Tuesday 18 March 2014

The NAS Professionals Conference 2014, Walking with Robots, Skiing, Coping with Disappointments and the Northern Lights

As the title suggests, the last few weeks have been eventful to say the least! First I had the honour of giving a seminar at the NAS Professionals Conference, followed by a break north of the Arctic Circle. Beyond eventful, both experiences broadened my horizons in ways beyond initial assumptions that I had.

Let's start with the NAS Professionals Conference 2014. Though the NAS Professionals Conference is, as billed, one of the biggest autism conferences in the UK, I couldn't believe the range of choices of seminars, workshops and stands, completely dwarfing any event I have had the pleasure of speaking at! As well as doing my part at conferences, I also like listen attentively to the other contributors, as I like to feel that there is something new I can learn from different ways in which different people affected by autism (whether on the autistic spectrum themselves or as a parent/carer or professional) that can reinforce my own ability to cope as well as my understanding of autism generally. As one of the speakers at the event, Roy Richard Grinker, a Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University, Washington DC, said, understanding autism is a human continuum.

For me, the highlight of the conference, and many whom I spoke to seemed to be in agreement, was the performance by stand-up comedian and blogger John Williams, who is also a parent of a young man with autism. Williams, whose blog and show is called My Son's Not Rainman, gave a performance that was both very touching and humorous. In talking about his experiences with his son, he described some very helpful approaches for practising mindfulness, which I felt enhanced my own seminar that I gave a day later. First of all, he described that his son had no concept of time, which however awkward it was for attending school on time, also meant low expectation, enabling him to be more tuned into the moment. Then he described the nightmare of a school prom at a mainstream school opposed to the magic of a school disco in a special school. Whereas at a mainstream school prom, how one presents socially and image-wise is paramount, people are too worried either about how they look or how others may make them look to be enjoying themselves, at his son's school disco, nobody cared about how anyone looked or behaved, and as a result were more in tune with the purpose of the event, enjoying themselves, including a blind girl who was so in tune with the music she was in the moment. I know which one of these two events I'd rather be at!

With my new friend Mickey
Both the conference and my break in Tromso, in Norway, northern Norway, presented me with some impromptu ways to practice mindfulness of walking. People on the autistic spectrum new to meditation, especially if they find it difficult to sit still or engage in repetitive movement, can sometimes be put off in taking up the practice because the immediate concept that many of us have with meditation is that of a figure sitting cross-legged with the eyes closed. Interestingly, many people who have found sitting meditation difficult have taken surprisingly to walking meditation. A new friend I met at the conference was Mickey the Robot. Made by  Aldebaran Robitics, NAO robots are designed specifically designed to help children with autism in both special and mainstream schools develop social interaction skills in verbal, visual and tactile senses. One of the first questions Mickey asks you is: 'What do you want me to do?' And then he may ask you if you would like to go for a walk. I offered to take him for a walk and found that, as he only has very small footsteps, I had to be conscious of my own footsteps so that he could keep up with me. A fun way to practice mindfulness of walking, focusing on each movement and the sensations that came with it!

Taking Mickey for a walk!
Heading north of the Arctic Circle to Tromso, Norway, after the conference, I experienced a new activity that was a great way to practice mindfulness of walking, cross-country across the snow-covered Lyngen Alps. It was the first time I had ever tried this type of skiing after previously having done some downhill skiing when a teenager. After having already gained an idea of how big a step outside it is outside my comfort zone walking north of the Artic Circle, when getting off the bus (slippery), walking in different foot gear, cross country ski-boots lighter and more flexible than downhill ski-boots) and skis, was another way to be with sensations present in movement, as well as centre of gravity to stay standing up as much as possible. Knowing where to let the skis do the work for you involved being aware of each gradient you are stepping on, when level, ascending or descending, as well as being aware with your centre of gravity. Our centre of gravity, the keeps us upright when standing is something that is as present in normal day-to-day life, but we are often oblivious to it. Being in touch with your centre of gravity helps one recover after falling over, something which I found myself doing more so when going downhill than going up hill, as I found that I became reliant on the skis to do the work, struggling to slow down! When I next do some mindfulness of walking practice, I will look to notice my centre of gravity more clearly.
Cross-country skiing in the Lyngen Alps, Norway

One of the main reasons why I headed to Tromso for a break, was to hope that I would be lucky enough to see what some of us as far south as Jersey have maybe been fortunate to have seen in the last few weeks if you looked to the sky at the right time - the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)! I knew not to expect to see any Northern Lights as the conditions have to be right, even at the magnetic pole, for one to view them. So in case they didn't appear, I had also booked a husky sled expedition, which had to be cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. After the first two nights where low cloud cover obscured any possible views of the lights, as an alternative to the cancelled dogsled expedition, I was offered the chance to visit a traditional Sami (an indigenous people native to northern Scandinavia) home, including a traditional Sami dinner around an open fire. While in tune with the warmth of the fire, the cloud cover later began to break up and I managed to gain a glimpse of a green tinge of Aurora!

The Northern Lights, near Tromso, Norway
At the conference, one of the speakers, Dr Peter Vermeulen, of Autisme Centraal based in Belgium, described happiness as the ability to deal with problems and disappointments, as opposed to their absence. By enjoying the social atmosphere of the Sami visit, it made up for the cancelled husky safari, to the extent where I felt that as unlikely as it looked, if the Northern Lights appeared it would be a bonus. The green tinge of activity I unexpectedly saw lasted just a few minutes before being obscured by cloud cover, but it was magical just being tuned into the moment. When the Northern Lights appeared, however briefly, they were also a reminder of the impermanent nature of calendar time. For the Northern Lights to occur, the Sun loses mass during Solar Storms which hit Earth's atmosphere in the form of electrically charged particles. The more the Sun loses mass the weaker its gravitational hold on earth gradually becomes, making Earth's orbital period longer, which we use to measure time in the form of years.

Such an unstructured and impermanent concept of time is more conducive to noticing the effects of mindfulness practice, as well as lowering expectations, something else comedian John Williams suggested to OFSTED inspectors as an approach to accommodating children like his son in school, rather than them pretending to be X-Factor judges!

Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works for another exciting announcement ahead of World Autism Awareness Day next month (April)!

A huge thank you to the National Autistic Society for inviting me to take part in a fantastic event!