Welcome To My World

With the Coronavirus pandemic now in full swing, more and more people are being advised or even instructed to work from home. For most, this is a huge change to their routine and a big challenge.  But this has been my normal working life for 20 years as a freelance translator, so I thought I would share a few tips that might help people who are new to this.

Most of people’s concerns seem to be around motivating themselves to do a full day’s work, avoiding distractions, not spending the whole day eating, and avoiding the temptation to commit acts of violence on members of their family.  I totally understand all of these, as they are things I have had to deal with to a greater or lesser extent, especially in the early days.

A lot of what I’ve got to say may be obvious, but if one thing helps someone get through this difficult period, then I haven’t wasted my time posting this.  One caveat – we don’t have kids, so if you need strategies to balance home working with home education you will need to look elsewhere for advice. My only tip would be to book my wife to provide some online tuition to your children while they are off school. Anyway, working at home…

Stick to your morning routine

This is probably the most crucial thing, as getting off to a good start is vital. It’s easier to maintain a good beginning than try to claw back a bad one after all.  For some reason, there is a perception that for a home worker to follow a morning routine requires the kind of discipline normally associated with the more severe monastic orders.  But essentially, all you need to do is what you have been doing for years anyway.  Sticking to the same routine means you notice less of a change and will put you in work mode rather than weekend or holiday mode.  Set your alarm for the same time as usual, have breakfast, get showered and get dressed – as though you were heading into the office.  Of course, you don’t have to do your hair or dress smartly to work at home but we are trying to get into work mode so don’t be tempted to stumble straight from bed to kettle to computer in your pyjamas.

When I first started to work at home, I used to go to my desk at the same time I previously left the house to get the bus.  That had two benefits – one, it continued my established routine and helped me get into the work mindset, and two, I could already have completed an hour’s work when I would previously have still been travelling to the office.  That meant I could work more hours in a day and still finish earlier than I used to, and gave me flexibility if I had other commitments later on (this is one thing that could be relevant if children are involved).  Think of the hours you spend commuting each week – this is time you can spend productively and/or doing things you enjoy.  Another possible technique for mornings is to “walk to work”. At the time you normally leave, go and have a short walk – say 15 to 20 minutes.  This gets you a bit of exercise and fresh air, keeps the concept of “going to work” and still means you can start while you’d normally still be stuck in traffic.  If part of your routine is going to the gym, for a run or whatever every morning, then that’s fine.  Still do it.  The key is that you keep things as close to your normal day as possible and get yourself in the work mindset.

Have defined working hours

So we’ve got you up, dressed, fed and in front of your computer. So far so good. But it’s important that you have a clear idea about how long you’re there for and when you’ll be done.  Counting down the hours is not something only those of you in an office do, trust me on that.  We all watch the clock to see when it’s lunchtime and home time.  If at all possible, set your working hours in advance and stick to them. This won’t be possible in all jobs and flexibility is needed but if you usually work 9-5 then work 9-5 (or 8 hours starting from whenever you would normally leave the house).  If you run over a while because something comes up, or you get an urgent call from a client at 4.58 pm that’s fine. But don’t make the working day open-ended – that’s when you will start to resent it and lose motivation.  Likewise, decide what time you’re going to take breaks and stick to them as closely as possible.  We are trying to reproduce a “normal” working day as best we can in these different circumstances.

Make time for breaks

Many people worry that they will constantly be snacking if they work at home.  There is no easy solution to this – when you go to work you either take snacks with you or have to make the effort to go out and get them.  But at home you have the fridge and all your kitchen cupboards in easy reach.   This does require discipline and that is up to each individual – there are no shortcuts here I’m afraid.  It helps me to decide on times for snacks and lunch.  When it comes to breaks, I try to get away from my desk, especially at lunchtime. Again, replicate your normal routine.  If you have half an hour for lunch, take half an hour at home.  Even if you do it at work, try not to fall into the habit of eating at your desk.  Working at home is, by definition, more sedentary than an office and moving around regularly is important for physical health.  If the weather’s right, have a short walk or wander up and down the garden, or do some stretching exercises inside if it’s raining.  Make sure your breaks refresh you.

Work in the right place


Where the magic happens – the heart of the Braisby business empire, aka my desk.

Everyone’s home is different so the places available for working will vary greatly but I would always advise having a designated working location if humanly possible.  That could be a proper desk or even a fold-up table in a bedroom or the living room.  Working at the dining table makes it harder to separate meal breaks from working time, puts over-eating temptation even closer and may make it more difficult to avoid distractions.  I am lucky now in that I was already a freelancer when we bought the house so we made sure one of the bedrooms could be made into an office.  But when I first started I was renting a room in a house share and I worked at an old dressing table in a corner of my room.  I only used that table for work, so it kept everything as separate as possible.  I repeat, you have to work within your circumstances but as with almost every point the key is to create a framework that makes home working feel as much like normal working as we can.  At your designated end of work time, close your computer, tidy up your working area and move away from it.  That helps to create a distinction between work and domestic. If you can work in a separate office, you can physically close the door, like shutting up shop for the night.  And if the work phone rings after that time, you have an answerphone.

Compromise with your partner

This is the most difficult part.  Many people having to work at home do not live alone.  They may well have a partner who is in the same situation.  Being at home with our partner is usually something that is completely separate from work and suddenly we are with them all day, every day and expected to do our work with them around.  It can definitely be harder to get into work mode and adopt our “work persona” when our partner in is the room.  I have heard a few friends already saying they have had difficulties with this in just the first few days.  Thankfully, this is also an area I have quite a bit of experience with.  My wife is a freelance teacher and tutor, so she does all her planning and admin work at home.  When she moved into her current career, my office suddenly became our office.  We spend many hours each week both working in here and generally things go well because we follow a few basic guidelines.


One of the things I have heard people say is that they are struggling with interrupting one another to chat about some family news, a money issue or something during working time.  So how can you get around this? Well, nobody expects you to work without speaking to anyone all day.  When you’re in the office you interact with colleagues throughout the day and the same can apply at home with your partner.  But it’s important to have boundaries here and I see two aspects to this.  The first is that in working time, your partner is essentially your colleague and your interactions should be more like those you’d have at work.  So you can have a bit of a chat and a joke, show them a funny video you saw online, all the things that help us get through the day.  But the personal stuff – family, medical, financial or whatever – should be dealt with when neither of you are working. At lunchtime or after work.  Like it normally is.  The second point is that you have to treat your partner with the same respect you would a colleague when they are working – be aware of when is a good time to talk to them. Don’t try and tell them a joke you just saw when they are clearly engrossed in something important or about to make a call.  You wouldn’t do it at work, so don’t do it when you’re working at home.  I mentioned that my wife and I work in the same office, but our desks face opposite walls so we sit back to back.  That helps keep the distance.  In general, trying to work in separate rooms or spaces can be a big help, rather than sitting opposite one another at the dining room table as you do when you’re eating in the evening.  Again, it depends on your circumstances and the size of your house.  Flexibility is also needed – if you are working in the same room and one of you needs to make a confidential call, the other one can take a break or go and work somewhere else for a while.  Like everything else in a relationship, it is all about compromise.  Remember that your partner will be feeling the same stresses as you are so talk about it and work together to come up with a system that works best for you.


So those are my pieces of advice for efficient home working and keeping your sanity and your relationship while doing so.  It’s not always easy, even after two decades.  And while this post might make me sound like the most disciplined home worker ever, I know I’m not.  I freely admit that I have often hit snooze a few times, eaten lunch at my desk more times than I care to think about, finished work late in the evening with a beer or wine for refreshment, even taken important client phone calls in just my underpants!  But by keeping to a basic structure as much as I can, and especially in the years since we became a two freelancer household, I like to think that I have made a decent job of it overall.  Twenty years of successful business suggests that too, and I cannot even contemplate how horrible it would be to go back to working in an office.

So to all those who have to work at home for the moment – you can do it.  You won’t go mad, you won’t be a pyjama-wearing, unwashed mess swigging neat spirits at your desk within a fortnight. Just take a deep breath, work out what will be best for you and stick to it. Stay healthy, stay safe and happy home working.

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Emergency Box

Over many years, I have faced an almost constant battle with depression.  I have tried numerous types of therapy and none have really worked very well.  Certainly not things like CBT, as my autistic brain struggles with the hypothetical/visualisation element.  But a couple of years ago, I spent a short time with an NHS therapist who focused on some short-term coping strategies and it was the best experience I ever had of therapy.

One of her ideas, which I think is brilliant and has been extremely successful so far, is to create what she calls an “Emergency Box”.  This addresses a specific problem that anyone who has suffered depression will no doubt recognise – knowing the importance of engaging in enjoyable or mood-enhancing activities, pursuing things we love, but lacking the motivation to do it, and being overwhelmed by the stress of choosing an activity, what film to watch, what music to put on… And the subsequent self-loathing that leads to a further deterioration in mood, the whole vicious circle, round and around.

The idea of the Emergency Box is to take away some of that stress and ensure you can do something you truly get pleasure from even when you lack all energy and motivation.  It is a physical box (or I guess it could be a bag, a drawer in your cupboard or whatever) in which you put a small selection of things that you know are pretty much guaranteed to bring you pleasure.  It could be favourite books and films, photos of happy and memorable times, your favourite songs, an activity or game to play, basically whatever you enjoy the most, whatever you would most want to reach for to give you a boost but often struggle to summon up the energy to initiate.  Mine is a physical box – I am fortunate in that my wife enjoys decorating boxes as a hobby so I have one of a perfect size with an elephant – my favourite animal – on it.


For me, the music was the most important element, and the one I have mainly used.  Music is one of my major pleasures and interests, and not listening to music as much is a sure sign that my depression is getting worse.  But there are many occasions when choosing an artist or album to listen to is simply too much for me, and instead of putting on music I end up wasting my time online or watching some nonsense on TV. My mood suffers and I miss out on one of the most inspiring, positive and uplifting things in my life.  I bought a cheap MP3 player on Amazon for my box, but I also made the same songs into a Spotify playlist, which I have a shortcut to on my phone’s home screen.  The therapist advised that it’s not necessarily for favourite songs – as sometimes they can be ones that make us think or have very deep, introspective feelings.  It should be songs or music that make us smile – with the very best and most positive associations.  In my case, it has a broad range, but there are lots of songs from my youth and my student days, times when anything seemed possible and I didn’t have as many stresses.  The “Emergency Box” playlist is the thing I probably listen to more than anything else now and it means that there is still music in my life even when I am too low to choose it.  Everyone will have their own choices, of course, but here are mine.

What else is in there besides the MP3 player?  Well, books I have read so many times that I can just dip into them when I want to: Last Chance To See by Douglas Adams, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.  Photos of my hockey team Nottingham Panthers’ successes, family and friends. Springsteen concert tickets.  A couple of bouncy balls / power balls, which I have loved since I was a kid – I always carry one around in my pocket as a distraction or physical thing I can do if I need to zone out.

When the therapist suggested the idea to me, I was quite sceptical. But I have to say I have come to realise it’s a great idea and I have benefited from it immensely.  Especially the music.  Of course, it’s not a solution for depression but it is certainly a very useful strategy to help get through some of the toughest and darkest days.


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Spouses and Interests

Inspired by a recent discussion on the excellent “Set Lusting Bruce” podcast (a must for any Bruce Springsteen fans out there!) about our spouses’ at times uneasy relationship with our hobbies/obsessions (delete as applicable), I thought it was worth reposting this piece that I wrote a few years ago.  It originally appeared in Voices in the Crowd, a charity collection of stories from UK ice hockey fans that I and a group of good friends released back then in aid of Cancer Research UK.

Hopefully it will resonate with anyone (I suspect particularly any man) who has performed that old juggling act of partner and interest, whether that is sport, music, trainspotting or whatever.

How Bruce Richardson stopped my wife watching hockey…

You know how it is with a new relationship.  Things are going great, then you get to that difficult and awkward point where you have to introduce the new special person in your life to your family.  Cue nerves on all sides – “What if they hate each other?” is a fairly typical worry I would guess.  But if you are a sports fan you will be familiar with that other nervous episode when embarking on a new relationship, namely taking the person to see your team for the first time.  And if you’re a fan of a minority sport like hockey, which many people have never even seen, it’s even more daunting.

Anyway, in early 2000 I reached this point in my new relationship with the woman who is now my wife.  Ever since we’d known each other (we’d been colleagues and friends for some time before we started dating), she’d known about the hockey but now she got to see for herself what the fuss was all about.  She’d already met the family without too many issues, but now came the real crunch. What if she thought I was a fool for following such a frivolous game? What if my team let me down with a horrendous performance (a definite possibility with the 1999-2000 roster if truth be told)?  The game I took her to was a Sunday afternoon fixture against Newcastle (I think they were going by the name Riverkings at that time).

Abandoning my regular spot in Block 2, I got us a pair of tickets in Block 10 behind the opposition bench, so the unfamiliar location only emphasised the “differentness” of this particular match.  Well, it wasn’t a classic by any means but it was entertaining.  Both teams appeared to have left their defences at home, resulting in a see-saw shootout of a match that ended with Panthers grabbing a narrow 8-7 win.  All in all, I felt it was a reasonable introduction for my girlfriend – lots of goals, end to end action, no excessive violence or controversy and a home victory.  Indeed, as we drove back to Birmingham after the game she told me she’d had a good time, although she didn’t really get the intricacies of the game and found it a bit stop-start. Best of all, she had recognised a universal hockey truth in her first match – “Netminders are cool” I recall her telling me.  Signs were good.

I didn’t really know how I wanted things to pan out to be quite honest.  Hockey had always been my thing, a place where I could go and lose myself in following my team, let out the frustrations of the week at work when necessary, share the fan experience with family and friends.  Did I want to share all that with my girlfriend?  Did I want her to fall in love with the game and the Panthers and start coming to home matches and road trips with me?  What if we split up but had season tickets next to each other?  I know loads of couples who go to hockey together (plenty who have met there and even some who support rival teams), but I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted.

Which was just as well.  Although she did come a couple more times that season, including the cup final at the Docklands in London, I soon realised she would never be more than a casual fan, who would come to the odd match with me to share my interest but nothing more than that.  To be honest, it has worked out pretty well.  Over the next few seasons, she came to occasional games in Nottingham, always enjoying it.  And as someone who feels the cold, she liked the much warmer NIC – I think it’s like a sauna and if it weren’t for the necessity of wearing my Panthers shirt I’d probably go in t-shirt, shorts and sandals every week.  But hockey remained my interest, my obsession.  In fact, how involved I got in the games was a source of entertainment and amusement to her, she’d sometimes be watching my reaction as much as events on the ice.  Although she didn’t like my tendency to unconsciously squeeze her hand almost to bone-crushing point when things got tense.

The trend continued after our wedding in 2005.  Like all married couples, we had to face the classic Christmas dilemma of whose family to visit when.  But thanks to the hockey, it was easy to sort out.  Her family on Christmas Day, my family and the big rivalry match-up against Sheffield Steelers on Boxing Day.  And for the first few years of our marriage, that was what we did – lunch at my sister’s house then on to the game, either at the NIC or Sheffield Arena.  That all changed in 2009.

As usual, Panthers and Steelers lined up for the traditional festive fixtures, with the first instalment in Nottingham.  Look up this game on YouTube and you will see right away that the most memorable incident was not a great piece of skill or a fantastic goal, it was a fight.  Not all that rare in hockey games, but it turned out that by sheer coincidence my wife had not really seen a proper, old-fashioned, full-on, toe to toe punch-up in her previous matches.  So the encounter between Panthers’ Bruce Richardson and Steelers’ Jason Hewitt that day was something new for her.  It might be relevant at this point to mention that my wife is a gentle, kind and loving person who is not a fan of violence at all.  Generally speaking, and at almost all times in my day-to-day life, I am pretty passive and laid back too.  But hockey is different.  As those who were in the NIC that day may remember, this particular fight was the latest instalment in a running battle between the two players over the course of the season.  They fought in nearly every Panthers v. Steelers game, and we play them a lot.  The atmosphere in the packed arena was charged and when Richardson and Hewitt squared up at centre ice, it was electric.  In common with almost all my fellow Panthers fans (including my sister, sitting on the other side of me from my wife), I leapt to my feet to roar my encouragement to our man who, after a bad start, handed out something of a beating to the Sheffield player.  Hewitt headed off to get treatment for his cuts, Richardson headed to the penalty box to a hero’s cheer from the home supporters, and off-ice staff came on to clear the blood from the ice.  It was splendid.

My wife was appalled by the whole thing.  She said she had never known an atmosphere quite like it (and she used to go to football in the 1980s), and described it as being like the Roman Coliseum.  She couldn’t understand how something that would have you up before the judge if you’d done it on the street outside got you nothing more than a five minute sit down in a hockey game.  Not just that, her normally gentle and non-confrontational husband was loving it and joining in, baying for blood with the best of them.  It’s something I had done umpteen times before and I’ve done it another umpteen times since – it’s part of hockey.  I’d never thought before how it might seem and look to a casual observer – and despite her occasional games over the previous few years, that’s what she was.  I don’t think she thinks less of my character as a result, but she hasn’t been to a game since then.  Maybe she will at some stage, I’d certainly like to think so but if she doesn’t that’s fine too.  I loved those occasions when she was sitting next to me in the NIC, although I was constantly nervous that my team would put on a poor show for her.  But hockey could never really have been something we ended up sharing – it’s always been my passion, not hers.

With hindsight, it’s probably just as well she didn’t come to Sheffield the following day, when I was heartily yelling along with the whole of the Panthers blocks “Hewitt, how’s your face?” during the pre-match line up.

So that is how former Panther Bruce Richardson, with a little bit of “help” from Steelers’ Jason Hewitt, stopped my wife coming to hockey matches.  I still have a season ticket, I still love the team and the game.  I go to fewer games than I did when I was single, and hardly any road trips, but that’s OK as I spend time doing things with my wife – things we both enjoy equally.  She does still think netminders are cool though, so that’s something.

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Taking Care Of Our Own

Generally speaking I guess I’m quite lucky.  Certainly when it comes to what liberal commentators often like to call “privilege” – although really that always sounds to me like far too sneering and derogatory a term for what are essentially accidents of birth. It’s what you do that counts, not the way you are. Anyway, that is a whole other argument. Whatever you call it, as a white, heterosexual male in a first-world country I tick most of the boxes as someone who wouldn’t normally be expected to experience discrimination. In fact, it’s only my working-class roots that prevent me having a full set. Even my autism diagnosis five years ago has not resulted in me experiencing what you could call discrimination.  So, I’ve always considered myself pretty fortunate – not smug or complacent – to have been born who and where I was. Until a few days ago.

You may have read over the weekend news reports about the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) updating its criteria on medical conditions that anyone holding a driving licence has to notify the authorities about. Under their new rules anyone with an autism diagnosis would now have to notify the DVLA of this, for them to assess whether you are able to retain your licence.  The first thing to say is that this change was not publicised to anyone – not to the medical professions, not to autism organisations and charities who support those on the spectrum, not to autistic people themselves in any way and, incidentally, not to driving instructors either – a relative of mine is an instructor specialising in pupils with special needs and received no notification of the updated requirements. Before continuing, it’s important to point out that I have no issue at all with the DVLA having a list of notifiable conditions, nor do I have a problem personally complying with the relevant obligations, having done so several years ago when diagnosed with glaucoma. That involved taking a special test to assess my peripheral vision.  Nor was it the case that I never thought to check the situation regarding autism – after diagnosis I checked the DVLA website and was on there again within the past 12 months so I could point somebody asking about this issue on a forum to the relevant details. On all occasions, the requirement was that you had to notify the DVLA of your autism if it could affect your driving. Common sense, and in line with their other rules regarding visual defects and other conditions. Of course, a medical condition should only prevent you holding a driving licence if it actually impacts your ability to drive safely, right? Of course, the question of how to tell whether it impacts your driving is left open but – and this is apparently the way most driving instructors interpret the guidelines – I always worked on the basis that as I’d held a full licence for almost 20 years before being diagnosed, I managed to pass my test and have been on the roads without any problems for that period of time and therefore could conclude that the condition did not impact my driving.

But then came reports of the recent change. First as rumours on social media, then as confirmation in releases from bodies like the National Autistic Society and, eventually, from the DVLA itself. The DVLA claimed it was issuing clarification and the wording should always have been that autism is a notifiable condition. As one might expect, the announcement quickly prompted a huge amount of debate and caused huge stress and worry up and down the country for autistic people. A visit to the DVLA website to download the relevant form revealed a typical standard bureaucratic document with little relevance to autism. How would we accurately portray our condition and how it affects us with only this form? Would the presumption be that your driving is affected unless demonstrated otherwise or the other way around? Would we suddenly be subject to the threatened £1000 fines for not notifying (yet)? Against this backdrop, over the weekend the NAS, backed by prominent autism campaigners, media commentators and several members of parliament, raised a petition and called for further consultation with the DVLA. As discussions moved on from the sudden and arbitrary nature of the change, with no proper justification behind it, a key issue became the legality of the move.  Essentially, the general consensus was that requiring people with a certain condition (not a disease or illness, but a lifelong condition) to register with a government department who would then make arbitrary decisions about them based on who knows what criteria was in violation of applicable anti-discrimination legislation.

And just like that, all my – albeit largely unconsidered and taken very much for granted – “privilege” was blown away. Suddenly, I was feeling persecuted, discriminated against for something that was part of who I am. Lumped in with other people as a homogeneous group under a certain label, and potentially exposed to negative decisions and policies for no reason other than being part of that group.  It was a totally new and very unpleasant emotion to experience. What would be next? Would I need to register my autism to receive health care, access public services? Would there come a day when I have to carry a card? How about walk round with an “A” on an armband?  An extreme example of course, but for the first time I understood the confusion and fear that suffering discrimination can cause. And the anger. Because I was mad. I was raging, wanted to do something about it, shout and yell at those responsible, well at anyone and everyone really. And also there was powerlessness. What could I – or individuals like me – do against a powerful government organisation?

On the latter point, the answer turned out to be quite a lot. The hastily thrown together coalition of politicians, media, lawyers, the NAS and individuals signing petitions and firing off e-mails in protest brought about a very fast change of heart (or perhaps mind would be better as heart suggests some kind of human empathy or consideration) on the part of the DVLA. They issued “clarification for muddying the waters” and confirmed the original wording would stand. No apology for stress and confusion caused of course, but you can’t have everything. The key outcome is that I and other autistic people in the UK can continue to drive and do not have to register our condition.

The main reason I’m writing this is as my way of thanking the NAS, autism campaigner and excellent writer Laura James, and everyone involved for their prompt and decisive action on our behalf. It was a great demonstration that the autism community in the UK really does take care of its own when needed and that is a very reassuring feeling indeed.

But there’s another reason too.  What this relatively minor incident has done is teach me an awful lot about discrimination. I felt anger, confusion and fear for a couple of days. Some people have to face it day after day, perhaps for their whole lives. I’ve never downplayed the existence of discrimination in the world and I’ve always tried to speak out against it wherever I can, so this isn’t a road to Damascus kind of thing. However, it has given me a little taste of what some people have to go through because they are perceived as different.  It has made me more determined than ever not to accept or turn a blind eye to situations where someone is belittled, persecuted or punished for just being who they are. And it’s made me keener than ever to do what I can – in terms of raising awareness, sharing my experiences or promoting autism-friendly healthcare, educational, social and working environments – to contribute to a better understanding of people on the spectrum in society and especially among those with power over our lives.

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Autistic Family Christmas…

It’s widely accepted that genetics are at least partially responsible for a person being autistic. The condition does tend to “run in families”, although of course it is hard to pinpoint, given that awareness and diagnosis are relatively modern phenomena.

My family is no exception.  When I went for my diagnosis, from my descriptions of my childhood and family background the psychiatrist actually said she could be halfway to diagnosing my late mother just from what I told her!  My father also exhibited many typical autistic traits.  A common feature of autism is a love of routine and that is something that characterised my childhood to a remarkable degree.  Everything was pretty structured and things that disrupted the normal routine were seen as challenging, especially by my mother.

One of the times this was most noticeable was at Christmas, especially as I look back now although even at the time I knew our festive celebrations were not like most families’.  I always heard of kids getting up at ungodly hour to find their presents and diving in to unwrap them, before spending a day gorging themselves on treats while playing with their gifts.  This is totally alien to me.

We would get up at 7am. That was what time my mum said we could get up, so that’s what time we got up.  Once everyone was awake (me, my sister, my parents and my maternal grandmother, who spent every Christmas at our house), we would gather in my parents’ room, where my dad would bring tea and coffee for everyone and it would be time for us kids to open our presents.  But it was no free-for-all.  We would take turns, my sister and I alternately grabbing a parcel out of our respective sacks, reading out loud who it was from and then unwrapping it while everyone watched.  No time to properly examine or open up the gifts or to start playing with them if you wanted.  But surely after we’d finished, we could go off and start enjoying them, right?  Wrong.  After we had finished it was time for the breakfast break, followed by the adults’ turn to open their presents.  This followed a similar format, taking turns, reading out the label and unwrapping until all were finished.  This whole process, as you can imagine, took up a sizeable chunk of the morning.  We did then get a little time to examine presents in more detail, but we would really be expected to be in the living room with the adults and have a drink while waiting for lunchtime to arrive (and helping to prepare it when we got a bit older).

Christmas dinner was eaten relatively early, around 12 or 12.30 mainly.  Most families have a traditional dinner so I guess this was the most “normal” part of the day.  It was always delicious and we were always stuffed afterwards.  I think it was my favourite part of the day.  You’re probably thinking that then we’d have a chance to enjoy our presents or just be kids.  Wrong again.  We usually managed to watch Christmas Top of The Pops on TV, but we also had to prepare for the family teatime get-together.  On Christmas day we always went to an extended family party at one of my mum’s relative’s houses (we never, ever hosted). The parties themselves were a bit of a drag as I recall.  As we were the youngest kids in our generation, we were expected to join in with the adults in conversation and parlour games, rather than having space to play or take some favourite presents with us.  The buffet tea was always superb but to be honest I’d have sooner had a slice of toast at home and an opportunity to relax.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before we went to the party, we had to do our homework – making sure we knew off by heart what every single person who would be attending had bought us, so we could thank them by mentioning the specific gift.  And if anyone had got us clothes, we had to wear them for the party of course.  This process took up most of the afternoon, until it was time to go.  The parties never went on late, but it was pretty much bedtime by the time we got home.

So that was our Christmas Day.  Every year.  In our way, I guess we enjoyed them because we didn’t know anything else, but I was always astounded by other kids’ tales of the lack of structure and compulsion in their celebrations.  Do I resent it?  Not really, although there was a time in early adulthood when I certainly did.  We had a loving home, a close family, presents and great food (and a few drinks once old enough!).  Many people were much worse off. And as I hear of so many people who were never close to parents or siblings, or became estranged later in life, I am truly grateful to have had such a stable family in which we celebrated together, albeit in our own, uniquely organised and routine way.

My parents and grandmother are all long since passed away and it’s all just memories – a mixture of a bit of a funny anecdote about my slightly bonkers family and a strong piece of evidence for autism being passed down the generations.  Whatever you are doing this festive season, enjoy it and most of all appreciate the people you are with.  They may be weird, but they are your people and your life would be less without them.

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If I Could Turn Back Time…

A couple of things happened recently that have led to this post.  Firstly, I reached the “milestone” of 5 years since my autism diagnosis.  Secondly, I spoke about autism and neurodiversity on a leadership training course.  Both of these got me thinking a lot about my own experiences pre- and post-diagnosis and how autism has impacted on my life over many years.  What keeps coming up are two questions – the first is whether I am glad I got diagnosed and, leading on from that, the second is whether I wish I’d been diagnosed earlier in life than at 40 years old.

The first question is easier to answer, and my response would be a resounding yes.  I’ve never regretted seeking a diagnosis for a minute over the past five years. The simple reason is that I now know and understand myself better than I ever did before. Learning about autism has gone a long way towards explaining aspects of my character and emotions that I could never get to grips with. I can celebrate ways that I’m different, rather than seeing traits as a weakness or abnormality. Probably most important, because I know the way my mind works and the way I react to things, I can put in place coping strategies to handle stressful situations and communicate more effectively in my working and personal life. The sheer relief of discovering you are not mad cannot be underestimated either.  At the same time, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and share experiences with other autistic adults through joining support groups and interacting online.  That has been hugely important for me – when you spend most of your time surrounded by neurotypical people, being in an environment where you don’t have to explain your reaction to situations because the other people just understand is a precious thing.  So all in all, no regrets.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’d advise anyone to seek diagnosis.  It really all depends why you are considering it.  Certainly, don’t get a diagnosis to access support as there is next to nothing available for adults in the NHS, and what is out there is subject to a postcode lottery. And if you are fairly comfortable in your own skin and not having any trouble with self-esteem, depression and the like, then why rock the boat?  Just carry on as you are and you will be fine.  You don’t have to produce proof of diagnosis to read about autism-related challenges online or in books, so you can still address any issues you are having.  And of course, you can change your mind later.  But if you genuinely feel you need that confirmation and would benefit from putting a name to things that have impacted your life, by all means do as I did and go down the diagnosis route.  Be prepared for a battle, with your GP and/or with the bureaucracy surrounding adult referrals, but be persistent and you can get there.

So that brings us to the second question.  Because of how much more confident and comfortable I am now, there is a strong temptation to feel a kind of regret that I wasn’t diagnosed earlier in my life.  But I don’t think the issue is as cut and dried as all that.  Like anyone, my past experiences have made me who I am today.  My resilience and persistent attitude have been partly shaped by facing difficulties and the need to be able to take care of myself in tough times.  I arrived in the dual career that I now successfully pursue in part as a reaction to struggles I had getting on in a more conventional working environment.  I take a huge amount of pride in having achieved the things I have.  Because of or despite being autistic? A healthy dose of both I believe.  Nevertheless, if I’m being totally honest, I would be lying if I said I am perfectly happy with getting my diagnosis at forty.  Being able to gain the understanding I now have of myself when I was a bit younger would have made life’s path a bit smoother, saved me lots of heartache and meant I could ensure I put in place the right strategies, rather than being treated for all kinds of mental and physical health issues that were actually manifestations of being autistic.  That’s not to mention the amount of money I’d have saved on therapy of various kinds!  So a somewhat earlier diagnosis would have had its benefits.  But not so early that I never developed some of those positive aspects of who I am today.  And one hundred percent definitely not in my childhood or youth.

Things are very different today.  There is a much greater understanding of the autism spectrum, especially at the higher functioning end, and young people and their families can access excellent, targeted support at home and in their education, as well as assistance with things like independent living and accessing the workplace.  But when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s?  Not a chance! I seem to think I’d heard of autism when I was young, but not as a spectrum, and certainly not as something that might relate to me, despite my many quirks.  If people were aware of autism at all, it was either the lower functioning part of the spectrum – the “classic” image of a (probably non-verbal) child sitting rocking in a corner, failing to engage with the world – or the “idiot savant” stereotype popularised by media representations like Rain Man.  Certainly, the idea that someone could be autistic, yet still able to live relatively normal, productive lives, have jobs, relationships and families, was far away at that time in history.  Even as awareness and scientific findings developed, if I’d ever been diagnosed in my teens, for example, I can’t help thinking the label would have been a very negative one.  I might well have never had the opportunities I had to gain an excellent education. Autistic kids were in remedial classes or special schools, not Russell Group universities.

So where does that leave me, all in all?  Certainly no regrets about diagnosis, but maybe a slight wondering whether some times in my life could have been easier had it happened a few years earlier.  But overall the good outweighs the bad.  In a world where teenagers with autism get denied a referral by a GP because they caught a ball (“if they were autistic, they wouldn’t even be aware of the ball”) and adults are turned away because they manage to have a relationship (“you can’t be autistic – you’re married”) – both of which are experiences of personal friends of mine in the past few years – I feel lucky that I had a GP who supported me in getting a diagnosis and was able to go down that route five years ago, and that I have been able to learn so much since then from websites, books and other amazing autistic people I have met.

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Every Nottingham Panthers fan of a certain age will have stories about our old ice stadium, which closed in 2000 as we moved into the much bigger, much more modern National Ice Centre.  Indeed, the charity e-book I was recently involved with – “Voices In the Crowd” – contained a couple of contributions sharing memories of the place.  Needless to say, I am no exception, which I guess must mean I am now officially, by my own definition, “of a certain age”.  I remember that unique atmosphere, the great (and plenty of not so great) games and players that the stadium played host to, all the amazing nights of Panthers hockey.

I’m just one of 2800 who can tell those stories, but the building had plenty of personal memories too.  Essentially, it was the backdrop to my childhood, teenage and early adult years.  I started going to matches there when I was 7 and I was 27 when we left, so that’s some pretty formative years right there.  That’s why I’m not going to write about the first time we beat our early rivals Streatham, or the unbelievable atmosphere and heroic performance against Manchester in the 1998 cup semi-final, or the touring Canadian team Don Mills Comets.  I want to remember how it felt to be a kid and to grow up at the Nottingham Ice Stadium.

My overwhelming recollection about the old Ice Stadium is how comfortable I was there (and I’m not talking about the benches here) from within a few months of when we started going.  It’s no exaggeration to say that, other than the houses I’ve actually lived in, it is the place I have felt most at home in my entire life.  Just like a familiar home, I can recall the look, feel and (of course) smell of every inch of it.  I could walk in there tomorrow (if only) and find my way around as though I had never been away.  No matter whether the team was good or bad, and believe me sometimes they were very bad, whether we won or lost, or what was going on in life outside that building, I would always feel good in the stadium.

Our home within home was, for most of the time we spent there, Block 2 Row N, at the end of the row closest to Block 3.  Second to back row, and I’ve always loved watching hockey from a bit higher up – I sit three rows from the back at the NIC now in fact.  Within easy shouting distance of the penalty box, as we and those around us proved on many occasions.  And with a great view of the whole ice, apart from the odd occasion when weather conditions outside made it a bit foggy at the start of the match.  There we sat – my two uncles, my dad, my sister and me.  Apart from my dad, who has now passed away, the rest of us are still season ticket holders.

Sitting by the steps meant an easy escape at the end of each period, but of course where we went changed as time went on.  During the early years, it was the famous sweet shop and/or the merchandise stall. Then all the way round the concourse – although it was really more of a tunnel I suppose – to the corridor outside the dressing rooms, where a gang of kids hung around to see their heroes as they came back out for the next period.  If you were lucky, you got the early 80s equivalent of a high five or fist pump.  On one memorable occasion, Panthers’ hard man Gordie Patterson whipped my black and gold cap off my head and skated onto the ice with it perched atop his helmet.  After the match, it was down to the boards to get a handshake or pat on the head from players during the lap of honour.  It’s worth mentioning that I, my sister – three years younger than me – and (and as far as I know) the other kids too did all this wandering around the stadium without much parental supervision at all.  We sat with dad and our uncles, but other than when the game was in progress we were free range.  Times have certainly changed in that respect, too.  As childhood gave way to teenage years, the hooter meant a dash to the bar – we were lucky as the entrance was directly opposite the steps from our block – for a swift illicit beer.  In later years, round to the bar near the dressing rooms to catch up with friends and have a cigarette – if you were lucky, the odd player came out of the dressing room for a quick smoke too. But as the years went on and we got older, match night was always about the routine.  We went up the same bit of the stairs on the way in, showed our tickets to the same person at the top, went to the same 50/50 seller, got food and drink at the same times and from the same outlets – game after game, season after season.  It was home and just like at home you are totally in your comfort zone when you’re there.

My feelings when the new stadium was announced were mixed.  On the one hand, there was optimism that we would become a bigger team and finally be able to compete with that big-spending, high and mighty arena team from up the M1.  But of course there was also the sadness and nostalgia for the end of a great era that had shaped the spirit of our club and our attitudes as hockey fans.  The final match at the stadium is well documented and it was certainly an emotional occasion.  For some reason, rather than our usual bus trip we got a lift off my uncle, just as we had when we were kids, and we were all reminiscing about the times and faces that we’d known together in that building.  I was sitting in an unfamiliar area – I moved around a bit in the last couple of years – and for the first and only time found myself behind the goal.  I’d expected to be in bits at the end, but had not anticipated standing in floods of tears during the national anthem – a grown man and I didn’t even make it to the opening face-off dry eyed.  The game itself was a non-event.  But everyone recalls the aftermath.  You know the phrase “they’ll take anything that’s not nailed down”?  Well, in this case something being nailed down was no impediment, as Panthers fans got to work with an impressive array of tools to take their own souvenirs of the building.  We have our bench from Block 2 Row N – it lives behind my sister’s sofa and sometimes we’ve been known to watch a match together on TV at her house and put it on the sofa to sit on it.  And that was that, a crazy night that was somehow a fittingly eccentric end to a building of such character, which was one of the great venues in a more spontaneous, less professional era of British hockey.

Actually, the story doesn’t quite end there.  That summer, after the demolition work had started, we went to the Cricks (the Cricket Players, “our pub” adjacent to the stadium for the uninitiated) for a few drinks to celebrate a friend’s birthday.  While waiting for our lift home, my sister and I wandered over to look at the old stadium.  It had no ice pad of course, no roof and the outer walls were partially demolished.  But the basic shape was still largely intact.  We looked at each other, obviously both having exactly the same notion – and before we knew it we were clambering over the construction site fence.  The first thing we did was grab a brick that was lying around – it was from somewhere in the corridors, as one side has that horrible flecked paint that I’m sure we all remember.  Then we were at centre ice, just standing there in silence, soaking up the atmosphere one last time.  It was a personal farewell in a way it could never have been at the final game.  When the wrecking balls moved in, I felt like they were knocking down not just a building but my youth as well, and I am grateful I had the chance to say goodbye to both of them properly.

It’s strange to think now that we have been in the NIC for almost as long as I watched the team at the ice stadium.  Of course I enjoy going there, I feel comfortable, we have our match-night rituals and it is a great place to watch hockey.  But it will never compare.  No matter how many league championships we win there, no matter how good the players are and no matter how many memories we get to share in the place.  It’s our home arena but, for me at least, it will never truly be home.

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Hockey and Aspergers

For those who are new to my blog and don’t know anything about me, a bit of background. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome – an Autism spectrum disorder – just over two years ago at the age of 41. Since then I’ve had to try and make sense of life in a whole new way; the diagnosis has made some things easier and some things harder. This post is about how being on the Autism spectrum has affected my life-long passion for ice hockey and, looking back now, the role that hockey has played in my life as a person with Aspergers.

If you were to tell someone that a person was on the Autism spectrum, one of the things they’d probably expect is that the person would have what are known in Autism circles as special interests, but most people would call obsessions with particular subjects. Although, like every aspect of Autism, it’s impossible to make general statements as each person demonstrates the various diagnostic criteria to a greater or lesser extent, I guess I’m pretty typical in this respect. There are certain subjects and interests that I am passionately keen on and if I like something like a singer, a series of books, a film or whatever then I am likely to know everything about it. One of these interests of mine is sport, particularly ice hockey, which I have been watching since I was 7 years old. My team is the Nottingham Panthers, and I’ve been a passionate supporter pretty much all my life and am still a season ticket holder today.

As far as I know, sport is not a really common Autistic special interest. I’m not sure why – I’ve read articles saying it’s because it has no “point” to it, being a fan of a team even if they are rubbish doesn’t appeal to Autistic people’s tendency to be logical and also because it is unpredictable (which for sports fans is one of the attractions). The last point is interesting. Another typical Autistic trait that is very strong in me is a liking for routines – one of the things most likely to cause me very high stress levels or even “meltdowns” is uncertainty, unpredictability or changes to routines or plans. So where does that fit with my love of hockey? Well, of course the outcome of a sporting fixture is unpredictable (my team’s wildly inconsistent performances for most of this season being a prime example), but there are many aspects of watching hockey that are routine. Matches have a given structure in terms of the playing time, the game has rules (which are sometimes even observed by players and officials) and there is not much that can happen in a match that I’ve not seen many times before. What’s more, I have my own seat in our stadium and matches start at standardised times (7pm on Saturday, 4pm on Sunday, 7.30pm midweek). Like many non-Autistic but superstitious fans I also have my match night rituals – always going in through the same door, getting foods or drinks from the same outlet at the same point in proceedings and so on. So there are still enough aspects that are sufficiently routine and predictable for me not to be outside my comfort zone.

Another aspect of sport that very much falls into “special interest” territory is the trivia and statistics that go with it. This is another area I love. As hockey is very much a North American style sport, stats are a big part of it and this element has always fascinated me. Not so much now maybe, when I have other things (scary, real life things) to occupy parts of my brain, but when I was a kid I was very much into the stats. I suspect that, then and now, most young hockey fans would cut up programmes and hockey magazines and stick pictures of favourite teams and players on their walls. My bedroom walls were covered in stats pages from Panthers programmes and Ice Hockey News Review issues and I can probably still reel off various stats from mid-80s British hockey – don’t worry I’m not going to. The same applies to trivia – who played for which team, when, how they did, the stories and scandals from around the leagues, results and scorers from big matches 20 or 30 years ago – I love the minutiae of the game. I appreciate that there are thousands of hockey fans who share this fascination and are not on the spectrum. I’m not suggesting they may be, just trying to explain why I think the sport provided a perfect outlet for the way my brain functions and especially the encyclopaedic memory that is one of the very positive aspects of my Aspergers.

So much for hockey being very much a special interest. What other impacts has it had on me as a fan with Aspergers? Firstly, it is one of very few activities that I can get totally engrossed in. One of the difficulties of living with Autism is that your brain is constantly buzzing, trying to process and interpret sensory input that most people’s brains just deal with automatically without them even noticing. Watching the Panthers play hockey is different – I am absorbed in the game and my brain is not off trying to process other information or turned inwards on analysing my every thought, word and action, as it is for pretty much the rest of my waking hours. Unless you are on the spectrum you will not be able to appreciate how important that is; you’ll have to trust me. To anyone living with someone with Autism, whether it’s a child, a partner, a friend, I say give them time to pursue their special interests because the benefit to our wellbeing and stress levels of tuning out of the sensory bombardment and into the interest for a couple of hours is one of our very best coping mechanisms. While we’re on the subject of sensory input, I have to say that I don’t have a problem with loud noise, which is why I love hockey matches and live music. I know lots of people with Autism do, so maybe I’m not so typical in that sense.

So I’m engrossed in my team’s match but what I also am at a hockey game is part of a community. This is the same for all sports fans and something they all value hugely. I wouldn’t say it’s more important for someone with Autism, just important in a different way. The thing is, even if you don’t have a diagnosis until your 40s like me, you always know that you are different from other people and you always feel like an outsider in a world that often makes very little sense. But not at a hockey game. Yesterday, when I was at Sheffield Arena cheering my team to a dramatic overtime win in the cup final, I wasn’t different – I was the same as all the other hundreds of people wearing Panthers shirts. As with the previous benefit I talked about, I cannot over-emphasise how incredible it feels for a person with Autism to feel, for once, that they are just like other people, part of something, and accepted because they wear the same shirt and support the same team. Not different, not weird, not on the outside looking in.

Social anxiety is another issue that often goes hand in hand with Autism. Typically for someone with Aspergers, although I have learned to hide it to some extent, I find social situations extremely daunting and will often feel sick and be in tears before I leave to go into such a situation, even somewhere I really want to go with people I know and like. Small talk is something I find completely impenetrable, and conversation generally is a minefield due to difficulties in picking up non-verbal messages. What hockey does for me is grease the wheels a little bit – before a match, during a match, after a match, online or face to face with other fans, the sport, teams and matches provide ready-made conversation material that you know plenty about and are interested in. Again, it’s something anyone with Aspergers would be grateful for to hides the difference you spend most of your time feeling and overcome the challenge you normally face in that kind of situation.

So I can talk to hockey fans of any team or even from any country about the game more easily than I can to most people, especially strangers. But what is even more important is that through supporting the Nottingham Panthers I have made some of my closest friendships. I just spent a great weekend away with friends I met through the hockey. We watch matches together, we have travelled to Germany to watch matches together, we talk about the game, we reminisce about the game, and we’ve even raised thousands of pounds through our hockey-based charity event The Rink Rush. I guess most hockey fans met friends or even life partners through the sport but as someone who has always found it very hard to establish close friendships, I know that shared interest and passion has helped me meet people who have enriched my life, when I might otherwise have struggled to build those bonds.

Finally, we come to something that may be a bit controversial but I truly believe is a benefit I have gained from being a hockey fan over the years, and that is what it has taught me about emotions. People with Aspergers or other forms of Autism are often accused of lacking emotional response, being unfeeling, and especially having no empathy. Like most, I find this completely untrue and rather offensive. We feel a full range of emotions, although we may process them and express them differently. As for empathy, it is hard but certainly nowhere near impossible. Personally, I actually tend to empathise to quite an exaggerated degree but I usually need to have seen or ideally experienced the relevant emotion first hand to do so. Where do we learn about emotions and how to deal with them? Many people (myself included) look to books, films and songs for examples to follow. But I’ve always been able to look somewhere else too – to hockey. Sport is all about passion and emotion, and being a fan of a team for 35 years means I have seen and felt them all – from the gut-wrenching disappointment of a big defeat, to the frustration of a terrible referee, to the anger at being cheated by underhand opposition tactics, to the satisfaction of victory, to the pride of a backs to the wall performance by your team, to the overwhelming release of a moment like our first league title in over half a century. Of course, I appreciate that these are only a shadow of the huge emotional impacts we experience in “real life” because of grief or personal achievements or our relationships, but seeing them and feeling them as a hockey fan has given me an understanding and empathy that I know I might otherwise have struggled to achieve. What I still struggle with is levels of emotion, in hockey as in life more generally. Our current coach, Corey Neilson, is often praised for his level-headed approach – never getting too high in the good times or too low in the bad times. Unfortunately that’s not me. Like Spinal Tap’s amps, my emotional gauge goes up to 11 but I don’t really have 1 to 10; it’s all or nothing, black or white. Which is why some of my hockey-related social media contributions, blog posts and even in-game outbursts can tend towards the extremes. So if you’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of reading or hearing one of my rants, I do apologise.

So what does all this mean? Looking back over my life, knowing what I know now after my diagnosis, it makes perfect sense why I got so into hockey, why it has held my attention for so many years and why it has been so important to me. Perhaps other hockey fans with Autism have different experiences and have taken other positive things from the sport, or maybe parents who take kids with Autism to watch matches are just at the start of a journey. What I do know is this. Yesterday at the cup final I stood in a crowd of people that I felt one hundred percent part of, I spent the best part of three hours with my brain focused on a hockey match not the million and one other stimuli it is usually battling with, and I shared an emotional experience with members of my family and some of my closest friends. And for someone with Aspergers, those are precious things.

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A Level Playing Field

I quite enjoy social media.  I probably spend longer on it than I should but many of us are guilty of that.  But what is it I like?  Well, obviously all the things that everyone likes about it – easy and quick way of communicating, keep up with friends, acquaintances and business contacts, be nosey about what people are up to, interact with people whose ideas you like, find out about issues and stuff that is of interest…….

But as an individual on the autism spectrum, there’s another thing too.  Whenever you hear media reports about online bullying, trolling etc. people talk about how online communication can be hard as you can’t see the person’s face or body language, and you can’t hear their tone of voice, all of which means it’s easier for misinterpretations and misunderstandings to happen.  While that may be a problem for many people, if you’re on the autism spectrum it’s a plus point.

Most people with autism have huge difficulty in interpreting expression, body language and tone of voice.  It’s one of the major reasons why communication is perhaps the biggest issue we face.  Whenever we speak to people face to face or on the phone, we find ourselves at a huge disadvantage.  Believe me, it is exhausting trying to quickly process all the information and confusing signals coming your way, and to try to learn and mimic the way other people interact.  But on the internet, everyone is in the same boat. All of you people out there without autism get a chance to discover for yourselves what we have to experience every single time we need to communicate with someone.  It’s the only place or time when people with autism are faced with a level playing field in terms of communication.  That’s why it appeals to me.  Yes, I misunderstand or misinterpret things that people write online, but the great thing is that in this case so does everybody else.  I’m not the weird or different one.  And you don’t know how good that feels once in a while.

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Christmas Greetings To All Our Friends

As we have for the last few years, Sally-Jayne and I have decided to make a charity donation rather than sending Christmas cards to all our friends. This year, we have chosen to donate to the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS).

Sally-Jayne has spent a lot of time over the past couple of years working in a school for deaf children, and through that we have seen first-hand how important the kind of support the NDCS can provide is for children and their families.

We’d like to wish all of you – and your families – a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


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