The people and organisations raising awareness of autism 52 weeks of the year

The people and organisations raising awareness of autism 52 weeks of the year

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll probably have noticed I love a national day/week/month. They are a great way to get people talking about a particular issue, for example, from 26th March – 4th April National Autism Awareness Week took place with World Autism Day occurring on Friday 2nd April. It was through researching autism during this period that I learnt it’s estimated there are 25 million autistic people in the world. Until a generation ago autism was frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed, creating autisms ‘invisible generation’. Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who has performed a comedy special for Netflix where she talks about her autism, was diagnosed at the age of 38. Scottish singer Susan Boyle was diagnosed at 51 and Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins was 77 when he was diagnosed.

It’s important the conversations and education that are prompted by a national day/week/month continue throughout the whole year so we can increase our knowledge and understanding. That’s why this month I wanted to talk about the people and schemes that are championing inclusivity of autism all year round.

Discovering an authentic voice

Representation of autistic characters in TV and film have often been perceived as stereotypical geniuses such as Raymond in Rain Man or Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Yes, some aspects of these characters are true of autism for some people. However, as with all developmental disabilities, the strengths and challenges each person experiences varies. By ensuring mainstream media includes an authentic, more diverse representation, a greater understanding of what autism is and how it effects the individual can be achieved. This can also empower autistic people who see a more authentic representation of themselves on screen.

English naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, and Paralympic swimmer, Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE are three autistic people that are challenging these stereotypes. Within their efforts to raise awareness of pressing subjects such as conservationism and climate change, they are also educating the world about autism simply by being themselves.

A powerful voice in global politics

Greta Thunberg first made it into the public eye in 2018 at the age of 15. She had started spending her school days outside the Swedish Parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign that read Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).

Greta was diagnosed with autism during childhood, at the age of 12. When Greta first made it into the public eye, she did not disclose her autism diagnosis not because she was ashamed of it but because she knew (in her own words): “many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness’, or something negative”. This unfortunately still rings true with many trolls targeting her on social media due to her autism. Greta has fought her corner brilliantly often using humour to silence her critics, who sometimes include world leaders. After one trolling experience Greta tweeted: “when haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” Her autism is now something she freely talks about in interviews describing it as gift that “makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things.”

At just 18 years old she has already received several honours and awards such as inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people, being the youngest Time Person of the Year, inclusion in the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women (2019) and three consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (2019–2021). By being vocal about her autism and standing up to trolls Greta is using her platform to help educate people on autism as well as showing autistic people old and young that they don’t need to hide in the shadows. They have a voice and they can use it to create great change.

Representation on National TV

Chris Packham has been a regular on TV for over 30 years. You may know him from his time presenting The Really Wild Show in the mid 80’s to early 90’s. More recently, he has become a staple for BBC nature programmes such as Springwatch and Winterwatch.

Chris was diagnosed with autism at the age of 44. Since then, he has been using his established TV career to help raise awareness of autism. Talking about his autism in a 2018 interview Chris said:

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been given a small voice because of the work I’ve done on television and elsewhere and I think that therefore I have a duty to use that voice to try and make things better for others. It’s very difficult for some members of the autistic community to articulate the way that they feel and the problems that they have […] I hate the idea of loads of people out there not able to have fulfilled lives, play a role simply because there isn’t a wider understanding of the condition and a degree of tolerance in society. I had a duty to stand up for all of those people that didn’t have that voice.”

In October 2017 he became an ambassador for the National Autistic Society. That year he also presented a BBC documentary about his experience of autism. You can watch the documentary in full here. During the documentary Chris is walking his dog in a forest, a setting that is associated with calm and relaxation. Chris explains the sensory overload he is experiencing. Not only is there traffic in the distance and a jet flying overhead but there are also several birds, all of which he can name, singing to each other.

To have a better understanding of autism it’s important to be aware of experiences such as sensory overloads. The National Autistic Society has produced an insightful video (below) which tries to convey the sensory overload an autistic person may experience when in a busy shopping centre.

Inclusion in sport

During her career as a Paralympic swimmer, Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE has set more than 70 British records. At the age of 15 she was the first British S14 swimmer to win gold in this category. When she was four years old she was diagnosed with autism. Similar to Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg, Jessica-Jane uses her voice to educate and raise awareness around autism, particularly autism in sport.

In the summer of 2019 Jessica-Jane was a guest speaker at the very first Sport You Can conference. The conference took place in parliament and showcased the best examples of inclusion within sport for people with learning disabilities such as autism. Speaking at the event Jessica-Jane said “Sport must become accessible to everyone whether you want to take part yourself, coach, volunteer, spectate or socialise. It’s fantastic for physical and mental health and actually changes lives.” Unfortunately, the event did not take place last year due to the pandemic but hopefully it will become an annual event.

Jessica-Jane has also helped open up discussions around autism in sport through her work with Sport and Autism (UK) CIC, or Spautism for short. Spautism was formed last year and aims to improve the quality of the experience for autistic people competing, spectating or working within sport. From interviews with successful autistic sports people to sharing positive autism in sport news stories, Spautism is opening up the conversation around inclusion within sport whilst empowering autistic people that may have some concerns about joining a sporting community.

Over to you

As always, I’d love to hear your views. Let me know in the comments of people/organisations/schemes you know of that are championing autism awareness during all 52 weeks of the year. The above are examples of work being done by a few individuals. Imagine the acceptance and inclusivity that could be achieved and the stereotypes that could be banished if the conversations that were created around National Autism Awareness Week took place every week.

The six-point mental wellbeing plan I’m taking with me out of lockdown

The six-point mental wellbeing plan I’m taking with me out of lockdown

There’s no denying mental wellness has been a hot topic over the last year across all ages, sectors and regions around the globe. Towards the end of 2020 NUS surveyed 4,000 students. More than half said their mental wellness had deteriorated during the pandemic but less than a third had asked for help. A recent survey by Mind found that 60% of adults (aged over 24) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. UK introductory live-in care agency, Elder, found that 1 in 3 elderly people were lonelier in the wake of COVID-19.

The pandemic has changed our way of life. It has layered on daily challenges and obstacles that make it harder for each of us individually to understand and effectively maintain our mental wellbeing. Lockdown restrictions have forced us to try activities we wouldn’t normally consider, from Zoom quizzes with the family to racking up miles in outdoor walks. It’s safe to say we won’t miss lockdown restrictions when they finally come to an end. There are however, certainly actions I have learned to take during this time that have helped maintain my mental wellbeing, which I will continue to practice post-lockdown.

A new concept for understanding and managing mental wellness

At the same time as learning to manage my own mental wellness in my personal life, the Learning Labs team has been developing a new concept for understanding and managing mental wellness. Learning Labs teamed up with New Economic Foundation (NEF) to carry out extensive research which resulted in the discovery of a new mental wellbeing concept, the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM. This takes the daunting and intangible subject of mental wellness and makes it easy to understand and manage. It also forms the foundations of the newly developed Learning Labs mental wellbeing digital tool. As this has now reached launch stage, I have been an early tester, enabling me to assess my mental wellness daily. This has been a reflective process during lockdown restrictions and I realised the steps I had already been taking to manage my mental wellbeing actually aligned with the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM. It also highlighted some areas that I had missed and could try new things to maintain.

Here’s my wellbeing plan based on the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM concept – something I will continue even when restrictions are lifted because in many ways, I feel a lot happier and healthier mentally than before. For the parts that are missing (e.g. socialising!) I am looking forward to feeling more fulfilled with when we can meet people and interact as normal.

1. 10,000 steps a day for my Physical Wellness

From March until the end of June last year, there were almost one million downloads of the ‘Couch to 5K’ app. This was a 92% increase compared to the same period in 2019. I am proud to say I am one of the people who downloaded the app. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed running and how much it positively affected my mental wellness.

A 2019 study found that spending just 20 minutes in a park, even if you don’t exercise during that time, is enough to improve your mental wellbeing. Even if I don’t feel up for a run, I aim to walk 10,000 steps a day. I use it as a time to reflect (more on that later) and to listen to some podcasts. My favourites at the moment are Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place and Grounded by Louis Theroux. I also have the added benefit of interacting with other people even if it is a simple ‘hello’ to a dog walker. I think we can all agree social interactions are one of the main things people have missed the most during lockdowns.

2. FaceTiming mum and dad daily for my Social Wellness

Growing up in Liverpool and now living in Newcastle, like many people, I’ve not been able to see my friends and family as much as I would like over the past year. I’ve made sure that I have FaceTimed my friends and family regularly to maintain that social connection for them as well as myself. As a result I’ve probably spoken to them more frequently than prior to the pandemic!

Luckily, we live in a world where technology enables us to almost instantly discover how our friends and family are. Can you imagine experiencing the pandemic without WhatsApp, Facetime or Zoom? During the first lockdown the proportion of UK online adults making video calls doubled, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly. There’s no surprise that the app to see the biggest growth was Zoom. In January 2020 there 659,000 adults in the UK using Zoom. By April 2020 13 million adults were using it – a rise of almost 2,000%.

3. Setting myself goals for my Spiritual Wellness

At the beginning of the year not only was it dark, cold and wet but we were entering our third lockdown. To try and keep myself focussed on what I wanted to achieve in 2021 I made a goals board for the year ahead. There were big goals, like passing my driving test, but also smaller goals such as drinking more water and reading a book a month. So far this year I have read ‘Everything I know about love’ by Dolly Alderton, ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Renni Eddo Lodge and I am currently reading ‘Not a Life Coach’ by James Smith. The process of making my 2021 goals board not only supported my sense of self-esteem and purpose (which are key drivers of Spiritual Wellness) but also helped maintain my Intellectual Wellness, which is all about stimulating your mind.

4. Painting (by numbers) for my Intellectual Wellness

When lockdown started, I thought it was a great excuse to have a Netflix binge – what else was I going to do? Like the rest of the country, I got obsessed with the likes of Tiger King and Normal People. Watching TV was fine for a couple of hours but I found, for my own mental wellness, I needed something more stimulating than the life of Joe Exotic. I’m not the most gifted person when it comes to arts and crafts so I started paint by numbers. It’s basically colouring in the lines for adults. My masterpieces so far include a vase of purple flowers and a Tiger King inspired colourful tiger.

I’m not the only one who has taken up a new hobby during the last year. A recent survey found 22 per cent of respondents had taken up a new pastime in lockdown, while 35 per cent had rediscovered an old one. 41% of those taking up a new hobby reported a positive impact on their mental wellness, compared to 30% for those focusing on old hobbies.

5. Reducing my phone screen time for my Motivational Wellness

Motivational Wellness was a little trickier at first for me to think of how I had or would support this domain. Intrinsic self-motivation is all about our ability to make daily choices and feel in control of our lives – something lockdown restrictions certainly impacted. I realised though that something I had done was reduce my screen time and specifically my hours spent on social media. It’s all too easy to find yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media, even more so during a national lockdown and a global pandemic. There were constant news reports and a mix of posts you did or did not want to see on social media. I realised by being more present in my life and focusing on the things I could control made me feel a lot more motivated. Plus, the blue light emitted from your phone can also disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Therefore, I have been making a conscious effort to not look at my phone two hours before I go to bed. With a better night sleep, I am more likely to feel energised and willing to go for a walk which will improve my Physical Wellness. If I am not on my phone, I can be doing other things like painting which maintains my Intellectual Wellness.

6. Concentrating on positives for my Emotional Wellness

It’s all too easy to concentrate on negative experiences, particularly during a global pandemic. I have started to spend a short amount of time every day writing down all the positives that I have experienced. These can be something simple like completing a piece of work or finishing a book, keeping me on track for my goals of 2021. I often use the time on my daily walk to reflect on the day and focus on the positives I’ve experienced. Being able to assess my overall wellbeing using the Learning Labs tool has also provided a regular interval for reflection of my emotions. The Lab on Emotional Wellness explained to me that it’s not about being happy all the time, it’s about maintaining a healthy balance over time, which I feel is far more realistic and achievable.

Over to you

UK mental health charities and experts have recently said the lifting of restrictions could trigger heightened levels of stress and anxiety for many people. It’s therefore important that once restrictions are lifted, and once the pandemic has ended, we continue the discussions about mental health. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you been maintaining your mental wellness during lockdown restrictions? How do you intend to keep it up pre-lockdown? Also, feel free to recommend any podcasts I could listen to during my walks or books you think I should add to my reading list, I’ve got nine more to read this year.

You can now get in touch with Emma if you are interested in a demo of the new Learning Labs mental wellbeing hub: emmasheakey@e-qualitylearning.com. The Learning Labs mental wellbeing hub has been designed for DSA students, DSA professionals and university site licences.

Three initiatives creating positive visibility of autism in society

Three initiatives creating positive visibility of autism in society

Great minds think alike. It’s a funny saying isn’t it and, in my opinion, not true. The proverb is over 400 years old so obviously the world has changed a lot since then, including our understanding of the mind and how unique it truly is from person to person. Neurodiversity, such as autism, can affect the way people think, communicate and interact with the world. We know you don’t have to think the same as someone else to succeed, in fact, having a unique outlook can often put you at an advantage.

I mentioned in last month’s blog the benefit of national awareness campaigns and how they can get people talking about a particular topic and from 29th March to 4th April World Autism Week takes place. A report by Britain’s National Autistic Society (NAS) found that only 16 percent of autistic adults were in full-time work in 2016 and over a third of autistic adults have reported serious mental health problems. This got me thinking, aside from the national awareness campaigns, what else is being done to put autistic people front and centre in the world of work and society as a whole and affect positive change to the NAS stats?

Creating an awareness of autism from an early age

Looking back at the TV and films I watched as a child I can’t think of one example of a character that had a disability or learning difficulty. Thankfully, that has changed and children’s TV and film today is more inclusive. This helps educate the audience that everyone is different and enables children with disabilities or learning difficulties to identify with characters they see on screen.

Loop is a short film by Disney Pixar and is available on Disney+. The film follows two youngsters on a canoe trip. Marcus is neurotypical and Renee is on the autism spectrum. The film follows them as they learn to see the world from each other’s viewpoints. The character of Renee is voiced by an autistic actress, which gives the character an authentic autistic voice and speech pattern. The film gives you a view into Renee’s world by literally letting you see the world through her eyes during various points of the trip.

Through researching Loop, I learnt about the Sesame Street character Julia. Julia is an autistic character who has featured on the show since 2017. Her first episode was aired in April, during World Autism Awareness Month, launching in Spanish and English-speaking countries before being rolled out to more of Sesame Street’s 150 televised countries. In Julia’s first episode her autism is celebrated rather than seen as something that can prevent her from succeeding. Julia’s autism sees her flapping her hands when she gets excited and needing to take a break from playing and do some breathing exercises when some passing sirens become too much for her sensitive hearing. This is all explained and understood by the characters. Julia soon became a fan favourite and has been in Sesame Street ever since. Talking about Julia, Rose Jochum of the Autism Society of America said: “for all the little kids who have autism, it’s validating to see characters like themselves on television, instead of feeling invisible.”

You’re hired! Helping autistic people gain employment

Recent research has found that autistic graduates are the least likely of all disabled students to find employment. Only 33% of autistic graduates are in full-time work. In 2018 the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission conducted a survey of 600 neurodivergent people in the UK which found 52 per cent had faced discrimination during recruitment processes. So why not, during the recruitment process, email questions to neurodiverse candidates in advance or arrange interviews so the candidate doesn’t have to travel during busy rush hours? UK charity, Ambitious about Autism, has teamed up with Santander Universities UK to create the Higher Education Network – an employment programme specifically for autistic students and graduates. The programme helps autistic students and graduates access paid internships and tailored careers support and advice. There are 17 universities signed up to the programme covering all corners of the UK from Bangor University to Kingston University London to Northumbria University Newcastle. Ambitious about Autism trains careers staff at these universities so they can fully support autistic students.

As part of the programme autistic students and graduates at the universities can take part in a six-week internship. The aim of these six-week internships is to encourage students to prepare, apply, successfully complete and reflect on their work experience while at the same time effectively educating businesses and organisations on the benefits neurodiversity can bring to their workforce. These internships are due to start in June this year. Click here to find out more about the internships and how businesses and organisations can get involved.

#OurVoiceOurRights

ENABLE Scotland, National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism are working on a campaign called #OurVoiceOurRights, which aims to make Scotland the best country in the world for autistic people and people with a learning disability. The three organisations are campaigning for all major political parties in Scotland to commit to a Commissioner for autistic people and people with a learning disability.

The Commissioner would be an active voice for the 120,000 people with a learning disability and the 56,000 autistic people who live in Scotland. By having the Commissioner in place, autistic people and people with a learning disability would be more likely to gain better access to additional support in education and employment. Hopefully, a Commissioner is appointed not just in Scotland but in the whole of the UK, if not the world. How great would it be if all countries aspired to be the best residence for autistic people and people with a learning disability?

Click here to find out more about #OurVoiceOurRights

Over to you

These are just some of the ways greater visibility is being created for autism. I’d love to hear of any others you know of. Let me know in the comments. It doesn’t have to be a big movement or campaign, there are simple measures that can be put in place.

At Learning Labs we have developed our own Disability Confidence Course which aims to provide a clear understanding and awareness of disability. Get in touch if you would like to talk more about our Disability Confidence Course and the possibility of offering it to your workplace.

Our brain is as unique as our fingerprint so it makes sense that we don’t all think alike. We all think differently and bring something unique to the table. It’s initiatives like the ones above that help highlight this and educate that this is OK. As Big bird said when he made friends with Julia “All of my friends are different. Each one is unique.”

Dyslexia – the unknown superpower

Dyslexia – the unknown superpower

When you hear the term superpower what do you think of? X-ray vision, invisibility, or my personal favourite the ability to fly? Imagine a world where you could fly to work rather than catch an overcrowded bus. Of course, all these superpowers are the work of the imagination but what if there was a real superpower that around 10% of the UK population had? A superpower that gave those people the unique ability to think differently, see the world differently. Well you’ve probably already heard of it; I’m talking about dyslexia.

Over the last few months, I’d been aware of dyslexia making it into the headlines. This Morning host, Holly Willoughby, has recently spoken about the struggles she experienced having dyslexia. Earlier in the year Strictly Come Dancing star AJ Pritchard and his brother Curtis discussed growing up with dyslexia. Even royalty have spoken out about dyslexia. In May, Princess Beatrice spoke about her life with the learning difficulty. This got me wondering what other well-known dyslexics there were and how their unique ability might have empowered them to achieve their goals.

Dyslexia can throw a whole host of challenges at you on a daily basis. But the different perspective it gives you can also provide you with a whole host of solutions. Read on to feel inspired, like I did, as I share my research into how these well-known dyslexics overcame the challenges they faced, not in spite of their learning disability but often because of it.

Sally Gardner – Award-winning author

You may think being dyslexic would mean you wouldn’t excel in reading and writing. Award winning children’s author, Sally Gardner, proves that is not the case. Yes, she found reading and writing difficult growing up, which was not helped by the lack of support she received. Her teachers labelled her ‘unteachable’ which contributed to her learning to read at the age of 14. However, once she left mainstream school and joined art college there was no stopping her. She was in a learning environment that suited her strengths. She left art college with a first-class honours degree and won a prestigious award to become a theatre designer.

Between 2005 and 2007 her children’s books were shortlisted for the British Children’s Book of the Year and the Stockton Children’s Book of the Year as well as winning Nestlé Children’s Book Prize for ages 9 to 11 years.

Sally has become an advocate for dyslexia awareness. She has conducted many interviews and talks where she addresses the way dyslexia gave Sally her success. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, for Dyslexia Awareness Week, she said “It’s taken me years to be proud of having dyslexia. So, if you have it, be brave… I think dyslexia has amazing gifts to give, so don’t despair. Your gift is there.”

John Lennon – World-renowned musician

As I grew up just outside Liverpool, it wouldn’t feel right if my list didn’t include at least one Scouser. Like many dyslexics John Lennon was never officially diagnosed. However, he had several traits that are common with dyslexia, for example difficulty spelling and retaining information. A fan of music from an early age, he would find it difficult to remember other people’s music and lyrics. He would therefore make up his own words to the melody. A coping mechanism that he used to build a whole career in song writing that the world over would come to know well and love.

Whoopi Goldberg – EGOT-winning actress

Whoopi Goldberg has had an amazing career, which started at the age of 14. At one point she was the highest paid female actor in Hollywood and is also one of only 15 people to have won an EGOT (an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award). I personally feel her best work is Sister Act and Sister Act 2, which I have been known to watch back to back on more than one occasion. Growing up she was often labelled as lazy or stupid by her teachers due to her dyslexia. Being dyslexic meant she learnt differently to the ‘conventional’ way. She would retain information a lot easier if it was told to her but would struggle with any written information. She’s taken this way of learning into her acting career and will often get people to read her script to her to help her memorise the lines.

Cher – Singer and Oscar winning actress

Like many people growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s American singer, and my go to karaoke artist, Cher, went through school without being diagnosed with dyslexia. It wasn’t until she was 30 and her son was being assessed for dyslexia that she realised they shared some of the same learning traits and she got herself assessed.

Growing up she found it difficult to read quickly enough to get her homework done. Unfortunately, there wasn’t the knowledge or support there is today. Since discovering she was dyslexic, she has worn the label with pride. When asked if she would change having dyslexia she replied “No! It caused pain, but it’s me!”

Jamie Oliver - Chef and restaurateur

Unlike the well-known people above, celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, was diagnosed with dyslexia while he was still in school. Like many dyslexics he found he performed best in creative subjects, where he needed to use his hands.

At secondary school Jamie’s dyslexia got him labelled as ‘special needs’ and for five years he received extra support. Discussing his time at school Jamie said “I was given all the support for the time but it wasn’t my place to shine.”

I’ve no doubt Jamie Oliver would have benefitted from the likes of Sally Gardner and Whoopi Goldberg speaking out about their experiences with dyslexia, even if it was just a case of teachers getting a better understanding of how to personalise learning to meet the individual’s needs.

Leonardo da Vinci – Renaissance artist and engineer

Famous for painting the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci grew up over 400 years before dyslexia was even discovered. Therefore, it’s impossible to know for sure if he did have the learning difficulty. However, his work displays many traits associated with dyslexia. Not only did he excel in creative activities such as painting but he also had several different ways of writing the same word, he would often write his notes in reverse mirror image, a trait which is sometimes shared by left-handed dyslexic adults.

Something to be proud of

Many of the people I have mentioned were given labels rather than seen as individuals. Despite this, they found ways on their own to adapt their learning, whether that be getting someone to read the information to them or excelling in creative subjects. These individuals understood the value they could provide even when the environment they were in was not able to provide the support and tools they needed. Today, we have numerous specialist software and dyslexia support professionals who are highly skilled at understanding an individual and helping them find their superpower.

Like all good superpowers, having a learning disability can also leave individuals subject to criticism. Many people with learning difficulties also report mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, often caused by frustration and low self-esteem experienced in the classroom.

The eagle eyed among you may have noticed our company logos have looked slightly different this month. Throughout October we have been celebrating Dyslexia Awareness Month by joining the #GoRedForDyslexia campaign. You can find out more about this here. By getting involved in #GoRedForDyslexia and more well-known dyslexics coming forward and shouting about their super power I hope we can see an end to the stigma dyslexics can still encounter. I’d like to end with this quote by John Lennon which I think can apply, not just to people with dyslexia but anyone who feels they might be slightly different and not sure how to embrace this:

“You don’t need anybody to tell you who you are or what you are. You are what you are!”

 

Four AT innovations in 2020 that could help combat challenges of the pandemic

Four AT innovations in 2020 that could help combat challenges of the pandemic

There seems to be a national day for everything. Some are just plain ridiculous – anyone planning on celebrating ‘Pretend to be a time traveller day’? However, some national days are useful at highlighting a particular issue. The 18th November – 20th December is UK Disability History Month. It was while I was researching UK Disability History Month that I came across an article by the World Health Organisation that stated ‘only one in ten people in need have access to assistive technology’. There can be a whole host of reasons behind this figure such as lack of availability, training and/or funding etc. Assistive technology (AT) is such a broad term covering everything from toothbrushes to robots and with new products frequently coming onto the market it can be difficult to make sure you’re aware of all the new developments. That’s why this month, at the end of 2020, I decided to share with you my favourite AT finds from the past 12 months. I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the below AT, especially if you have had any first-hand experience of it. Also let me know if you think there’s a new and innovative AT that I missed off my list.

1. Robots vs poor mental health

There’s no denying 2020 has seen the topic of mental health come to the foreground. With local and national lockdowns causing large amounts of the country to spend time away from friends and family, people have been dealing with mental health conditions that they may not have experienced prior to the pandemic. One of the main issues being loneliness. Earlier this year robots were used in a number of care homes to help tackle the issue of loneliness.

The robots can move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands. After some initial programming, the robots can learn about the interests of the care home residents, have basic conversations with them and even play their favourite music or teach them a new language.

Trials showed care home residents who interacted with the robots had a significant improvement in their mental health. You may think this sounds like something from a sci-fi film, I know I did when I read about it, but robots are not a new concept. Is this not just a step up from having Siri or Alexa available at the sound of your voice?

Before the pandemic it was reported that 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England. This equates to twenty million people. Research by Sense has shown that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. Could we eventually live in a world where robots are commonplace to prevent feelings of loneliness? Not sure it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but this is certainly a positive use of innovative technology for a very current, growing issue.

2. Smart glove signing vs face mask barriers

With social distancing coming into effect and face coverings become the literal must-have fashion accessory, 2020 has made us rethink the way we communicate with each other. The way you communicate with someone should empower you, not restrict you.

Earlier this year, bioengineers in America revealed a glove that can translate American Sign Language to speech in real time. The glove contains thin, stretchable sensors which run to the fingertips and can pick up motions and finger placement thanks to electronically conducting yarn – I’m not sure you’ll find that on the shelves in Hobbycraft! The device turns the finger movements into electrical signals which are sent to a small piece of circuit board (about the same size of a coin) which the user wears on their wrist. The circuit board then transmits these signals, via Bluetooth, to an app on your smartphone or tablet which will then display what has been signed.

This AT could not have come at a better time. AT can help people with hearing impairments communicate with a wider audience, whilst maintaining their social distance. However, it’s important to not take AT developments, like this one, for granted. I will still be increasing my sign language vocabulary so that I can also communicate with a wider audience.

Last year eQS held a lunch ‘n’ learn session on sign language, which was one of my favourite lunch ‘n’ learn sessions ever. Thanks to the session, and a campaign we ran during Deaf Awareness Week this year, I can sign ‘Hello. My name is Emma’ and ‘Stay home. Stay safe,’ and hopefully we will have another workshop next year so I can pick up some basic conversational skills.

3. Reading devices vs too much screen time

Earlier this year the OrCam Read was released and I was lucky enough to try it out. It is a portable reading device, created to support those with visual impairments but also as an aid for dyslexia or reading fatigue.

Trying this first-hand was a useful way of understanding how this could empower individuals with dyslexia or reading fatigue. With remote learning becoming the norm in 2020, some students have found it difficult to adapt to this new way of learning, which has increased our screen time. The OrCam Read helps them learn independently while they are away from the conventional classroom setting. As I found out first-hand, it can also help with day-to-day activities like baking that instagrammable banana bread we all tried our hand at during lockdown.

The device has two modes. Frame mode, where a frame appears that you position around the specific text you want read aloud, and pointer mode which displays a single red dot which allows you to more accurately select a specific word to start reading from.

I started a new book called ‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo and used this as an opportunity to try it out. After staring at a laptop all day, it was nice to have something read aloud to me and saved straining my eyes, especially with it getting dark about 3pm at the moment. I also used it while I was whipping up some mince pies. I got the OrCam Read to snapshot the whole recipe then, using the pause, play and skip buttons, I had the recipe read to me as I went along.

4. Eye-movement control vs isolation

The world’s first eye-controlled device for iPad Pro was also released this year. Skyle has two tracing devices which detect your eye movement and turns them into pointer movements on your iPad, enabling users with conditions such as cerebral palsy, ALS and spinal cord injuries to use all the features of their iPad Pro.

By having this functionality users can experience new independence and benefits that come from being able to easily stay in contact with friends and family electronically via Zoom calls and social media. Something that has become the norm during the pandemic, especially for those having to shield at home for falling into a higher risk category.

Sadly, the Skyle is only available to use with iPad Pros but a year ago this device wasn’t even on the market so hopefully, as more people discover it and the demand for variations becomes apparent, it will become available for all devices.

To see how empowering this particular AT is to someone who is suffering from ALS, check out the review below, which was written by only using the Skyle:

What will the future hold?

AT users can experience greater independence thanks to new AT developments, and as Pretend to Be a Time Traveller Day took place this month why not envision how you think AT could progress in the future? Do you have an innovative idea? Or is there an issue that isn’t currently supported any existing AT? Just think, if the above innovations happened over the last year, imagine what could be available in five, ten, even twenty years? Maybe we’ll see AT go to infinity and beyond.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”. Three techniques that are driving positive conversations about mental health in 2021.

“A problem shared is a problem halved”. Three techniques that are driving positive conversations about mental health in 2021.

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of January. It’s no secret January can be one of the toughest months of the year when it comes to mental health. On top of its usual challenges, January this year was like no other due to the global pandemic. With this in mind I wanted to look at the positives out there, so I have been looking at innovative resources that are available to support people’s mental health.

As I was researching this topic one thing stood out. The main concept across the three resources I discovered was to get people talking about mental health. Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has recently been reported as saying the coronavirus crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war. Therefore, now more than ever it is important people don’t suffer in silence and know mental health is not a taboo subject. In a survey conducted by Time to Change, 61% of people asked said mental health stigma and discrimination is as worse as the problem itself. The pandemic has brought a new reality that we are all experiencing together. It’s created a sense of comradery which people are drawing on to discuss mental health. It’s important though that we don’t lose this post-Covid and still encourage conversations around mental health. Let me know via the comments at the end of this blog of any other mental health initiatives you’ve discovered that you think should be on the list below.

1. Nationwide awareness campaigns to get people talking

There are several mental health national days and weeks that run throughout the year such as Mental Health Awareness Week (18th – 24th May), National Suicide Prevention Day (10th September) and World Mental Health Awareness Day (10th October). The most recent mental health national day, Time to Talk Day, takes place next week (4th February) and aims to get people talking about mental health. During the run up to and on Time to Talk Day last year 2.26 million people talked about their mental health more than they usually would.

Time to Talk Day is about encouraging people to let someone know you’re listening, creating space to share openly, and being there for someone who may be struggling with their mental health.

Thanks to technology, even though we may be in lockdown, we can still take part in Time to Talk Day. This year they have created a card game, which aims to help open up the conversation around mental health. The cards contain different questions which one person reads out. Everyone else then guesses which answer the reader would choose. Their choice is then revealed and everyone discusses what was chosen and why. By having more than one scenario a conversation is more likely to occur as there are more options to discuss. You can download the cards here.

Mental health problems aren’t going to go away once the pandemic is over. Statistically, 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year. The amount of people with common mental health problems went up by 20% between 1993 to 2014, in both men and women. To tackle mental health problems, we need to talk about mental health and listen to those conversations when they take place.

2. Social media entertainment that starts a trending conversation

Actor, comedian and mental health advocate, Joe Tracini, first piqued my interest during the first lockdown thanks to his flamboyant dance routines that he posted on Twitter (more on those later). However, he has been using his platform for a few years to open up and discuss his Borderline Personality Disorder and the effect this has on his mental health. Joe’s philosophy being; “if you feel alone tell somebody how you feel, and then you won’t be.” Joe has also often been educational with his humour, posting split screen videos where one half shows him and the other half shows his Borderline Personality Disorder. As someone who did not have much knowledge of Borderline Personality Disorder, I found these videos very powerful and interesting. They use humour to provide an insight into what Joe, and many others, are experiencing.

When lockdown started Joe decided to share his love of dance with the world to give him, and us, something else to concentrate on. Joe donned a sparkly leotard and talked his followers through unique dance moves such as ‘beef toe right’, ‘half eaten lobster’ and ‘bag for life’ (you need to see to understand – click to watch). These videos soon went viral and saw Joe appear on Good Morning Britain and even The Morning Show in Australia. Joe then used these platforms to encourage more people to open up about their mental health.

In July it was reported that Twitter’s daily use numbers had jumped 24 percent since the start of the pandemic, while Facebook’s numbers were up 27 percent, making social media the perfect tool for starting conversations about mental health. However, if you find yourself doomscrolling, (consuming a large quantity of negative online news at once) why not put your phone down and bust out a ‘beef toe right’ or a ‘half eaten lobster’?

3. Digital learning resources that help build courage to talk

I don’t know about you but my phone is littered with apps. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll open Deliveroo. When I’ve gone for a run, I’ll look at Strava to see how I’ve performed and when I’m in need of a pick me up I’ll log in to TikTok. While I was researching this blog I came across a mental health app called Woebot.

Woebot is an app which features an interesting concept that uses an AI therapy chatbot. It’s designed to help you monitor your mood using conversation.

Messenger apps are being used more than phone calls or text messages as a way of having conversations. In 2019 there were 65 billion WhatsApp messages being sent daily. It therefore makes sense that Woebot is set up just like messenger apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I’m sure this familiarity would appeal to a generation that has grown up with the internet. Within seconds of it downloading I was talking to Woebot and gaining an insight into my mental health and because it felt familiar straight away, I was not left wondering what different buttons or menus do.

The app’s main function is to start conversations around mental health. One user said that they often use Woebot as ‘practice’ for talking to her friends and family about issues that might be affecting her. This idea of learning about yourself to gain courage to open up is something our team has built into the development of Learning Labs Plus. Our inhouse mental wellness tool (coming soon) is designed to empower people with knowledge around mental wellness. People can use our e-learning portal to learn about the subject of mental health, regularly assess their own mental wellness, take positive action to develop their mental wellness and then even share their account with a mentor to help guide their learning journey.

I don’t know about you but my phone is littered with apps. If I can’t be bothered to cook, I’ll open Deliveroo. When I’ve gone for a run, I’ll look at Strava to see how I’ve performed and when I’m in need of a pick me up I’ll log in to TikTok. While I was researching this blog I came across a mental health app called Woebot.

Woebot is an app which features an interesting concept that uses an AI therapy chatbot. It’s designed to help you monitor your mood using conversation.

Messenger apps are being used more than phone calls or text messages as a way of having conversations. In 2019 there were 65 billion WhatsApp messages being sent daily. It therefore makes sense that Woebot is set up just like messenger apps such as Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp. I’m sure this familiarity would appeal to a generation that has grown up with the internet. Within seconds of it downloading I was talking to Woebot and gaining an insight into my mental health and because it felt familiar straight away, I was not left wondering what different buttons or menus do.

The app’s main function is to start conversations around mental health. One user said that they often use Woebot as ‘practice’ for talking to her friends and family about issues that might be affecting her. This idea of learning about yourself to gain courage to open up is something our team has built into the development of Learning Labs Plus. Our inhouse mental wellness tool (coming soon) is designed to empower people with knowledge around mental wellness. People can use our e-learning portal to learn about the subject of mental health, regularly assess their own mental wellness, take positive action to develop their mental wellness and then even share their account with a mentor to help guide their learning journey.

Technology today can help us understand more about ourselves, which sometimes is the first step to being able to share that with someone else.

Let’s talk

In the spirit of this blog I’d love to start a conversation around mental health. Let me know in the comments if you have experience with any of the above (I’d particularly like to hear if you have tried one of Joe’s dance routines!) Do you feel you’ve had more conversations around mental health over the past few months or have you not noticed a difference? Either way I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Watch this space as we will be talking more about supporting mental wellness in the coming months when Learning Labs Plus is officially launched.

I’d like to end with a quote from Joe Tracini which I think everyone could benefit from weather you’re reading this after living through January during a global pandemic or sat at your desk in a busy office in a post-Covid world.

“I always try to find laughter. Even at the moment, with everything that’s happening, I’m looking for laughter. Right now, laughter is playing hide and seek with us. It’s everywhere, so turn around, count to ten, open your eyes and start looking.”

Three mental wellbeing initiatives that are bringing joy to students

Three mental wellbeing initiatives that are bringing joy to students

How are higher education students going to be supported with their mental health during a pandemic? If you know of any initiatives I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Mental health has always been a topic close to my heart. Working within education I am particularly interested in students’ mental health and this year’s university students are going to have a very different experience to what you or I had. Packed lecture theatres are, for now, a thing of the past, and freshers are having to form important new friendships whilst also maintaining social distance. This is bound to impact mental health, so I started to look into what new initiatives might be in place this coming year.

In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to just 3,000 back in 2006. Today, three-quarters of adults with a mental illness will first experience symptoms before the age of 25. We are now in unprecedented times as we navigate our way through a global pandemic. Around half of all young adults will access higher education by the time they are 30, pandemic or not. So, now, more than ever there is a great need for mental health support. This is a very serious crisis, but the methods of providing support are fun and they are designed to bring joy – so read on as we delve into the uplifting solutions offered from within UK Higher Education.

1. The science of happiness course

In 2018 Bristol University launched a ten-week Science of Happiness course, creating a delightful opportunity for students to learn about wellbeing. The course was inspired by Yale University’s Psychology and Good Life course, which was the most popular in the university’s history with one in four students enrolling.

In the first year Bristol University made the ten-week course optional. It had no impact on the student’s overall grade. With no incentive other than to learn about their mental health, 400 students signed up to the course, highlighting the demand for mental health education.

Due to popularity, the course returned in 2019, this time counting towards 20 of the students 120 credits for their first year. The course starts by asking students to measure their own happiness levels and discover personal strengths, which will then be developed and reflected upon as the course plays out. Lectures cover a range of topics including how our minds distort happiness, the role of culture in happiness and a look at whether happiness is in our genes. Students are asked to try one of seven happiness exercises such as sleeping more, meditating and practising random acts of kindness.

You can find out more about the course here.

2. Therapy pets

Therapy pets are service animals that are trained to provide affection and comfort, which is as wonderful as it sounds! There are charities that can bring animals to visit people on site in places such as hospitals, care homes and universities to provide support in various stressful environments. You may think that concept of therapy pets sounds like a new fad however there is evidence of therapy pets being used as far back as ancient Greece where they would use horses to lift the spirits of the severely ill. Not sure how I would feel about a horse at my bedside!

In a university setting, therapy pets are more popular in the US with around 1,000 campuses using them. However, popularity is starting to rise in the UK. The University of Middlesex has recently put ‘canine teaching assistants’ on the staff to try and prevent lonely students from dropping out. Several students have said the canine teaching assistants have made them feel more connected to home as they missed their own family pet.

I know first-hand how effective therapy pets can be on your mental health. When I attended the University of Sunderland, we would frequently get visits from farm animals as a form of stress therapy. There is something about seeing a farm animal in an unexpected setting that took me out of the day-to-day life of university and immediately put a smile on my face. For those few minutes I was petting a goat, holding a rabbit or just watching the ducks waddle around I totally forgot about any deadlines I had looming or exams I needed to revise for. Just writing about it is making me smile. One study has found that playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax you. I imagine the same must be true, to some extent, of interacting with any animal be it a dog or a goat. I would feel calm for hours after a visit from our farm yard friends.

3. Partnerships with Mind

Ten universities across the UK, including University of Bath, University of Sheffield and Teesside University are taking part in the Mentally Healthy Universities programme, in partnership with Mind. The programme wants to reach over 6,000 students and aim to achieve its five goals by August 2021:

Ensure students are equipped to manage their mental health and thrive at university.
Ensure students have the knowledge and tools to build their resilience.
Ensure students are prepared to manage their mental health in future employment.
Reduce stigma and improve peer support for university staff.
Make positive changes to the way universities think and act about mental health.
The programme has got off to a great start. During the first year over 85 per cent of students had a better understanding of mental health problems and wellbeing. Over 90 per cent of students who took part in the ‘tools and techniques to manage your mental health’ course said they were more confident looking after their mental health and 100 per cent said they would recommend the course to a friend. Who can argue with stats like that?

Programmes like this just show that giving someone the tools to maintain their mental health is proving successful. It’s also something I witnessed first-hand at a recent webinar series we ran. Our keynote speaker was a mental health expert and in her 30-minute talk, which discussed a few simple techniques to maintaining positive wellbeing, we saw a clear shift in the audience’s attitude towards remote working. Check out the before and after mood boards below:

2020…and beyond

There’s no denying that this year has provided a unique set of challenges that have called for us to be more aware of our mental health. When lockdown hit, I decided to download the couch to 5K app. At first it was a way to get fit and do something worthwhile with my time outside. I quickly grew to love it and could feel the benefits it was having on my mental health. As I’ve mentioned above, our own mental health is unique. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. That’s why I find it really positive that universities are trying different ways to support their students. They know mental health isn’t a one size fits all and you don’t know what is going to fit if you don’t try.

I’ve written this blog to get the conversation rolling so don’t be shy – let me know your thoughts on these mental health initiatives. Do you know of any different initiatives that universities are using? Do you think this is money well spent? Do you think there will still be a need after the pandemic?

It doesn’t just have to be comments about my blog. Feel free to leave pictures of your pets, even if they aren’t a trained therapy pet. After all, it has been scientifically proven that animals can boost your mood.