I find birthdays so much fun, whether they are my own or others’. The preparation, the surprise, the cake – it all makes for an entertaining week! This year, on May 6th, my little brother turns 18 years old; and it is terrifying.
When I turned 18, all I had to do was know what career I wanted; and I did, from the age of 10. I went to a private school, I’m bilingual, I had decent grades and a careers advisor. My university choices were made by my advisor, all I had to do was accept. The world was at my feet. After my choices were made, I was offered a position in one of the top 10 universities for Law in the UK. I was exactly where I wanted to be, but the pressure of my brother's 18th birthday was haunting. I have to get out there and be someone, I have to succeed, there’s no alternative. I have no other option because of him.
When my brother turns 18 it means he’ll finish school, and then what? Will he have to look for a job? Can he find a job? Who will hire him? Will he follow through with it? Will he be happy? Will people be accepting? These are concerns every family has for an 18 year old. What happens to these concerns when they are about a boy who has been diagnosed with autism? Well, then they become the thoughts nightmares are made of and keep you up at night, every night, all night.
Christos, my brother, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. He had no words for us until he was seven. He didn’t form a sentence until he was 11. Sixteen years later he has become a handsome young man – who is taller than all of us - who knows how to explain why he is sad, happy, in pain, where it hurts and why; he can cook; he can swim; he can ride a bike; he knows right from wrong, he understands fair and unfair; he knows you need money to buy things, he knows that people have jobs, he knows that children go to school, he knows that I am abroad. If I had to explain to someone what the limitations he may face are, I would say that he doesn’t know how expensive or cheap things are and he doesn’t know what jobs are for.
Everything I have become, will become, professionally and as a person, is because of Christos. I owe him everything, he is my inspiration. He is the reason I have the passion to learn, develop, grow and pursue my dreams. I find it unsettling to think that he will not get the same opportunities.
The world is not at his feet. His path is not filled with private schools, languages, A-levels, GCSEs, career advisers or universities.
So, I decided I had to try and create opportunities for him. In March 2016 I launched a project to celebrate his 18th birthday through my blog. Project324 consists of 324 cards which are divided into 18 batches, made up of 18 cards each and are sent to 18 countries around the world. The cards will be distributed at bus stops, restaurants, shops, libraries, cafes. People can pick them up and read about the project. The aim is to generate awareness of autism by asking the people who find the cards to send my brother a birthday wish. One of the countries is Cyprus. I wanted to raise awareness of autism before he starts looking for employment, to make his transition easier.
When you live with autism you are programmed to think 10 steps ahead. So, when I read about initiatives like Microsoft (which launched a pilot programme to hire people with autism in full-time roles) and the BBC (which launched ‘Employ Me’ targeting people who are ‘neurodiverse’) my first reaction is to think that Christos cannot do it. Of course, I am completely wrong. You can give him any task and, as long as he is guided through it a couple of times, he will get into the habit of doing it. Society has instilled a fear in us and is causing us to doubt autistic people’s abilities, we are afraid to let them out into the world because the world will ostracise them.
Christos can be taught to help tidy up classes in schools, stock and display products in shops, libraries, bookshops or supermarkets. He can pick up tasks with patience and guidance. All we need is for our community to give him the chance, embrace and utilise his uniqueness instead of trying to categorise him as ‘normal’.
If you own a business, think about hiring someone on the spectrum. Tap into this pool of potential with targeted descriptions, clear demands and a touch of humanity. Just because some people with autism can't speak clearly or exchange pleasantries don't write them off.
With the correct support a person on the spectrum can develop a sense of responsibility and self-worth, they can make friends and prevent the isolation that follows the stigma of autism. Employees will go home, will go to their friends and tell them about autism, teach them that autism does not mean deficiency, it means capability. They will know that autism has a face, a million smiles, humour and emotion. The awareness will spread throughout society.
Opportunities within the community are so much more than just jobs, they change lives. They contribute to future generations so that one day it will be 'the norm' to hire people on the spectrum; so that one day it won't be worth writing about.
My brother isn’t ‘normal’ and he isn’t made for a ‘normal’ job. He is extraordinary, and he will turn everything he works on from ordinary to something remarkable. He is a spirit that cannot be tamed. He touches people's lives without even trying. Children at his school will grow up learning about autism, they will stand up for people on the spectrum because they have experienced it.
His autism isn't a hindrance, it's a message. It's here to teach us a lesson. It's here to show us that being 'ordinary' isn't a choice, it's an imposition.
There's not enough room for everyone in the box - so climb out, open your mind, learn about autism and help it shine.
Dora grew up in Cyprus and is half Sri Lankan. Currently she works at the University of Kent and is studying the LPC at the University of Law in London. She researches and writes an autism blog about her brother (christos90.wordpress.com) and hopes to help make a difference for people with disabilities in the future.