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.