Thursday 18 December 2014

Happiness and Well-being at Christmas

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome who enjoys and appreciates the traditional message and values of Christmas, it saddens me to see how pressure and anxiety that has resulted from ever excessive commercialisation has contributed to making Christmas a difficult time for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Together with this, the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and happiness, have become ever more consumed by desire. Additionally, social isolation that many adults on the autistic experience, especially if they have no immediate family around them or are not close to their family can make one feel excluded from what is supposed to be a joyful time.

Recent trends such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Manic Monday have sadly not only made a mockery of the true meaning of Christmas through exploiting desire regardless of any harm that it can cause including heated arguments of customers competing for sale items leading fights breaking out to the extent that police have had to be called into supermarkets and stalls together with a customer being injured by a falling television set, but they have also extended problems that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can experience including high level anxiety.

Anxiety that a person with Asperger’s Syndrome experiences when entering a crowded shopping centre together with sensory issues can be problematic enough, as well as they can be for people not on the autistic spectrum. But another anxiety-driving force that can be a strain on people with Asperger’s Syndrome at Christmas is the pressure to buy Christmas presents, including anxiety driven by worry of what particular item to buy for a friend or relative or whether they will like what they give them.  When becoming constrained by pressure to buy presents, one can become lost with the anxiety that pressure brings that it is the thought that counts with presents and gifts.

Thought that goes into Christmas gifts helps to foster genuine friendships and social relationships, which starts through getting to know someone, a friend or relative, that you gain an appreciation of their likes and interest and they get to know and appreciate yours, knowing what makes each other happy, which can say a lot more about fashionable gift items with high-profile brand names that television and print adverts are forever screaming at us, almost trying to brainwash us, to go out and buy, even if it involves fighting and arguing over it on Black Friday. As well as buy gifts, it appears to me as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome that the commercialisation of Christmas is almost encouraging us to ‘buy’ friends, through’ impressing’ someone at Christmas with the last novelty item. It is well-known that many people with Asperger’s Syndrome not only feel that they have difficulty in forming friendships, but also difficulties in understanding the concept of a friend, including at Christmas where a genuine friend is someone whom you may give to and receive gifts from based on knowing each other rather than being taken advantage of by someone ‘acting’ as a friend for what they can get from you. A person with Asperger’s Syndrome who feels lonely at Christmas and who desires friendships or companionship may well be vulnerable to this.

By reflecting on the values that Christmas is supposed to be about, including generosity, goodwill and happiness, instead of an anxiety-driven frenzy, Christmas can become a time where people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel included, including their bringing personal happiness values to the meaning of Christmas, which can not only aid their personal development but can also be a time where the creativity that people with Asperger’s Syndrome can be expressed, including in using abilities and interests to make or create Christmas gifts.

Embroidered Christmas decorations made by Tara Kimberley Torme
A good friend of mine, Tara Kimberley Torme, who is also diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, enjoys embroidery, including making embroidered Christmas decorations each year, which  I have had the delight or receiving as an early Christmas gift. The personal enjoyment that Tara gains from the activity as well as the therapeutic qualities it appears to have for her gives me plenty of personal happiness as well as her, and I also get much out of appreciating the effort that goes into making such thoughtful gifts. Such joy and appreciation reflects well on others, almost like a gift of self-esteem and happiness of making someone's 'day' on which there isn't a price.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I find helpful at Christmas, especially with coping with desire and temptation induced by excess commercialisation, is to simply start by noticing what triggers temptation or feelings of low self-esteem over the Christmas period, so that you can notice what can lead to you becoming constrained by anxiety and depression. This can then allow you to balance triggers by focusing on personal values you may have that make you feel happy generally, not just at Christmas, not least because the traditional values of Christmas, including goodwill and generosity are just as relevant after the Christmas decorations have come down.

Though Christmas is a time when we think about either what we want or what to get for family and friends gift wise, it can also help us to remember what we already may have at Christmas and that one of the best gifts we can give is ourselves, including our time to those who may otherwise experience Christmas isolated or alone. To enable this, it helps to gain an understanding of personal qualities we may have through compassionate understanding,  so that we can give the best of ourselves to others at Christmas as well as realise and accept the personal values of others around us where possible, including personal qualities people with Asperger’s Syndrome can bring and where any creative abilities they have can flourish, enabling inclusion, which can be as great a gift as a novelty item.     

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Fayre and Paddington Bear

If you have been watching Michael Portillo's latest series of Great Continental Railway Journeys you may have heard him say when travelling on Europe's last existing commuter steam train in Poznan, Poland, that for a rail enthusiast, seeing a steam locomotive on a preserved heritage railway is like seeing an animal in the zoo, but seeing it run on the main line, doing what it was originally supposed to do, is like seeing an animal in the wild, where it is meant to be. Once again this year, I have had the thrill to ride on a mainline steam-hauled train, this time the Worcester Christmas Markets Express from Paddington.

Peter Pan Statue, Kensington Gardens
Within walking distance of Paddington Station, the statue of Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, in Kensington Gardens provides us with a little reminder that the delight of fascination and excitement that a child experiences when looking at what is around us often moves on with us into adulthood. Where I personally experience this is not only through the excitement of seeing a steam train arrive at the platform, but also through seeing how incongruous a steam hauled train looks in a major mainline station, surrounded by more familiar present day rail traction including high-speed pendolinos and sprinter units, a sight normally more common on model railways. With its old fashioned steam-heated carriages also giving off steam, a steam-hauled charter train in a present day mainline station almost looks like a magic train that has travelled forward in time to a familiar location but with unfamiliar surroundings, with the water cranes/columns that served them long since gone and the old-fashioned split-flap arrivals and departures boards long since replaced by modern LED boards.

60009 Union of South Africa heads the Worcester Christmas Markets Express
Hauled by an engine familiar to readers of this blog, 60009 Union of South Africa, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express took me through some lovely countryside and later brought me into contact with some interesting characters. Sir John Betjemen, the late former Poet Laureate, described railways as creating their own landscapes, which often blend in effectively with their natural surroundings. For me, steam trains can also create their own atmosphere with their sound and smoke. Giving off huge clouds of white smoke which could be seen flying past the carriage windows, Union of South Africa created a dramatic look to the surrounding countryside when the smoke shrouded the trees, reminding me of Peru's cloud forests, apparently from where a certain bear came from who was found by the Brown family with a suitcase and a jar of marmalade at the station from where my train journey started, and where he was named after.

Worcester Cathedral, overlooking the River Severn
The rhythmical sound of a steam engine while running together with its whistle is pleasant to the ear, but when the train arrived at Worcester's Shrub Hill station, while waiting for clearance to proceed to the depot to prepare for the return journey, passengers got a reminder that as well as provide power, steam technology also provides musical entertainment. While stationary, Union of South Africa's air compressors, which supply air to the breaks, made a sound like a calliope, almost as if one of Worcester most famous residents, the composer Sir Edward Elgar had orchestrated the sound composition himself! Born in Lower Broadheath, five miles from Worcester, Elgar's father owned a music shop at the end of Worcester's High Street where the young Edward Elgar grew up. A statue of Elgar (1857-1934) now stands near its original location. which overlooks Worcester's most famous landmark, Worcester Cathedral, founded the year 680, though its earliest existing features date from around the 12th century.

Friar Street, Worcester
Just like the steam-hauled train appeared to have moved forward in time to a world largely unrecognisable from its service days before motorways, the beautiful Mock Tudor architecture of Worcester's Friar Street appears to have almost stood still in time while the city's commerce and culture, as in most other towns and cities, have changed in and around it, bringing with it the usual chain stores, restaurants and cafes. Meanwhile, the former street names inscribed under the present day names serve as a reminder of city's medieval past as a city dominated by guilds. Along a very busy Friar Street, dominated by the sounds and scents of the Christmas market stalls, carol singers and troubadours, it again looks like another era in time has travelled forward to an unfamiliar world dominated by motorised road traffic.

With Paddington Bear at the railway station from where he got his name!
After enjoying the culinary delights of the Christmas market, the bells of Worcester Cathedral then reminded me that it was time for me to make my way back to Shrub Hill station for the journey back to Paddington. When I reached Paddington, to my surprise, I found that someone of the furry variety had followed me back from Darkest Peru! The smoke-shrouded countryside that I had seen on the journey to Worcester was a sign - Paddington Bear had followed me back to England in time for his new film coming out, after he had been back to Peru to see his Aunt Lucy! He said he managed to find his way onto the train hiding in Santa's sack, and he enjoyed the train ride though he was disappointed that they were service free mince pies rather than marmalade sandwiches!

60009 Union of South Africa at journey's end in Paddington 
There is something not just about railways themselves, but also their journeys that feed imagination, inspiring great works of art including the works of Terence Cuneo, literature with works like The Railway Children and poetry by the likes of W.H. Auden and Sir John Betjemen. Imagination fed by railway experiences has also been known to create delightful characters, including Paddington Bear himself. The different experiences that railway journeys bring, including the places that they take you, sights seen from carriage windows and the people you may meet on a railway journey and stories they have to tell. As well as a multi-sensory experience with the steam sound and steam heat of the train and the sounds and scents of Christmas in the markets, the Worcester Christmas Markets Express also felt like a journey through a set of time warps, going through the 1950s, to Victorian and Medieval times before coming back home to the digital age of the 21st century, and not forgetting the personal aspect of the journey from a childhood fascination that has continued with me through to the present.

A tribute to Phillip Hughes at New Road, Worcester 
RIP Phillip Hughes (1988-2014), who tragically died after being struck by a ball playing cricket for South Australia against New South Wales in a Sheffield Shield match in Australia. Hughes, 25, who had a spell playing for Worcestershire in 2012, will be a huge loss to both Australian and world cricket.

Monday 3 November 2014

South America Part 3: Lost Civilisation - A Visit to the Navel of the Earth, Easter Island

After visiting some of the most remote and uninhabitable parts of the South American mainland, it seemed appropriate to move onto Easter Island, the world's most remote human inhabited island. In an age of technology, including orbiting Earth observation satellites, there are very few uncharted lands or islands and there are certainly few unknown human civilizations or settlements now, if any at all. But even in the modern age, some parts of the planet are still thrillingly, and in the case of Easter Island, intriguingly remote.

I had decided very late to add Easter Island to my trip, when I realised that it was not only reachable from Chile's capital Santiago, but Santiago is the only place from where it can be reached directly other than infrequent flights from fellow Pacific island Tahiti. Even from Santiago, it five hours by plane. Realising that it might be a while before I am in Santiago again, if at all, I felt that I needed to take the opportunity to visit a such remote and very mysterious place and I was so pleased that I did for the fantastic experience I was to have.

Moai statues, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island
The first time I came across Easter Island was, when growing up, being interested in astronomy, for a time I had an obsession with UFOs and aliens and read about how it was once thought that the mysterious Moai statues on Easter Island were built by visitors from outer space! In relation to Asperger's Syndrome, not that I or my family knew it at the time, I also had a tendency to be very gullible, believing just about anything read or was told, including stories about UFOs, many which turn out to be aeroplanes, satellites or unusual cloud formations as well as that some of the world's great unexplained mysteries, including the Moai statues and the Nazca Lines in Peru, were the work of extra terrestrials.

However, now that I am older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am now able to appreciate and understand that such explanations often arise out of human imagination, when there isn't an immediate obvious or logical observation for statues on an island so remote from known human civilisation or patterned lines that only have a meaning from above. Visiting Easter Island though, I found out how geographical remoteness can influence the human conciousness, including how those who inhabit such a remote island see themselves in the world.

Ranu Kau Volcano, Easter Island
Long before Dutch sailors came across the island by chance on Easter Monday in 1722, hence the name 'Easter Island', a civilisation had been in existence for over a thousand years after the earliest known settlers are said to have arrived on the island in around 300-400BC from the Polynesian islands. The native name for Easter Island is Te Pitoote Hanua, which means the Navel of the Earth. Just like the navel on the human body arises and contracts as the breath comes in and out and maybe subject to physical sensations, the earth is subject to physical sensations, including volcanoes, how Easter Island was formed.

Birdman Cave Paintings
Understandably, being surrounded by endless-looking oceans with no land mass or other sizeable islands in sight, early inhabitants of Rapa Nui must have felt they were either at the centre of the world or that the inhabited world 'stopped' at the island, Easter Island's isolation allowed the rituals of its civilisation to continue relatively undisturbed for over a thousand years, including the annual Birdman competition (tangata manu) where partipants would swim to the small islands of Motu Nuti and sea stack Motu Kau Kau to collect the first egg from returning the sooty terns (manu tara). Winners of the Birdman competition would not only be entitled to gifts of food and other tributes, but the clan they came from would have sole rights to collect that seasons harvest of wild bird eggs. Seen from the perspective of modern health and safety standards, it was a dangerous event. Many participants died falling off cliffs, drowning and some were killed by sharks.

Moai carvings at the quarry at Rano Rakuru
The Birdman competition was eventually suppressed by Christian missionaries in 1860. Meanwhile, the 887 Moai statues in place on the island today have survived the ravages of time, though the effects time has had on them are visible. Carved from solidified volcano ash deposited in Rano Rakuru quarry and mounted on stone platforms, the statues were a form of ancestor worship. Their faces face inland to watch over and protect the people with a site at Ahu Akivi, apparently seven men waiting for their chief to arrive, being an exception. Closer inspection reveals a sophisticated social class hierarchy with taller the statues and the the higher the platform it is built on meaning the further up the class system those the statues were built in memory of were. Interestingly, some of the statues also have a hat or top-knot, carved from red ash from another quarry, to represent islanders who had red hair, which was considered sacred.

Sunrise at Ahu Tongariki
When civilisation on Easter Island was first seen by the Dutch sailors in 1722, who incidentally noted that some of the islands inhabitants had red hair, for its time it must have been like finding life on another planet and for the islanders, seeing a spacecraft arrive from another planet. for me, after travelling through the other-worldly landcspaes of Bolivia's Salt Flats and Chile's Valley of the Moon, which could easily be mistaken for other planets, I almost felt the same effect seeking out a lost and mysterious civilisation on an island so remote that its existence could almost easily have been over-looked. Though it remained unknown to the outside world for over a thousand years, mysteries still remain on Easter Island, including how its earliest settlers found their way to the island, curiosity of which keeps the mind active.

Special thanks to G Adventures for their wonderful hospitality again, to tour guide Kike Munoz and to Easter Island tour guide Mata'u for his passion for his people's history.        

Thursday 30 October 2014

South America Part 2: Walking on the Moon in Bolivia and Chile

As part of his role as Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, Marek Kukula's role involves visiting schools to give presentations on the subject. A question he is often asked is what is his favourite planet? When pupils may expect him to say Jupiter or Saturn, they get a surprise when he says Earth, just as I did when I had the privilege to hear him speak at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland two years ago. On the next part of my South America adventure going into Bolivia and northern Chile, passing through a diverse range of spectacular landscapes, I could see why the planet we live on is Kukula's favourite!

A rainbow halo around the Sun seen over Lake Titicaca
One of the many reasons why Earth is Kukula's favourite planet is because of such diversity of landscapes and also that, still to human knowledge, not only is it the only planet known to support life, but supports life in a variety of different shapes and forms from plant and animal life to microbiological life forms. When crossing Lake Titicaca, South America's deepest lake on the Peru-Bolivia border, I was met with another reason for Earth to be one's favourite planet, how the elements within its atmosphere interact with the light from its star, the Sun can produce such beautiful sights in the sky. As seen in the Sacred Valley, such interaction produces rainbows, but at Lake Titicaca, I was fortunate to see something much rarer, a rainbow halo around the Sun! This optical phenomenon is created when sunlight shines through ice crystals in the atmosphere, with the crystals acting like prisms, both reflecting and refracting the light to create the shape.

On the surface, the interaction of physical elements together with the obvious abundance of liquid water together with variation in temperature and climate combine to create a diverse range of dramatic natural landscapes that are also found on other planets in the Solar System, something which I saw in action in Bolivia and northern Chile, a relatively small geographical area in Earth terms. I started my journey through other-worldly landscapes with Bolivia's Valley of the Moon, a short drive outside the country's largest city and unofficial capital La Paz in which I saw a landscape of tall spires comprised of clay that many thousands of years ago formed the bottom of a lake that eventually dried up, a little reminder that South America's tropical glaciers may likely disappear within the next 30 years and what the whole planet Earth may look like if its seas and oceans evaporated.

Salar de Unuyi at Sunset, Bolivia, note the distinctive polygon shapes
The next adventure though, crossing the Salarde Unuyi, the world's largest salt flats, in Bolivia was special. Effectively a vast white desert made out of salt, when I arrived at Salar de Unuyi, I felt like I had landed on another planet after just having visited one of its moons! Just like within a lot of human activity, including art and architecture, within nature there are many patterns. Both patterns created by human activity, the salt piles for salt production, and patterns formed by nature, the polygon shapes are visible on the flats. Whereas as humans we like patterns for decoration, consistency or in my case in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, to enable predictability, in nature, patterns unfold as they are meant to, sometimes with distinctive shapes as shown in the polygon patterns on the Salt Flats. These beautiful patterns, which could almost easily be mistaken for human art, form as a result of the concentration of different elements present in the flats including lithium, magnesium and potassium.

What very fascinating to me from a mindful noticing perspective is how landscapes respond to its surroundings, including its response to sunlight and changing weather conditions. naturally white, the salt flats can appear a dark yellowish colour at sunrise and sunset and light blue during twilight hours. During rainy season, the flats flood, forming a natural mirror which reflects the sky. When not attempting photographic stunts with toy dinosaurs or bottles of wine as many visitors to Salar de Unuyi find themselves immersed in, the vast open space and emptiness of the salt flats being away from distractions is enough for one's mirror neurons to turn towards them. Staring by noticing the effects of nature on landscapes as they arise and fade, when we turn the quality of this noticing towards us it becomes much easier to turn to and notice our inner thoughts and feelings as they arise and fade, including noticing how little attention we pay to them and how we may have a tendency to act on them when we are least aware. The emptiness started to fade when approaching Isla Incahuasi, a rocky outcrop in the centre where giant cacti grows and where coral like structures and fossils are present, again showing the continual now of the ever-evolving process of how the salt flats formed, being a deposit of a lake where living coral was present that dried up and how multiple different lifeforms evolve adapt to ever changing conditions, with the cacti having developed to grow with efficient water use.

Sand dunes in the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Chile
After Salar de Unuyi, the next dramatic landscape I visited was Chile's Atacama Desert, home of another Valley of the Moon. Coming from the vast white emptiness of Bolivia's salt flats, the blood red sand dunes, lava domes together with the Licancabur Volcano in the background were a complete contrast. Again, it was like visiting another moon. As well as a complete contrast from Salar de Uyuni, it was also a totally different landscape to the Valley of the Moon I had visited in Bolivia, though they have something in common with how they get their name having been visited by Apollo Astronuats Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who would famously become the first humans to walk on the Moon. Chile's Valley of the Moon not only has features in common with the Moon with its dusty dunes, but also has features in common with Venus with lava domes and Mars with its wind-shaped rock formations.

Sunset over the Atacama Desert
Through a visit to Chile's Valley of the Moon, one can almost have a tour of the inner Solar System without leaving Earth, with the only obvious absence being the atmosphere and weather systems of these three very different worlds. While watching the Sun set over the Atacama Desert, it came home to me about my own and general living existence after seeing deposits of many different elements, including elements present that make up the physical form of the human body, that in contrast to what we say about when we are born we 'come into the world', in accordance with Zen thought, it is more so that we come from the world, from the elements it is made up and in accordance with Hindu death customs as in nature, we go back to when we die. Potassium, sodium and magnesium present in the salt flats which are also present in the physical make-up of the human body and many other elements necessary for life in any shape or form to exist  of enabled by conditions that result the right amount of light and heat given out by the Sun, For the Sun to give out the right amount of light and heat, it must eventually die, another reminder that nothing is fixed or permanent.

Showing the effect of the sunlight on landscape, a dark colour during daylight (top), Licancabur turns red at Sunset (below)

Part 3, the concluding part of my South American Odyssey, will follow soon.


Monday 27 October 2014

South America Part 1: Coca Leaves, Orchids, Micro-climates and Macchu Picchu

After being blown away, including in one instance almost literally by Patagonia's winds, during my first visit to South America, I made a point to return to the continent at some stage after feeling that my first visit had opened me up to a whole new part of the world, with plenty of new experiences to be sought. As I have found from previous adventures, sometimes the location delivers much more than the trip notes, and in this way, my second visit to South America certainly did not disappoint.

Starting in Peru, I embarked on the Inca Trail after visiting Cusco, the former Inca capital, to acclimatise to the altitude. Trekking through nature while passing historical ruins was a fascinating experience. For me, trekking is a good way to practice mindfulness of walking, through noticing the sensations from each step along the path while simultaneously opening up to and noticing the climate and conditions around you. Together with coca leaves, that many living in the Andean region chew on to make up for the lack of oxygen in the high altitude and a favourite with tourists, opening up to the air around you while bringing attention to the breath can help adjust to the high altitude, including taking deeper breaths where possible, enabling as much oxygen to reach the heart as possible.

An orchid in bloom along the Inca Trail
Focusing on the sensations experienced in the present helps one to tune into the present moment, but at the same time, much of the present day trail, which runs through the region known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is of original Inca construction, chronologically over 500 years old in some parts. Walking along the paths used by the Incas, including the Inca runners who relayed messages in the form of rope patterns between settlements, one can either almost feel that time has stood still along the route with the distinctive shapes of the terraced Inca settlements having survived intact or with the absence of inhabitation, the legacy of a civilization long since lost within time. But when one focuses attention to the bloom of the present moment, including noticing the variety of orchids in bloom along the route, the notion time compromised of past, present and future interweaves into a continual now, where on closer inspection, the effects of time brought by both human activity and the every alternating micro-climates in the region can be seen.

Rainbow Bridge across Sacred Valley of the Incas
Within close proximity of the Sacred Valley are three different environments including the high altitude of the Andes through which the trail runs, the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin towards the East and towards the west the cloud forests, forests shrouded in mist. Whereas in the rainforests the competition among interlocking trees is for sunlight, in the cloud forest the competition is for soil, Peru's cloud forests are also home to the spectacled bear, South America's only species of bear. From this, I found out where 'Darkest Peru' is, from where Paddington Bear came from before finding refuge with the Brown family at 32 Windsor Gardens in London! Each micro-climate in the region brings its own weather, which brings constantly changing weather conditions from bright sunshine to wind and rain, which also brings its effects with it that have been known to play upon human imagination, including producing spectacular rainbow bridges across the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Rainbow bridges were believed by the Incas to connect the living world with the spirit world high up in the mountains, where the souls of the deceased resided, similar to the Viking belief that they connected the living world with Valhalla.

Winaywayna Inca Settlement
It is well-known that many people with Asperger's Syndrome struggle to cope with change, one of the reason why I take on such challenges. In recent years, I have found that by facing up to constant change through being present with it helps me cope more effectively, whereas resisting can lead to high-level anxiety. More recently, I have begun to notice that through facing up to such constant change also helps to notice and open up to thought patterns, which like the Sacred Valley's micro-climates are constantly changing. Observing the terrace formations in the Inca settlements, one is reminded of how sustainability of a civilisation can be enabled through working with physical landscapes and local micro-climates, through adapting to and making use of them. The terraced formation in the Inca settlements not only blends effectively into the mountainous landscape, but also allows for different micro-climates with different amounts of irrigation to take place in which a variety of different crops could be grown, including maize and sweet potato.

The Oh My God Steps
Like with other trekking challenges I have done, including Kilimanjaro, within the challenge itself are many different challenges, which can have effects on the mind, where sometimes the mind sees it differently to how it actually is. When trekking Kilimanjaro, the almost vertical-looking Barranco Wall is one such challenge. Towards the end of the Inca Trail is what are locally called the 'Oh My God Steps', a set of 50 almost vertical looking steps. Such sights can induce doubt in one's mind as to whether they can overcome such a challenge, especially after having done much of the hard work already!

The experience of a mountain trek has been described by some, including myself, as being analogous to one's life, a range of different sensory experiences over a period ranging from a few days to a few weeks together with ups and downs, both the physical ups and downs of the route together with the mental ups and downs experienced throughout the journey. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, a little reminder this brought home to me was how one is affected by the condition differently at different stages of one's life, as well as how one's relationship with issues that the condition presents changes, including finding ways of coping with it.

After overcoming the Oh My God Steps, I reached the Sun Gate from where Macchu Picchu can be seen in the distance. Whereas during the day, Macchu Picchu, being one of the world's great historical sites, is constantly busy and crowded with tourists, by the time I reached it, it was virtually deserted as it was nearing closing time, almost like it would have been when it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. After being able to see it so clearly, the following morning when I returned to explore its interior, it was hidden behind mist, which was another reminder of how our thought patterns alternate between being clear and clouded. Mindfulness though is simply noticing this and being present with it.


...and clouded

Part Two of my adventure will follow shortly - watch this space!

Friday 12 September 2014

Second Time Around, One in a Million - Great North Run 2014

The course was familiar, but the experience was different. Once again, the Great North Run was a great day out for participants and spectators alike. As with with each Greta North Run, there are many inspiring stories behind why participants take on the challenge and heart-warming stories about spectators coming out to cheer on family and friends as well as support the runners with cup of water and jelly babies. But in 2014, there was something extra special about it, not only was it won by a Briton for the first time in 29 years, but the event also saw its one millionth finisher cross the line.

From its relatively humble beginnings in 1981 through former Olympic Bronze medallist Brendan Foster's vision of encouraging public participation in running, when 12,000 runners competed in the first Great North Run, not only has it evolved beyond simply a local event to the world's biggest half-marathon as well as spawning a series of Great Run road races, but has also made huge differences to the lives of many, not just to participants who may have taken up the challenge in an attempt to benefit their health both physically and mentally but also the many charities that have benefited from the awareness and funds raised.

After having enjoyed the experience as a participant first time around in 2012 for the Daisy Chain Project, I was keen to do it again after I had summitted Kilimanjaro the year after for the same charity, feeling I needed an achievable challenge after such a feat to motivate me to keep up my physical fitness and mental well-being, after having learned in the past that it doesn't help to live in the past by picking out favourite times and moments, but rather by continuing to be active in a number of ways, in my case through reading, writing, mindfulness practice, physical activity, I find helps me to stay present in the moment by being with the experience as it unfolds, thus opening up to new and different experiences. 

Though as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, reflecting common descriptions of what many people with the condition, I do still find predictability and routine conducive to how I am but I do find variation every so often within routine and predictability stimulating. When applying mindfulness practice to doing an activity, task or physical exercise, including a set routine workout, it then becomes possible to open up to new experience by noticing the variations in sensations and bodily feeling. From such noticing, it then becomes possible to notice that each actual bodily experience of a regular activity, task or physical workout is unique, The routine and principal may be similar, but the experience, particularly at the sensory level, varies dramatically.
Then - approaching the last mile in 2012

And Now - Just after completing the run in 2014
As well as being motivated by previous enjoyment of participation in the event another of my goals of going in for it a second time was to be able to apply beginners mind to the experience, to see if I could still go the distance two years later as well as to provide a motivating factor for me to continue to practice and train. I felt I by getting touch with beginners mind regarding mindfulness practice during my ten-day silent Vipassana retreat helped me to open up to a different experience at Great North Run 2014 at a sensory level. During my first time, I felt that the encouragement from the crowd was the main factor for me being able to complete the 13.1 miles successfully, but second time round, while the crowd encouragement again helped as it undoubtedly did for the thousands of other runners, I felt it was more so personal confidence that I felt came within at the start once I got going, which I was able to maintain physically for the full 13.1 miles.

Though Mo Farrah finished first and did Britain proud, for me, the real winner at the Great North Run each year is the event itself. All the way from the elite runners, those going for a personal best time, those looking to just to complete the 13.1 miles and lets not forget those out for a bit of fun in fancy dress, the Great North Run is an event that participants can both experience and enjoy at their own physical level and as well as in respect of their individual circumstances. Each individual runner has a story to tell as to why they are going for it, including those doing it in memory of a friend or relative. It was therefore fitting that the one millionth finisher, Tracey Cramond from Darlington, was doing it to achieve the 13.1 miles for the Butterwick Hospice in memory of her late mother. 

Now let's sign off with a bit of local pride! First of all, the other winners at the Great North Run are the fantastic and very supportive crowds, who each year put the 'Great' in the Great North Run and secondly, the event has achieved one million finishers ahead of some rather illustrious places - London, New York and Sydney!

This year I managed to complete the run in two hours and eight minutes, two minutes faster than my first time in 2012. Running in aid of the National Autistic Society's Newcastle and Gateshead Branch, I have managed to raise over £150. A huge thank you to all who have donated, you are making a difference to many families affected by autism in the Newcastle and Gateshead area. Donations can still be made at 


Tuesday 2 September 2014

Trainspotting, Steam, the Settle and Carlisle and Eccles Cakes

The stereotype of Asperger's Syndrome and trainspotting is well-known, as is the stereotype of it being largely a male-dominated pastime, but chances are that until recently, very few will have known that one of the hobby's pioneers was an 18-year-old girl, Fanny Johnson, who recorded train numbers from a station in London back in 1861, in what was effectively one of the first trainspotting manuals. The National Railway Museum's latest special exhibition shows that trainspotting, or 'railway enthusiasm' with reference to some trainspotters, including myself, preferring to be described as railway enthusiasts*, goes back to the fascination many developed when modern railways began with the Stockton-Darlington (1825) and Liverpool-Manchester (1830), far from being the post-war fad it is often described as.  

As well as being described as an Aspergeric subject for its structure, symmetry of the tracks and sleepers, timetables, colour/imagery, trivia/facts and general detail associated with it, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome I also find train travel very conducive to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, whereas I often find road travel on congested roads, particularly when I am driving myself, very stressful. Meanwhile, on a train, most of the time I can relax and on certain routes, watch and enjoy the scenery, something which I have recently had the privilege to enjoy on one of Britain's, and one of the world's, most spectacular railway journeys by steam, the Settle and Carlisle.

Taking on water at Appleby
Hauled by 60009 Union of South Africa, the Cumbrian Mountain Express started its journey from Carlisle before making a brief stop to take on water at Appleby before ascending towards Dent, England's highest mainline station at 350m above sea level and Garsdale, passing through some beautiful Cumbrian countryside and farmland. As readers of this blog may be familiar, 60009 Union of South Africa also hauled the Tynesider Special from Newcastle to London King's Cross last November. As with the East Coast Main Line route, I had previously travelled along the Settle and Carlisle route on modern rail traction. Again, though the route was vaguely familiar from
Beautiful Cumbrian Countryside
previous journeys, the experience of it by steam was different. Whereas with up-to-date suspension on modern rail traction, the traveller is largely oblivious to the gradient profile of the line, when travelling by steam, one can hear just how hard the locomotive has to work to ascend steep gradients, which is as for thrilling for passengers as the scenery. When ascending Ais Gill summit, the highest rail summit in England at 723m, one can almost hear the fireman's sigh of relief!

Crossing Ribblehead Viaduct
The highlight of the journey for me though, and many fellow passengers were in agreement, was crossing the celebrated Ribblehead Viaduct. Practically a pilgrimage spot for photographers and railway enthusiasts alike, one of the first sights that passengers on s steam-hauled journey along the route see in the valley below just before crossing the viaduct is numerous tents, pitched by those keen to get a sight of the steam train crossing the 440 yard long structure's 24 arches. More than simply a photographic icon or an engineering monument, Ribblehead Viaduct and its remote location between three peaks, Whernside to the north, Ingleborough to the south and Pen-y-Ghent to the east also has a poignant side regarding those who built it between 1870 and 1874. Subjected to harsh weather and dangerous working conditions, it was said that, on average, at least one life was lost per week working on the viaduct together with many other workers (navvies) succumbing to epidemics, including smallpox, that ran in the shanty towns that grew up around the construction site. Tributes are paid to the more than 200 people known to have died during the construction through a monument in St Leonard's Churchyard, in nearby Chapel-le-Dale.

Being able to enjoy spectacular natural scenery from the relaxed environment of a train is just one of many advantages of rail travel, more of which are becoming apparent with certain modern day conveniences. Christian Wolmar, railway historian and writer, in a talk at Morpeth Town Hall described railways as being well-placed to take advantage of current travel habits and preferences, including being able to access the internet via mobile devices while on the move. Wolmar also said that though an advantage railways also have in the UK all-party support from politicians, one of the main questions that politicians have regarding railways is will they pay for themselves? In reality, railways rarely pay for themselves financially, but they can potentially bring many social benefits that balance sheets can't measure, including reduced road congestion. Another social benefit that I personally railways can bring regarding travelling to work is through feeling less stressed when arriving at work unlike the stress one may face driving through rush hour travel. This can then also become a commercial benefit as lower level staff stress is likely to lead to higher productivity.

60009 Union of South Africa at Appleby
Another factor that has enabled the position that the UK's railways are in to accommodate changing travel preferences and habits is that certain routes, including the Settle and Carlisle, that could very easily have been closed have remained open to serve as important commuter routes as well as pleasure journey. Another example is the West Highland Line that runs from Glasgow to Mallaig, which includes the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. Both routes have remained open partly due to steam-hauled tours, an old-fashioned form of railway traction that I personally feel still has a role for today's railways. Without these lines, places like Dent, Garsdale and Mallaig would be largely isolated.

Many thanks again to the Railway Touring Company for their hospitality on board the Cumbrian Mountain Express.  

Tea and Eccles Cake, the perfect snack for a steam-hauled journey!
*A reason why I prefer 'rail enthusiast' is because my personal interest in railways isn't just about the trains, but also the places they serve, railway architecture, their technology/innovation, and their history, including their social benefits such as enabling Eccles Cakes to be enjoyed beyond Eccles, Lancashire.


Thursday 14 August 2014

Silent Insight and Subtle Sensations

As both a person with Asperger's Syndrome and one who practices mindfulness techniques, though I find myself operating outside my comfort zone on a regular basis when trying to make sense of the social world or when taking up different postures in mindfulness-related exercises, at the same time I feel that both my Asperger traits and mindfulness practice can create a comfort zone 'within'. To help notice what I felt was creating a comfort zone within me, I undertook a ten-day Vipassana retreat at the Dhama Dipa Centre in Herefordshire.

Dormitories, Dhama Dipa
In the Pali language spoken in ancient India, Vipassana means insight into the true nature of reality, put simply how it is, including ever changing. Based on the methods of SN Goenka (1924-2013), a Vipassana retreat is taken in noble silence and no non-verbal communication such as facial gesture/expression or eye contact is permitted either. The purpose of noble silence is to free one of distractions, enabling one to gain insight into and to help purify the mind, being able to experience who you are as you are. Most of the time, our mirror neurons, the parts of our brain which according to neuro-scientists observe the actions of others for us to replicate are focusing on what is happening around us, so we miss much of occurs within us, including in the mind and body. In the absence of communication, except for logistical questions and interviews with the teacher, our mirror neurons that are normally focused on how others are communicating, are turned towards us are turned towards us.

In relation to the confusion that I experience with non-verbal communication, I found this arrangement conducive to my experience of the retreat, as I felt it freed me from such confusion which can sometimes lead to anxiety, and thus a distraction. What is also just as confusing for me and for many other people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome is the effect that our own body language is having on others around us when we are often least aware. Where this becomes a source of anxiety is that one can't often be sure of how others feel about them, and can be a bit of a shock is something thinks that we are 'not paying attention' through lack of eye contact or are being intrusive through prolonged eye contact.

Initially, I had set out to do this retreat to make a fresh start with meditation practice. Though I have practised meditation for almost ten years, and though one of the purposes of meditation and mindfulness practice is to come out of your comfort zone, what I had been finding of late was that the approach to routine that I had built up around my personal practice was having the reverse effect of creating a comfort zone, as well as building up anxiety over not having practised yet or should I or should I not meditate today. Courtesy of these effects I had been experiencing, I felt that a 10-day Vipassana retreat with continual practice sessions and experience of meditation not necessary would enable me to start from a beginners approach and would give me the continuity to grow into the practice, allowing any effects, including physical sensations, to unfold as they naturally occurred.

Meditation Hall, Dhama Dipa
After focusing on an area around the upper lip and the tip of the nose for the first four days, participants on Vipassana retreat are the instructed to expand awareness throughout the body starting with the top of the head. While noticing sensations at the physical level, participants are also instructed to use the breath as an anchor of awareness on which to refocus awareness each time the mind wanders. When gradually expanding awareness throughout the body after the first four days, I began to notice so many more physical sensations, including many very subtle ones that I rarely notice normally. From this, I gained an appreciation of how though the body takes up a limited physical space, there is so much various in the elements that it is made up of, including the four elements traditionally associated with Buddhism; Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Such variation in the texture of these elements allow for a huge degree of variation in sensations experienced at the physical level to arise and pass. Down to the atomic level, with there being no real such solidity, including within the body, sensations are passing through us all the time, but we can rarely notice them when our attention is directed to what goes on outside of us in normal life. Sensations that I felt I noticed particularly that are present in normal life but I am oblivious to include the sensation of blood flow and vibrations from the beating heart.

Walking area at sunrise, Dhama Dipa
Noticing physical sensations on a deeper level I also felt gave me insight into the type of attention that I have a tendency to give certain sensations and what I felt was creating a 'comfort zone' within my practice - avoidance. Whereas normally I have a tendency to avoid or resist sensations I find irritating or situations where I may likely experience such physical sensations, during the retreat I found that opening to different sensations during the three sittings of determination where participants are encouraged to to make any major changes to their posture for an hour allowed me to observe them, however awkward they felt. I felt I learned from this aspect of the retreat that avoidance can create comfort zones which can shield us from how we truly are, which can in turn lead to anxiety when one has to step outside this.

With awareness developed from continual patience and practice, one can eventually exert more control over the mind, enabling a person with Asperger's Syndrome to make their Asperger characteristics work for them rather than being controlled by them, including helping to notice and change the type of attention that they give to different bodily sensations, thoughts and avoidance tendencies.


Monday 16 June 2014

RIP Lorna Wing

The autism world has experience a huge loss with the passing of Lorna Wing, aged 85.  Within the field of autism, Dr Wing is recognised as being the first to coin the term 'Asperger's Syndrome'. More than simply just coining a term that is familiar to readers of this blog and followers of Autism Works, many to whom it applies to either as a person with Asperger's Syndrome or a parent/carer of a person with Asperger's syndrome, Dr Wing's pioneering work broke the mould as to how autism is understood, making a huge difference to the lives of many, including my own.

Dr Lorna Wing, 1928-2014
A psychiatrist and a parent of a daughter with severe autism, Dr Wing was founders of the National Autistic Society. Dr Wing became involved with autism as both a professional in an age when understanding of autism in the English-speaking world was largely based on Leo Kanner's original paper of 1944 that described severe autism, which Dr Wing's daughter, Susie, in Wing's own words 'fitted to a T'. With understanding of autism then being limited, it was assumed, including by many of the professionals of the day, that autism was caused by 'cold parenting' or parental neglect. On the contrary though, Dr Wing's compassionate nature as both a parent and in supporting other parents of children and young people with autism was one of the factors in this myth being broken.

Observing as a psychiatrist that there were far many more children and young people who displayed characteristics of autism but didn't fit Kanner's description. Rigorous research brought Dr Wing to Hans Asperger's original paper, then only available in German. With the help of a translation provided by her husband, Wing's 1981 paper in which she described the term Asperger's Syndrome not only broke the mould within the field of autism, but would make a huge difference of the lives of many, with the help that a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome can bring in terms of support (if it can be accessed) as well as the diagnosis enabling one to understand themselves.

Those who have heard me give a talk or workshop will likely be familiar with how I felt my Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis gave me, for the first time in my life a chance to not only understand myself in a much clearer way, but also I felt enabled me to make a personal assessment of myself as to where I could see where my strengths and weaknesses in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses can help with key decisions one makes in their life including with education and careers. But not only did my diagnosis enable this, but it also opened me up to a whole new world, which has seen me met many people whom I would not have otherwise met.

'Team Popcorn' at Kilimanjaro
Without Dr Wing's work, autism and certainly Asperger's Syndrome would be so much more poorly understood than it currently is. However, Dr Wing would likely have been aware that remains much work to be done in understanding autism, as NAS Chief Executive Mark Lever said at this year's NAS Professionals Conference, particularly how autism is portrayed in the media, often as 'suffering'. Not only do myself and many other people whom I have met with Asperger's Syndrome not see or feel that we 'suffer' from Asperger's Syndrome, but rather I see that diagnosis as an enabling factor in my life in that it has helped me to understand myself and be able to open up to theirs around me much more, and in this way I feel though I am able to understand how it affects others around me, including family and friends. Together with mindfulness practice, I have found that having an awareness of how my condition affects others around me has enabled me to open up more socially. like many other people with Asperger's Syndrome, I am often almost like an 'actor', in that were most of my non-verbal social skills have originated from is through observation rather than intuition.

Team building at Monkwearmouth
Dr Wing's compassionate nature obviously enabled her to give the best of herself to those close to her. As well as a compassionate nature towards others, a compassionate nature towards oneself can also help a person with Asperger's Syndrome in being able to relate to others around them, just simply by being able to recognise different personal issues and concerns and being able to relate them to their own. Holding different thoughts and feelings in awareness through mindfulness can help develop self-compassion, which also helps one to understand themselves, and once we understand ourselves, it gradually helps us to understand how we come across and affect others around us. For me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, this kind of understanding  I feel has helped me with social interaction and understanding, to the extent that I am able to enjoy the social aspect of taking part in activities as much as the activity itself, including hiking in a group of people, as experienced during last year's Kilimanjaro trek and the team-building exercise at the REACH event at Monkwearmouth.

With Tara Kimberley Torme, a gifted poet with Asperger's Syndrome
Without Dr Wing's work, I would have had many of the adventures I have had and met the people that I have met, including some very dedicated parents of people with autism, contrary to the stigma that Wing and many others in her parent group faced that autism was a result of 'cold parenting'. For that, I owe her and her long-time research partner Judith Gould so much. My very best wishes go to Dr Wing's family and close friends.

One of the many people whom my diagnosis led me to meet is Tara Kimberley Torme, whose poem provides a good description of Asperger's Syndrome. Click here to read it.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Back to School, New Starts and World Autism Awareness Day

An Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis can often be seen as a new start at the point of receiving it, particularly for those diagnosed later in life, including myself. In recent years though, something that I have got to appreciate though is that more than the day that you receive the piece of paper that says you have Asperger's Syndrome being a new start, but each day itself after that is a new start. Not least because your diagnosis will affect you for life situations that you are yet to experience. On World Autism Day, this was a message that I took back to school and also to the local authority as part of a delegation calling for action.

The delegation, organised by Carole Rutherford, a parent of two young adults on the autistic spectrum and co-founder of Autism in Mind (AIM), presented Sunderland City Council with a call for action for more integrated services for people on the autistic spectrum, regardless of where they are on the spectrum from the severe to those at the milder, and often more invisible, end. In providing such services though, provision must be looked at long-term, as like the effects of Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, the needs of adults on the autistic spectrum are not static, which is why to enable long-term focus it makes sense to look at each day in providing services as a new start. 
Monkwearmouth Academy, Sunderland

Next, it was time for me to go back to school! After having given talks, seminars and workshops on Asperger's Syndrome for 12 years, ahead of World Autism Awareness month, I received the request that I had been waiting for most of all, to go back to my former school, Monkwearmouth in Sunderland, and give a talk. The request came about after the SENCo at Moknwearmouth, Suresh Patel, by chance came across my first book Glass Half Empty Glass Half Full and got a surprise when he found descriptions of the author's time at the school. Now an academy, provision of special educational needs has really moved on with the development of an Additional Educational Needs (AEN) unit and also REACH Awards evenings, where pupils are given awards for overcoming barriers to achievement, unlike traditional school awards for best performance in certain subjects or for best grades.

With Suresh Patel, SENCo at Monkwearmoouth Academy, and
 some of the parents and awards winners who attended the evening
One of the original ideals of comprehensive education, which secondary school education throughout much of the UK moved towards in the 1970s was that each day of your school life was a new start, whereas previously, which type of school you went to depended on your performance in the Eleven Plus, taken in your last year in primary education. If you passed, you would go to a grammar school where much was expected of you, but if not, you would go to a secondary modern where you were as good as told each day that you wouldn't amount to anything. I was fortunate that I never had to sit the Eleven Plus, as I am convinced to this day that not only would I have not passed, but the stress and anxiety of my future being determined at such a young age would have been emotionally very difficult for me. As a child I was no different in that I took practically being told 'you're not good enough' hard.  

Despite the move to comprehensive education, academic inequality did still exist throughout comprehensive schools and it is not to say that they doesn't still exist today, as in many cases it does. As well as looking at each day being a new start, the mantra of Monkwearmouth's AEN unit developed by Suresh Patel focuses on starting with the abilities that an individual pupil already has, building on that afresh each day rather than setting expectations, which can put pressure on pupils and thus leading to anxiety.

When giving my speech at Monkwearmouth, to staff, parents and pupils, including those nominated for awards, for the first time, I had walk on music! I was surprised by a Sunderland schools choice of Dire Straits' Local Hero, played at St James Park when Newcastle United come out of the tunnel! Like most of the pupils whom I attended Monkwearmouth with I am a Sunderland fan, even if it may have seemed to some that I could have as easily come from a different planet rather than Sunderland! However, to be treated like a 'local hero' at such an event was an incredible experience, something that I could never have imagined 20 years ago when I left school. What was an even more surreal experience though was getting to do something normally reserved for someone who appears television regularly or with an Olympic Gold Medal or a BAFTA, which was the present some of the awards! Other awards were presented by some of the parents who attended.

With former Head Teacher Jim Farnie
Having parents presenting the awards fitted in with the purposes of Monkwearmouth's REACH agenda, to help build a communication platform between staff and parents and also to open up achievement to more than just a gifted few. I also took the opportunity to pay tribute to my former Head Teacher Jim Farnie, who supported me through some difficult times at the school and whose encouragement and motivation helped when I sat my GCSEs. I remember he said that it was vital that every effort was made until completing your last exam and no matter what your ability, you could achieve grades that were good for you regarding your capabilities, a notion that was true in my time at the school as it is today.

The Everest Base Camp wall clock I was presented with
Within the 20 years since I left Monkwearmouth, inclusion has become a much more topical issue in mainstream schools. To my surprise, I was presented with a wall clock depicting one of my favourite personal achievements, reaching Everest Base Camp, an experience which I feel helped me develop resilience and which Monkwearmouth's residential programmes for the AEN pupils also seem to be helping with. Though diagnosis is much more commonplace when young now, it is also important that pupils being diagnosed when young are given the right support so that they can work to and achieve their potential, giving them not just the confidence but also the resilience to be able to face each new challenge each day presents both during and beyond their time in mainstream school.

A huge thank you to Suresh Patel, SENCo at Monkwearmouth Academy, both for inviting me back to Monkwearmouth and for all his incredibly hard work in making the REACH agenda and the REACH Awards evenings happen. He is an inspiration to both the pupils and the parents. I wish the school all the best with this fantastic initiative, great to see good practice going on in my former school!