was eventually allowed go outside the palace in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal, where after having been brought up with every advantage and luxury he could have had for the standard of his time, he realised that despite being a prince, sickness, old age and death would come to him also. But Prince Siddharta also saw a fourth sight, that of an ascetic (a contemplative monk or holy man), who had devoted his life to finding the cause of suffering. After feeling that he could also be released from suffering of being repeatedly born, Prince Siddharta decided to follow the ascetic's example, giving up worldly existence in pursuit of enlightenment, which, as traditionally the story goes, he eventually attained in Bohd Gaya, India, around 2,500 years ago under the Bodhi tree after which he became know as The Buddha, passing on his teachings.

Two-and-a-half thousand years later, values related to the Buddha's teaching still have much relevance to present-day life, in both a spiritual and secular context, including when it comes to coping with later life on the autistic spectrum. In a presentation on this theme, Hilde Geurts, a neuropsychologist at Amsterdam University, described how her research suggested that while adults on the autistic spectrum don't often experience much physical differences to people not on the autistic spectrum in later life, they are perhaps more likely to experience higher-level stress and anxiety, possibly related to worrying about how long one may have left to live. This is where tuning into the present through mindfulness practice, including meditation techniques similar to those practised in Buddhism, can help one make the most of their life, including in old age, by tuning into the present moment.

Throssel Hall, a Zen monastery in Northumberland
According to Buddhist teaching, particularly in the Zen tradition, everything exists together in a moment. In the context of a life narrative, including living with Asperger's Syndrome, individual moments and phases throughout one’s life continuum rarely occur in isolation, as the many individual moments and phases often have to happen not just for the next moment to happen but for one’s life to unfold as a continual now. Those who were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome later in life, including myself, will likely appreciate that certain events or periods in their life had to happen, such as depression, low self-esteem maybe had to happen form one to both seek and obtain a diagnosis. The moment-to-moment awareness emphasised in mindfulness practice, enables one to be present with each moment as it unfolds. The more we live in each moment as it unfolds, the more we can begin to open up to our life being a continuum, where each moment, good or bad, pleasant or difficult is absorbed into one continual moment. 
Inuit drum dancer Anda Kuitse

Earlier this year I found that even beyond the influence of Buddhism, becoming accustomed to living in the present can enable communities to make the most of now, including in Kulusuk, Greenland, from which readers may remember a description of in previous entries here. Life for inhabitants of the remotely-located Kulusuk on Greenland's east coast can be harsh, especially during winter. As a result, life expectancy is only around 50 years for many Native Greenlanders (Inuit). Similar to the Tibetans and Sherpas, who live in similarly harsh conditions, the Inuit have become accustomed to a 'living for now' mentality. During my visit to Kulusuk, Inuit drum dancer Anda Kuitse, who in his sixties had already outlived local life expectancy by a decade, performed a very powerful and inspiring piece called An Ode to Nature, in which he reminded us that we need not be afraid of nature as the present is the only time we have to live.

In the case of living with Asperger's Syndrome, I feel that whichever stage of our life we are at chronologically, the more we are present with each moment as it unfolds allows us to make the most of our lives in relation to the strengths and qualities that the condition may present, while opening up to some of the more difficult aspects, including depression. I look forward to continuing working with Newcastle University on this eye-opening and potentially important project as it unfolds.

I am due to fly out to Tanzania for my Kilimanjaro challenge in aid of the Daisy Chain project, supporting families affected by autism, on September 29th 2013. Donations can still be made at my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/ 

Elsewhere,at Autism Works we would like to pay our respects to those who tragically lost their lives during the 9/11 attacks as well as their families twelve years on.



Friday, 6 September 2013

Growing a Social Enterprise, Colour Coding and Monsters

With it being the holiday season, August tends to be rather a quiet month in many respects, hence the lack of activity here on Adventures with Autism Works. As some may have seen in blogging activity elsewhere on the Jessica Kingsley Publishers blog, my personal emphasis throughout the summer has been on continuing mindfulness practice as well with training for my upcoming trek to Kilimanjaro, which is now less than a month away. The arrival of September though has already brought some interesting experiences and developments.

This week, I have been across to Merseyside to give some training on mindfulness practice and Asperger's Syndrome to Wirral Autistic Society, an organisation similar in some ways to ESPA, who provide educational and residential services to adults on the autistic spectrum, including Asperger's Syndrome. It had felt like quite some time since I did my last talk, so I had wondered if I may come across as 'rusty', but largely thanks to a very understanding audience, I managed to find flow through the talk given in two parts, the first being around the relationship between Asperger's Syndrome and the effects of mindfulness, and then in the second, some simple mindfulness practice exercises.

Later in the day, I also got to hear Dean Beadle speak about his experiences of Asperger's Syndrome, which was highly entertaining, so much for any stereotypes that suggest people on the autistic spectrum don't have a sense of humour. Being ten years younger than myself, an advantage that Dean has is that he is closer to his childhood, including his school experiences than I am now. Despite the hardships he went through during these years, what I was so impressed with about Dean's speech was how he was able to recall it with such humour, as well as without laying blame to anyone from his past, even professionals who unofficially diagnosed him as a monster! Feedback from  the audience though suggests that that 'monster' has evolved into an inspiration!

Wirral Autistic Society Garden Centre at Bromborough Rake
Those who follow Autism Works on Facebook may recall various comments about extending employment and meaningful activities for adults on the autistic spectrum beyond IT. An encouraging sign that I was shown at Wirral Autistic Society that this is being taken into account is with social enterprise that they are growing in more ways than one - a garden centre that provides employment and meaningful activity opportunities for their service users The visit tied in nicely with what I was talking about as regards to noticing the effects of mindfulness practice which are more likely to take shape in plant time than in clock time. Such an approach can also be therapeutic for people on the autistic spectrum in a working environment. Gardening is an activity liked by many people with Asperger's Syndrome I have met as a garden provides a personal space for them in which to step back from the flow. In this way it is a good activity in which to practice and cultivate mindfulness, while plant cultivation takes place.

Colour-coded pricing system
From a practical perspective, the garden centre has also found that adjustments implemented and innovations developed to accommodate the needs of people on the autistic spectrum can also have benefits for those not on the autistic spectrum. to help accommodate aspects of autism such as visual thinking and need for routine, staff at the garden centre follow visual timetables, including colour-co-ordination, similar to the software testing flow diagrams on the office walls at Autism Works. An innovation that has helped customers when coming to the centre to buy plants is a colour-coding system for pricing of plants.  

Just like giving my first talk and workshop for quite some time felt, writing my first Autism Works blog entry has taken some effort, but once I find flow with something, it generally starts to come together and appear much clearer to me. Hopefully I will find flow for challenges and commitments I have in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to see how this unfolds.

I am due to fly out to Tanzania for my Kilimanjaro challenge in aid of the Daisy Chain project, supporting families affected by autism, on September 29th 2013. Donations can still be made at my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/ 

Friday, 12 July 2013

The Lindisfarne Gospels, Adult Badgers, Turtles, Snails and Geldard's Quiz

In what seems to have been an ever-eventful last few weeks, my latest instalment here on Blogspot sees me visit the theatre to find out about a funny thing that happened on the way to Durham before learning some interesting facts about animals, including snails, turtles and adult badgers. Back in the office, meanwhile, I am getting to grips with Salesforce, the cloud computing customer relationship (CRM) management product, to help with marketing Autism Works to potential clients.

Viktoria Kay, Robert Hudson and Chris Connel
To coincide with the visit of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham, playwrights have put together A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, a hilarious play with a touch of Terry Deary's popular series Horrible Histories to it, charting the gospels' origin to their journey from Lindisfarne to Durham to escape Viking raiders in the 8th century AD all the way up to the present. Starring Chris Connel, Viktoria Kay and Robert Hudson, who take on various roles within the show throughout 1,500 years of British history, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Durham, manages to do what William Shakespeare described as compressing years into an hourglass as well as combine education with comedy!

Various themes were used in sketches to describe key events in British history including a Brian Clough spoof of King Harold, with an arrow through his eye, describing how his tactics let him down at the Battle of Hastings and blamed fixture congestion of battles up at York and and at Stamford Bridge for the defeat by William the Conqueror and then the cast appearing under the guise of the Strollin' Bones rock band touring the North of England with the Gospels until the reached Durham! My personal favourite bits though were the Ken Dodd impersonations about how St Cuthbert went to the library to ask for a book about American Indians, and the librarian said: 'Do you have a reservation'!

With Ian Geldard, of Geldard's Quiz
What the audience and critics were most intrigued about though was how the Lindisfarne Gospels were equivalent in weight to an adult badger. At a quiz night, hosted by the highly entertaining Ian Geldard at the Salvin Arms in Spennymoor, County Durham, I learned some more quirky, though interesting facts about animals. As well as testing your knowledge, quizzes are also great for picking up knowledge. Geldard's Quiz format includes a round called the 'surprise round', which answers true or false questions, where the answers genuinely do spring a few surprises. from this round I found out that snails can sleep continuously for as long as three years and that turtles can breathe through their backsides!

Geldard's Quiz also ran a raffle to help raise much-needed funds for the Daisy Chain project courtesy of some generous prize donations by Sainsbury's, Morrison's and Saks Hair and Beauty. Ian, who delivered the quiz, also gives talks on autism from the sibling's perspective regarding his brother Mark who has autism and is also one of Durham County Council's youngest county councillors to add to his many talents.When I first heard Ian speak about his experiences of growing up with Mark, who has classic autism (at the more severe end of the autistic spectrum) it helped open me up to how autism, including Asperger's Syndrome, affects not just the individual on the autistic spectrum, but others around them, particularly their immediate family, and their perceptions. When growing up, Ian wondered why his brother had different food at meal times and why he went to a different school. The Geldard family are a huge inspiration to me as to how they make every effort to help Mark lead as fulfilling and as independent a life as is possible for him, despite the challenges that come along the way.

As shown by the Geldards, understanding within families affected by autism is important. Access to the right support for families can make a huge difference in enabling this. Of services that Daisy Chain provides is a group for autism siblings, where they can share thought and feelings, which can be accessed at the following link http://www.daisychainproject.co.uk/sibz In the meantime though, it's back to Salesforce.

Huge thanks to Ian Geldard for the raffle and also to Sainsbury's, Morrison's and Saks Hair and Beauty for their prize donations. Donations can still be made towards my Kilimanjaro challenge in aid of the Daisy Chain project, supporting families affected by autism. To find out more, you can visit my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/ 



Thursday, 4 July 2013

Midnight Sun, Returning to Earth Customs and Applying Compassion to Directness and Honesty

What a fascinating two weeks it has been for me and for a lot there is for me to write about this week, after taking some time to get used to customs on Planet Earth again after feeling like I had come back from Grand Tour of the Solar System trekking through Iceland's Laugavegur region. Coming back home, I attended a retreat and Dhamma talk by respected Tibetan teacher Chamtrul Ringboche on Inner Peace and Compassion.


Beautiful colours in Iceland's Laugavegur region
Those who have heard me speak or who are well versed in Asperger literature will likely be familiar with the extra-terrestrial theme in imagining you have landed on another planet and you don't know the customs or social conventions of its inhabitants, rather like how Mr Spock has difficulty understanding human courtship. This is how it may feel like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome. but as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I felt I experienced this coming back home after being away more so than having been in an environment outside my comfort zone! Not only was the landscape so other-worldly, but I also experienced a week without darkness with the Midnight Sun!

Geysers and lava flows



The smoking geysers in the sulphur hills could give a clue to what Enceladus may be like. What is the most surprising feature to many visitors to Iceland though is its desert landscapes, something one wouldn't expect to find in a land close to the Arctic Circle. The deserts, which are caused by soil erosion resulting from glaciers melting courtesy of volcanic activity, including from Ejafjallajokull, which famous halted all air traffic for a while in 2010, reminded me very much of the surface of Mars. Trekking into an area of forestry towards the end of the route though felt like coming back home to Earth!

Taking on Iceland's Laugavegur trekking route was my second serious bit of practice in my bid to summit Africa's highest peak in October. Though not a high-altitude trek, it was both a demanding and thrilling experience in its own right, especially covering 24km on the first day crossing snow, ice fields, lava fields and volcano ash not to mention fast-flowing rivers! As well as trekking across different surfaces, what made the trek particularly exciting for me was the huge contrast in colours present in the landscapes created by a combination of glacial and geothermal activity and different micro-climates from bright sun, strong winds to heavy rain. coping with such change is a challenge to anyone, especially for people with Asperger's Syndrome, but what was a much bigger step outside my comfort zone was sleeping under a sky where the sun didn't set! Fortunately, there was plenty of rain during the evenings, the sound of which on the tent roof somehow aided my sleeping patterns.


Other-worldly desert landscape
After completing the Laugavegur trek, a total of 60km in four days, I felt like I had done a grand tour of the Solar System, seeing similarities in the landscape to images captured by space probes visiting distant worlds, with craters and lava flows being similar to Io, one of Jupiter's four largest moons with many active volcanoes, the glaciers similar to the ice surface on another of Jupiter's moons Europa while the flood plains reminded me of the images of the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, captured by the Huygens probe dropped by Cassini onto the surface of Titan in 2005. On its mission to Saturn, Cassini also spotted geysers erupting on Enceladus, another of Saturn's moons.



Kulusuk, Greenland
Though Laugavegur obviously doesn't match Kilimanjaro altitude-wise, what was good practice on this trek for Kilimanjaro was crossing different surfaces, including volcano ash, of which part of the Lemosho Glades route covers, including walking on an angle with the feet often sinking into the ash. While in Iceland, I was also fortunate enough to visit Greenland, where I saw yet another contrast, this time in lifestyle. we have a tendency to become very used to home comforts often relating to what we may expect from our living standards, that we may forget that there are places where such standards may be very different, and often much harder. This was very visible in Kulusuk, the village in Greenland I visited, where nothing other than moss can grow and where employment opportunities are very limited. Like the Sherpas and Tibetans, many native Greenlanders don't expect to live very long lives, so despite such harsh conditions, they become accustomed to living in the moment, including making as best use of the present that they can and by being happy in the moment.

Respected Tibetan teacher Lama Chamtrul Ringboche gave some helpful guidance on happiness during his public talk in Bellingham, Northumberland. Describing happiness as the essence of humanity, Chamtrul also said that a good foundation for happiness was compassion. I have spoken of how compassion can enable understanding Asperger's Syndrome, but when listening to Chamtrul's talk, it also occured to me that compassion can enable people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome to understand each other. What is still sometimes confusing with Asperger's Syndrome to me is an aspect that is often considered a strength is the directness and honesty. Because people with Asperger's Syndrome have a tendency to tell it like it is, it can sometimes falsely come across as bitter and twisted or even cold hearted, especially in one channel communication such as E-mail or when posting on social media. This is where applying compassion to both communicating and listening can help overcome such confusion, to help save someone's feelings as well as to understand that no harm is intended through directness and honesty. Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works for more on this theme and others related to it.

Donations can still be made towards my Kilimanjaro challenge in aid of the Daisy Chain project, supporting families affected by autism. To find out more, you can visit my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/ 
    

Friday, 10 May 2013

Mindfulness of Trekking in the Mist

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works after a fascinating visit to Cumbria with my colleague Dan Cottrell, who originates from this part of the world. From my last entry, you will know that I was due to set out for the Lake District for my first serious bit of practice in my bid to summit Africa's highest peak Kilimanjaro in aid of the Daisy Chain project by taking on England's highest peak, Scafell Pike (978m). I can happily report that the trek up Scafell Pike was both successful and above all, enjoyable.

As well as the often spectacular scenery, what has made mountain treks that I have had the fortune to experience so enjoyable has been the company I have done them in. Dan and his brother Ben, who joined us on the trek, were great company and clearly enjoyed the experience as much as I did, despite it being misty at the summit. What was interesting was the different individual challenges that the trek was for the three of us, and what we found about walking outside our comfort zone of walking on flat pavements and floors or going up staircases.
Lake Wastwater emerges beneath the mist

Ben, struggling with motor co-ordination being dyspraxic, initially found it difficult to get used to different walking techniques needed to go up some steep rocks. Remembering mindfulness of walking practice,  I suggested to Ben that it might help him to focus attention on each step rather than the distance to or height towards the summit, just by being with each step as you make it. When taught mindfulness of walking, the three aspects of the technique involve focusing on the lifting, moving and putting of each step during the exercise. When trekking though, because the terrain is often so uneven or slippery, in addition to putting an extra aspect to focus on is placing, bringing an awareness of where you are placing your feet with each step, including being wary of the gradient and surface of each placing, including stepping on slippery surfaces and also being aware of balance and gait. Awareness of when to adjust walking speed also helps.

At Scafell Pike summit with Dan and Ben
What we had anticipated from the weather forecast was that the conditions would be highly variable, which turned out to be the case. At the starting point, Wasdale Camp car park, the weather was quite warm, but as we gradually ascended, it started to become cloudier and windier while the temperature dropped. This is where the sensory aspect of trekking become noticeable, in how our senses cope with changing temperatures, including how our skin responds to colder temperatures.

Where mindfulness of walking helped particularly was on the way back from the summit. Trekking downhill is often harder on the joints, but it is often easier to slip over by stepping onto loose gravel when coming down! All three of us had different levels of tiredness when we completed the trek, but when I attempt Kilimanjaro in October, I will be doing this and more each day for ten days!

Including offline donations, my fundraising for Daisy Chain has now exceeded the £1,000 mark! A huge thank you to all who have very generously donated so far. To help further increase the total, I am looking at holding raffles locally, if I can hopefully obtain some generous prize donations. In the meantime, donations can be made online on my sponsorship page at http://www.justgiving.com/Chris-MitchellGNR/

Special thanks to the Cottrell family for their hospitality during my time in Cumbria, including to the frieddly family dog Tara