Wednesday 27 March 2013

Scandinavia, Crossing the Road, Mindfulness and Pragmatism

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. This month the adventure has taken me to Scandinavia, where I have been delivering some seminars on Asperger's Syndrome and Mindfulness, including talking about how the effects of mindfulness practice enabled me to settle in when starting at Autism Works as well as also offering some simple mindfulness practice exercises, including mindful eating.

When describing what it is like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome, one of my favourite analogies I like to use is that of a Vietnamese motorcycle rider in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where you are not familiar with the local road rules or the road crossing conventions of the pedestrians, who are used to walking into the traffic when crossing the road. This month, during a visit to Copenhagen, Denmark, I saw the opposite, where pedestrians only cross roads at road crossings when the green light comes on, whereas sometimes in the UK when the red man is still on but there is no traffic and we cross the road.

Colourful houses at Nyhavn, Copenhagen
Chances are that Danish pedestrians may well be waiting all day long to cross the road in Hanoi or Saigon! However, the effects of mindfulness practice helps us to cope with coming out of our comfort zone and adapt to our surroundings, wherever we happen to be. A change of location also enables us to notice our habits more clearly. At the conference, as well as talking about how the effects of mindfulness practice enabled me to settle in when staring my role at Autism Works, in the practical workshop I gave later, I talked about how two aspects I like most about mindfulness are its simplicity and flexibility.

Simplicity and flexibility enable mindfulness practice to be accessible at just about any time of day, and enables one seeking mindfulness practice to fit practice around their schedule, however busy or chaotic, rather than shaping your schedule around it. Autisme Center Danmark, who organised the conference, very kindly game me some extra time which I could use to introduce simple mindfulness practices, as well as how to practice mindfulness within routine or habitual parts of our day, including brushing our teeth and eating. One of the practices I offered was mindful eating. If anyone reading this blog has done the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, they will be familiar with the raisin exercise, where you eat a raising very slowly. When I was first introduced to this exercise, something that I found was that when we eat, we don't often experience what we eat in full, perhaps because we are more concerned with satisfying our appetite. by taking the time to eat slowly and the allow digestion of when we eat, one gains an appreciation of its taste, texture and after-taste. As mindfulness practice can be built into and around busy schedules, in this way it is pragmatic. Similarly, a concept that originated in Denmark, Specialisterne, on which Autism Works is partially modelled, shows that Asperger's Syndrome can be applied pragmatically by applying its strengths and qualities to one's surroundings in a productive way that has benefits for the wider community. 

Statue of Tycho Brahe, Ven Island, Sweden
Another aspect of mindfulness one of the other speakers talked about was, using an image of a rough sea, was how there are many things that the eye alone doesn't see, but our other senses can pick up that we are often oblivious to. During my visit to Scandinavia, I found time to visit the Island of Ven, in the Oresund Sound between Denmark and Sweden, from where the astronomer Tycho Brahe observed the comet of 1577. Without the aid of a telescope, Tycho was able to determine by using a measurement not apparent when both our eyes are open, parallax, that the comet was further away from Earth than the Moon. Unlike the Moon, the comet of 1577 had no observable parallax, a displacement of an object's apparent distance when seen through two lines. Similarly, when we hold up a finger and observe it with our right eye closed and then closing the right eye and opening the left, its position appears to move, because each eye sees a different picture. Observation is how many people with Asperger's syndrome learn non-verbal social skills, observing how others do it.

On the subject of comets, some of us have been lucky enough to see Comet Panstarrs in our skies last week, though cloudy weather has made spotting it difficult with the naked eye. Panstarrs may not return for another 100,000 years, but if you missed it, don't worry, as there is another tailed visitor due to pass by in November, Comet ISON, which could possibly be brighter. Hopefully skies will be clear for the visit of ISON. 

Elsewhere, I am still training for my attempt to summit Kilimanjaro in October to raise much-needed funds for Daisy Chain To find out more visit my sponsorship page at To see how this unfolds, including planned events and adventures during the next two months, stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works.

Special thanks to Autism Centre Danmark for inviting me to speak in Denmark, for their wonderful hospitality and for giving me a truly memorable experience.

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