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 

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 

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