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Our blog is a place where we share stories, videos, and interviews from the House with No Steps family about disability and the world we live in. Jump in and get involved with the conversation to share your own experiences.



John the ‘pen man’: how selling pens marked new beginnings

Date Posted: Thursday, 26 April 2018 09:33
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

John Boccanfuso, also affectionately known as the ‘pen man’, is a famous face in Penrith. For 44 dedicated years, he has sold House with No Steps pens, helping raise money for people with a disability.

John selling pens in Westfield Penrith

When John was 12-years-old, he was riding his bike when he had an accident which left him unconscious in hospital for 3 months. When he awoke, they found he had severely damaged his cerebellum - the part of the brain responsible for motor skills, and from that day forward, he would use a wheelchair.

Fast forward many years, John was working in Sydney, but was ready for a change…. 

“I was working for a company at a time, but I started to have a bit of a brawl because I wasn’t happy. I had no friends there, I didn't like it, and we were being badly done by. There was a lot of prejudice too.”

“So I started to complain, and even told the local rag about it. I then got put in touch with a lady from House with No Steps, Shirley White. She said to me that she had pens for me to go out and sell, so she got it going.”

So, thanks to Shirley White, who was the House with No Steps Fundraising Manger at the time, John started selling pens in Parramatta shops in 1974. He stayed here for 13 years before he moved to Westfield Penrith where he still works today.

“Selling the pens was like a new start for me, the chance to meet new people.”

“Now working in Westfield Penrith, I have a lot of friends. I meet everyone - I’m a good mixer like my dad. I just talk to them and say shit like this, and we talk about what they're all going through in their lives.”

Volunteering for, and raising money for House with No Steps, is something that means a lot to John. 

“I live in a nursing home, and I find that getting out is good for me. Selling pens is my life now. I choose to work 7 days a week - I start about 10am, and leave at 2pm.”

John is a local celebrity in Penrith, everyone knows the 'pen man' with some of his loyal customers stopping by to buy a pen every day. Even our former Prime Minister, John Howard, made sure he stopped by John’s table to buy a pen when he visited Penrith back in 2016!

Lyn who works with John at the Westfield Concierge desk tells us, “If John is off at an appointment, we get inundated at the Concierge desk with the questions – ‘Where is John today?’ and ‘Why isn’t John at his desk?’ He is very quickly missed and extremely popular."

"Even on a person’s worst day he always has a story and smile and a laugh. He makes you feel like nothing is too hard to overcome."

While very modest, John has now sold a massive 1 million pens for House with No Steps over his 44 years – with the money raised going to support people with a disability.

John’s fantastic work was even acknowledged in 2011 when he received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to people with a disability. John said with pride and humility “Me being even considered for an OAM… Amazing!” 

For John it isn’t about the awards, he often tells us, “I live for people. That’s what makes me get up in the morning.”

Congratulations John, you are a true legend!

Read our other blogs

8 incredible facts about Helen Keller
Why do some people taste colours?
8 facts your need to know about using a wheelchair


Tags: Famous faces

Did Einstein have autism?

Date Posted: Tuesday, 20 March 2018 15:45
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Famous for developing the theory of relativity and E = mc2, Einstein is of course renowned for his intelligence (he had an IQ believed to be somewhere between 160 and 190 - far above the average of 100).

For some time now, experts have been exploring the possibility that the brilliant physicist had autism (specifically the outdated term of Asperger syndrome).

Many people with Asperger syndrome (high-functioning autism) are often seen as being eccentric – they may have difficulty in social situations, obsessions around specific topics, and can have problems communicating.

Read on to discover which of these traits Einstein demonstrated. 

He did not speak until he was three

Einstein as a young boy

Surprisingly, not much is known about Einstein’s childhood. In fact, most of what is written is the stuff of myth and legend rather than solid facts.

But what is well known, is Einstein’s speech development was slower than the average child, and he actually didn’t start speaking until he was three or four. Even up until the age of seven, he'd whisper words to himself before saying them out loud and also repeat sentences obsessively.

In fact, the term 'Einstein Syndrome' has even been coined to refer to kids who are ‘late talkers’.

He was fixated on his own interests and didn’t join in with the other kids

Einstein as a teenager

Einstein wasn’t really interested in the energetic games and activities the other kids played – he instead preferred to read books, play the violin, work on puzzles, figure out tricky math problems, make crazy constructions from building blocks, and build elaborate houses out of cards.

While many people believe that Einstein failed at school, overall, he was actually an average student, but always excelled in math and science. As an adult when shown an article with the headline "Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics," he laughed confirming, "Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus."

He found it hard to make friends and preferred to be alone

Einstein in his study

Described by others as a dreamy, lonely kid, young Einstein found that making friends was hard.

Even later in life, he spent much of his time alone; either on a boat (being an avid sailor) or in his study.

In his own words, "I am truly a lone traveler and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude...".

Although Einstein was shy and preferred to be alone, he did have many romantic interests, close relationships with friends (including Charlie Chaplin), and a wicked sense of humour.

He is well-known for many hilarious quotes including, "When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity."

He found language and communication difficult to master

Einstein lecturing

Einstein had a very unique way of looking at things – as he explained himself, “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express in words afterwards.”

Possibly as a result, Einstein became notorious for giving confusing lectures, and he never felt comfortable delivering speeches, making small talk with people, or mingling with people. He was often forgetful of everyday items such as keys, and he quickly became known as the stereotypical ‘absent-minded professor’.

Although it was out of his comfort zone, after receiving a Nobel Prize, Einstein became a bit of a worldwide celebrity. He toured the globe, meeting world leaders and other famous people. In one trip to Japan, he was treated like The Beatles with screaming crowds all trying to catch a glimpse of the genius.

He was consumed by complex topics

Einstein as an older man

It is well known that many people with autism have a talent for understanding complex systems - from computers, to music, to science.

When Einstein was working on a physics problem, he’d become so fixated on solving it, he’d completely block out whatever was going on around him. He would have such an intense focus, that these thoughts would consume his life for long periods of time.

He was seen as a bit eccentric

Einstein poking his tongue out

It is well know that Einstein’s genius went hand-in-hand with a list of eccentricities.

He had a reputation for being a free spirit with wild unruly hair and sloppy clothes. His typical outfit was an undershirt, baggy pants held up with a rope, and sandals. He was just too busy to worry about his appearance claiming “Long hair minimises the need for barbers."

On Einstein's 72nd birthday, the paparazzi were trying to get him to smile for the camera, but tired of photographers, he stuck out his tongue instead. Einstein loved this photo so much, he asked the photographer for copies.

Another of his quirks was his dislike of socks and refusal to wear them. In a letter he wrote to his cousin he said, “When I was young, I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks.”

So…. did he have autism?

While researchers can speculate about Einstein having autism, the truth is we’ll never really know. Trying to diagnose someone with autism based on biographical information is not reliable, and his behaviour could be due to a few different causes.

For example, some researchers think that just the simple fact that Einstein was so intelligent could have shaped his personality – he may have just been an eccentric genius. Perhaps he was so fascinated with the problems he was working on, he had little time or desire for anything else.

So while opinion remain divided between the experts, it is likely that we will never know for sure.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” - Albert Einstein

Read our other blogs

Questions you always wanted to ask a person with autism
Why do some people taste colours?

Never heard of stimming? You probably do it...

Find out about disability services at House with No Steps

8 fascinating facts about Vincent van Gogh

Date Posted: Friday, 23 February 2018 12:49
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

While Vincent van Gogh is one of the art world’s most renowned painters, he is also synonymous with the term ‘tortured artist’.

Only 37 years old when he died and having only sold one painting, van Gogh sadly did not live long enough to see the extent of his legacy – which includes his works now being some of the most expensive in the world.

Curious to find out more about his life? Read on… 

Fact #1. He painted almost 900 paintings in 10 years

Van Gogh as a young man

Up until van Gogh was 27, he had explored several different jobs – he’d been a lay minister, teacher and art dealer (just to name a few!).

Suddenly, he abandoned these careers and decided to focus all his energy on painting and drawing – and once he got started, there was no stopping him! 

Over the next ten years, van Gogh went on to create a body of work which included almost 900 paintings, and a further 1,100 works on paper – which meant a new artwork every 36 hours (on average) – phew! 

It’s mind blowing how much he achieved in such a short time.

Fact #2. van Gogh lived with mental illness throughout his life

While, it’s fairly well-known that van Gogh lived with a mental illness, we can’t be 100% certain around the details. What is fairly well understood though, is his symptoms included hallucinations, depression, and seizures – which at times were quite severe.

Many modern day psychiatrists have attempted to diagnose his illness from the symptoms he showed, and possible diagnoses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, hypergraphia, Geschwind syndrome, and temporal lobe epilepsy. It is also quite possible that he had a combination of these.

Whatever his diagnosis, it was likely made worse by his lifestyle - which to put it nicely was not exactly healthy….

Fact #3. van Gogh’s staples were coffee, cigarettes and bread

Van gogh with pipe

Despite his privileged background, van Gogh spent his adult life in poverty, surviving on cheap food (and not much of it). His diet consisted mainly of bread and coffee, he drank alcohol excessively, and was rarely ever seen without his pipe in hand.

His brother often donated to his cause but van Gogh, obsessed with his art, chose to funnel all funds into buying more creative supplies.

By the time he was 33, van Gogh’s health had gone from from bad to worse, and he wrote to his brother Theo saying he’d only had six hot meals in about a year, and his teeth felt loose and painful.

Considering he worked himself into the ground, had poor diet and loved to smoke and drink, it’s no surprise really that he was also regularly sick.

Fact #4. He was nicknamed ‘The Redheaded Madman’ by his neighbours

As van Gogh’s mental health was often poor, he spent a lot of time in and out of hospital. Over the years, the hallucinations and delusions he experienced became more intense and frequent, and he started attracting the attention of his neighbours.

Scared by his behaviour, they named him "le fou roux" (The Redheaded Madman) and rallied together to collect signatures for a petition against him (the Arles Petition). In response, the police evicted van Gogh from his home for good, and he once again returned to hospital.

Fact #5. The truth behind van Gogh’s ear is still unknown

Van Gogh with his ear bandaged

Most people will have heard the story about van Gogh cutting off his ear – and while his ear was indeed cut, the details around have never been confirmed.

The popular version of the story is often told this way… van Gogh and his very close friend, Gauguin, were having a quarrel. The argument got more and more heated until van Gogh threatened his friend with a razor. But instead of actually harming Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off part of his own ear – wrapping it in a cloth and later giving it to a prostitute.

Some historians, however, think Gaugin was to blame. This story goes that Gaugin, an excellent fencer, cut van Gogh’s ear with his sword during a fight, and the two artists agreed to hush up the truth to escape the police.

While it’s also popularly believed that van Gogh whole ear was cut off, it is actually likely he only severed a part of the ear lobe.

Fact #6. ‘Starry Night’ was created in an ‘asylum’

Starry night painting

Following the ear incident, van Gogh decided to check himself into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole hospital known back then as an ‘asylum’, where he was diagnosed with ‘acute mania with generalised delirium’.

Luckily for van Gogh, while he was in hospital he could continue creating his art – and he would spend the days looking through the barred windows at the scenery below. It was here he completed his most famous work: ‘Starry Night’.

Starry Night in fact shows his view on different days, and even at different times of day. As he sat and watched the light and weather change, he painted the view at sunrise, moonrise, on sun-filled days, overcast days, windy days and rainy days.

Although it’s recognised as a masterpiece, van Gogh was never happy with this piece and even went as far as saying he thought it, and others he completed while in hospital, were failures.

Fact #7. van Gogh was a pioneer of the post-impressionistic selfie

Van Gogh self portrait

Over a period of three years, van Gogh painted an impressive 43 self-portraits – but it had less to do with vanity than necessity.

As he struggled to afford paid models and had a limited social circle, van Gogh simply had few other people to paint.

In his self-portraits, he often appears as scruffy and unshaven, with deeply sunken eyes, a weak jaw and missing teeth. There are even some portraits he even did right after he (or potentially Gaugin) cut off his ear with fresh bandages.

His other cost-saving tricks included painting over his artworks instead of buying new canvas which makes you wonder what else could be hiding under those 900 paintings!

Fact #8. van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound… or did he?

Aged 37, van Gogh was discharged from hospital and moved closer to his brother, but his mental health continued to decline.

Things continued to get worse until 29 July 1890, when it was reported that he shot himself in the chest. Although the bullet passed through his chest without doing apparent damage to internal or his spine, the doctors weren’t able to remove it, and he died from the infected wound two days later.

While this is ending to van Gogh’s story is the most accepted, some believe he didn’t fire the bullet himself, and it was in fact a local teen who had teased the artist, who had killed him.

On his deathbed, van Gogh’s heartbreaking parting words to his brother were “the sadness will last forever”.

Read our other blogs

8 incredible facts about Helen Keller
Get to know the real Rain Man: Kim Peek
The story behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Tags: famous faces

Surprising facts about phobias

Date Posted: Wednesday, 07 February 2018 12:00
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

The word ‘phobia’ gets thrown around a lot in conversation, and plenty of people claim to have one themselves. But how well do we really understand phobias, and the affect they have? 

Picture of man standing up high

Far from being a flippant fear, a genuine phobia can actually have quite a big impact on someone’s life. 

With research reporting that up to 8% of Australians have a specific phobia (a phobia of a certain object or situation), we decided to gather together some facts about the topic. 

Fact #1. There’s a world of difference between a fear and a phobia 

You’d probably feel a bit scared and panicked if you saw a big hairy spider climbing up your wall or wobbly if you were standing on a high ledge, but this doesn’t mean you necessarily have a spider or height phobia. 

Fear is a ‘normal’ emotional response to either a real or perceived threat, and although it’s unpleasant, it’s pretty common to feel anxious as a result. 

A specific phobia, on the other hand, is an overwhelming fear of objects or situations. Someone with a specific phobia might do everything they can to avoid their fear at all costs, and it can start to consume their everyday life. 

For example, if someone has a spider phobia, they may spend huge amounts of time worrying about spiders, making sure they do not come into contact with a spider, and avoiding places and activities where spiders might be.

Fact #2. Experts have identified more than 400 phobias

You can have a phobia of pretty much anything, but some are definitely much more common than others – and there are more than 400 which are recognised by the experts. 

Phobias such as acrophobia (fear of heights), aviophobia (fear of flying), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), cynophobia (fear of dogs), astraphobia (fear of storms), trypanophobia (fear of needles) and mysophobia (the fear of germs) are all pretty common. 

Fact #3. Some phobias may sound strange

There are also some rare and seemingly strange phobias out there, like caligynephobia (fear of beautiful women), turophobia (fear of cheese), and phobophobia, (fear of developing a phobia). 

Ironically, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia is the term used to describe a chronic fear of long words - no doubt this 15 syllable word was coined by someone a bit unkind!

There is even a persistent fear that that one is being watched by a duck known as Anatidaephobia. A person with this phobia fears that no matter where they are or what they are doing, a duck is watching them. 

Fact #4. Some phobias are a sign of the times

While some phobias are as old as the hills, other phobias are much more recent. 

For example, we’ve recently seen a big rise in nomophobia: the irrational fear of not having your mobile phone – a term coined only 5 years ago. 

Someone with nomophobia can feel intense anxiety if they have no phone signal, have run out of data or battery power, or even if their phone is out of sight. 

The rise in nomophobia is not surprising with a recent study showing that many people under the age of 30 check their phone at least once every 10 minutes (or 96 times a day). The same study showed that 9 out of every 10 people admitted to feeling addicted to their phones or anxious when their phone went missing.

Fact #5. People from all backgrounds can have phobias

It might surprise you, but a fair few well-known celebrities have phobias. 

For a start, Christina Ricci has a fear of indoor plants (botanophobia), saying that touching a dirty houseplant actually feels like torture. 

Alfred Hitchcock also lived with ovophobia which is the fear of eggs. People who worked with him claimed cracking an egg made him gag, and he once told a reporter "have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?"

Highly awarded actor, producer and musician, Johnny Depp also has not one, but three phobias. They include a phobia of clowns (coulrophobia), a phobia of spiders (arachnophobia) and a phobia of ghosts (plasmophobia). 

Fact #6. Phobias may be memories passed down in your DNA from your ancestors

Have you ever wondered how specific phobias develop? Some can be due to experiencing a traumatic event such as nearly falling off a great height, or they can also be learned (like picking up a fear of flying from listening to a parent swear they’ll never fly again after a bad experience).

But, what if you’ve never actually had a traumatic public speaking experience, but the very thought of public speaking still makes you struggle to catch a breath? Where does this come from? 

As crazy as it sounds, experts say this could come down to an experience your ancestors had – and these resulting phobias can be passed down in our DNA. So if an ancestor had a run in with a snake and developed a phobia, research suggests this snake phobia can be passed down for generations to come.

Fact #7. Phobias can be treated

Fortunately, there are ways to address and treat most specific phobias. To find the right treatment for you or someone you know, your best bet is to enlist the help of a medical professional who can assess your condition and monitor your progress. 

One method that’s currently being used very successfully is ‘exposure therapy’, a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In one clinical trial, cognitive-behavioural therapy helped as many as 90% of the group to overcome their phobia. 

The idea is that if you are presented with your phobia repeatedly, but safely, and over time your fear reduces. In the case of a spider phobia, exposure therapy may start with just the thought of a spider, then move to looking at a picture of one, and slowly work up until a person is comfortable being close to, and possibly even holding a living spider.

Do you think you have a phobia yourself? 

It is important to remember that phobias are often very successfully treated. If you (or someone you know) could have a phobia, it’s a good idea to seek advice from a medical professional. 

In times of crisis you can also contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or for advice and support contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Read our other blogs

6 facts about sensory hypersensitivity
Physical symptoms you didn't realise depression could cause

Why do some people taste colours? 

Find out about disability services at House with No Steps

Tags: phobia

Questions you always wanted to ask a person with autism

Date Posted: Wednesday, 17 January 2018 14:54
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Hannah, 31, often gets asked questions about living with autism – and sometimes they are a little curly to answer!

Hannah standing outside

Autism can be a different experience from person to person, but to break down the stigma of autism, Hannah is answering some of the curly questions she gets asked most often. 

Why is it hard for people with autism to communicate?

So imagine you are in Japan… people speak differently in Japan and you can’t understand what they’re saying. People in Japan do things differently to you – you’re not sure why they’re doing it, but you can tell it’s obviously important. And the culture is so different that you are like, ‘what the heck?!’ 

For a lot of people with autism that’s what communication is like – it just seems all foreign and unfamiliar. People expect you to automatically pick stuff up, but when you have autism you just can’t.

Does this mean you don’t get irony or sarcasm?

I can understand irony and sarcasm, and I actually do use it myself. But do I always use it appropriately? No!

Is it hard for you to make eye-contact? Why?

For me it depends on the situation - I have actually had enough practice that I can now make eye contact quite easily. But it took a long time – it was probably not until I was in my early 20s that I felt comfortable.

But even these days… when I’m processing something or when I’m thinking really hard and trying to learn something, I don’t look people in the eye. Also, the more panicked and anxious I am - the more important something is to me - the harder it is to make eye contact.

It’s because when I’m using all my brain to understand what someone’s telling me, I don’t have the brain power left-over to look someone in the eye.

Can you read facial expressions?

Reading facial expressions is something I’ve learnt to do better, but can I do it as well as what is considered ‘the norm’? No.

My brain just literally doesn’t pick up all the nonverbal cues. I don’t see them. It’s like running into an invisible lamp pole – my brain doesn’t process that something’s there, but it still hurts when you run into it! And then I’m like, where the heck did this thing come from?

So do you ever offend anyone?

I’ve definitely learnt how to do social talk, like the surface talk, I can do that.

But I’m very strong willed, and I’ve always said I’m like a steamroller made of flowers – I look pretty, I smell great, but people can still get squished!

These days I can generally go to a social event, chat, and make no social tsunamis anymore. That’s where I have totally misread something and insulted someone accidentally.

What about relationships? Are they hard for you?

I am choosey about my friends because making friends and having friends is hard – it takes an awful lot of brain energy for me and it’s easy for me to get burnt out.

Same thing for romantic relationships – I haven’t had one because I am really choosey. I want to make the right choice because it’s going to take a lot of effort. I want to make sure this guy, whoever he is, is going to be worth all the effort it’s going to take.

I’d love to be married, I’d love to have kids. But I’m happy to wait for that right guy to come into my life. I’m not good with the communication or emotional side of stuff, so I’m going to need a guy who can help me with that. But they’re hard to find!

Do you get sensory overload?

Yes I definitely do! Smoke always gets me, and so do strong fumes - I call myself the canary in the coalmine. If there is smoke around, I’m going to know before anybody else.

I’ve also got to be careful about what products I use around the house – sometimes I’ve given myself overload by putting on underarm deodorant.

What does sensory overload feel like?

Imagine being in a room that is filled with people. And all these people are pressed up against you so you can’t move - you’re feeling their arms and their legs all over you.

And then, imagine it’s also really hot so you’re sweating. You want to get out and you’re starting to shake. All of a sudden super loud music starts playing and the lights start flashing all at the same time. Wouldn’t that make you panic?

When it happens to me, my autistic wall comes up. It takes all my concentration to breathe. I can see and understand everything going on around me, I cannot communicate that though. I have learnt to wait it out until I am no longer a prisoner in my own body and my autistic wall comes down.

Also, if I am standing still with a blank look on my face, please don't touch me. I can't handle it and it will take longer for the wall to come down!

Do you need to stick to a routine?

I do personally like to follow a routine. I have supports on a Tuesday and a Thursday and I have those supports at the same time. Having appointments at the same time each week is how I learn. It’s how I know how to predict life. It’s how I can handle life.

If that changes, I am like AAAGGGHHH…. It throws me, it makes me uncomfortable, and it has made me panic in the past.

If my routine does change, I need to prepare - I am quite famous for not turning up to stuff if it’s a change in routine. I have to keep reminding myself for the whole week beforehand. If I have to get up at 6 am one day this week, I need to keep reminding myself that it Is 6 am on Thursday, to both keep the anxiety at bay, and make sure that I don't just sleep in and not go!

The young child equivalent of this would be asking the same question over and over and over and OVER again! Not because the child does not know the answer but because they need the same one to battle their anxiety, and feel safe and secure.

What annoying questions do people ask you about autism?

‘Were you born with it?’

‘Can you grow out of it?’

‘Can you just get better?’

Yes I was born with it… No I am not going to grow out of it… And yes while I can learn, I am not going to ‘get better’ as it’s not an illness, it’s just my brain works differently.

Do you like having autism?

Autism comes with its challenges, I will admit that. But it’s also something that’s really cool because it means you can do stuff that most other people can’t.

It allows you to see the world both differently but it also allows you to come up with ideas and solutions that nobody else will.

So for me it means I’m a really good teacher because I need to learn in a structured way. So once I’ve learned something, it’s really easy for me to teach it to others.

What’s one thing you want to tell the world about people with autism?

We can do a lot more than you think we can. Don't put limits on us. We can develop more ways to "get" or understand the world, more ways to make a difference in the world and do more to make it a better place than people think we can.

I love my life, and I really love showing the parents who are going through the trenches that there is hope on the other end. And showing kids with autism that they can do more than they think they can – more than the panic and anxiety will tell them they can.

Read our other blogs

Receiving an autism diagnosis as an adult
6 facts about sensory hypersensitivity
Never heard of stimming? You probably do it.... 

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

Tags: autism

Why do some people taste colours?

Date Posted: Friday, 15 December 2017 12:18
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Imagine being able to taste colours or smell sounds. This may sound bizarre, but it is actually very real for some people.

Synesthesia taste colours

Technically speaking, the ability to taste colours is caused by a condition called synaesthesia which happens when any two of our senses cross over.

Curious about this amazing condition or even wondering if you have it yourself? We’ve put together some interesting facts to give you the full story. 

There are many different types of synaesthesia 

The funny thing about synaesthesia is that there are so many different types (there are 80 to be exact).

One of the most interesting but rare types, is when someone tastes a flavour when they hear certain sounds - such as custard when a door slams, or waffles when they hear the word ‘tissue’. Some people even have a constant flow of flavours throughout the day - like a dripping on the tongue! 

For a few rare people, if they see someone being tapped on the shoulder, they can actually feel the tap on their own shoulder as well. And for others, when they hear a certain musical note, they might smell roses!

While these are more rare forms, a more common type is when letters, numbers, or days of the week are "tinged" with a colour – such as ‘A’ being red, 'eight' being yellow, or 'Wednesday' being green.

You could have synaesthesia, and not even know

While some people with synaesthesia become aware of their unique sense of perception when they are a child, others don’t realise there’s anything unusual for quite some time, or at all. 

Also, the condition is often so subtle that people often don’t consciously pick up on it at all.

Most synaesthetes do say that the experiences are actually very pleasant or neutral, but for some – like those who can taste colours, it can be more challenging to deal with day-to-day and can cause sensory overload.

It is more common for people with autism

While anyone can have synaesthesia, experts say that people with autism are three times more likely to have the condition.

This doesn’t mean they always appear together, but the relationship is definitely there – possibly due to the fact that autism may also a result of over-connectivity of neurons.

Living with synaesthesia can actually be a big plus

We’re sure that you can imagine that some people say their ability is actually an advantage for them.

Many claim that the condition helps them memorise certain facts (did you ever use association to help you study for an exam?). And this seems to be true because experts say people with the condition have much better memories than the rest of us.

But it doesn’t end there – people with synaesthesia have also been found to be more creative overall and often spend their time focusing on music, art and theatre.

The cause of synaesthesia is still something of a mystery

Although synaesthesia seems to be partly genetic with people inheriting the condition from their family, it’s also thought to involve environmental factors.

The interesting thing is, all babies are born with synaesthesia, but by the time we’re four or five months old our senses have been wired up to the right bits of our brains.

So for people with synaesthesia, experts believe that sometimes our brains don’t wire up correctly, leading to this ‘cross wiring’ of the senses.

There are also a few cases of people saying they got synaesthesia much later in life after experiencing a big trauma or a severe head injury.

May seem strange, but we all have a basic understanding of synaesthesia

Some experts believe we actually all have synaesthesia to an extent – the only difference is that some of us are more sensitive to it than others. And in fact, tests have been done to show that we all have an innate sense of how it works.

One famous example is an experiment where people are shown a round shape next to an angular one, and are asked “Which shape is called Kiki and which one is called Bouba?”. Have a look at the images below and give it a shot yourself before you read on...

Kiki Bouba

Although this question might seem like nonsense, almost everyone (no matter what culture they come from or language they speak), says Bouba is the round shape and the pointy one is Kiki.

This experiment is now known as ‘the Bouba/Kiki effect’ and shows that are brains are capable of these associations whether we’re considered synaesthetes or not.

So do you think you have synaesthesia?

Because there are so many types, there isn't really a fool proof 'test' for synaesthesia.

Just for a bit of fun.... the GIF below is making the rounds at the moment.

If you hear a loud boom each time the tower lands, you're not alone — but there isn't actually any sound playing. Some people with "hearing-motion" synaesthesia, can hear the tower thudding into the ground.

Synesthesia gif 

Read our other blogs

The astonishing mind of Daniel Tammet, a synaesthete

Get to know the real Rain Man: Kim Peek
Never heard of stimming? You probably do it...

Find out about disability services at House with No Steps

By Monochrome version 1 June 2007 by Bendž Vectorized with Inkscape --Qef (talk) 21:21, 23 June 2008 (UTC) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The astonishing mind of Daniel Tammet

Date Posted: Friday, 24 November 2017 11:13
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

You may have heard of Daniel Tammet before – he's the man who can teach himself to speak a new language fluently in a week! He has also penned several books about his life with autism and savant syndrome. Find out more about Daniel’s fascinating story below....

Daniel Tammet main image

Fact #1. From an early age, it was clear Daniel had amazing abilities 

Born in East London in 1979, Daniel was the eldest of nine in a working family. His mum wouldn't have described him as an ‘easy’ baby – Daniel would bang his head against the wall, and would scream and cry constantly.

Then, one afternoon when he was 4, he was playing with his brother in the living room, and had an epileptic seizure - one of several that he would experience.

It was after these epileptic seizures that Daniel started to show new amazing abilities.

He recalls how at the age of four, while reading a book about numbers, it dawned on him that the numbers weren’t simply appearing to him in numeric form – he was seeing them as images

Around the same time, Daniel’s brother started quizzing him on tricky maths problems (we mean really tough, like what’s 86 x 86 x 86 x 86?). Daniel recalls shutting his eyes for about ten seconds, and suddenly the answer came to him. His brother kept testing him and Daniel kept answering correctly every time. 

Fact #2. Daniel sees numbers as handsome, ugly, and wobbly

While it’s hard for most of us to understand, the truth is that Daniel doesn’t simply see numbers as digits – instead in his eyes, each number up to 10,000 has a unique colour, shape, texture and occasionally motion (a phenomenon known as synesthesia).

Daniel has explained that he finds some numbers more ‘good looking’ than others – bizarre but true!

According to him, the number 117 is a handsome number – tall, lanky and a little bit wobbly, 9 is large and intimidating, and 1 appears as a flashing white light. He also claims that, 289 is particularly ugly, 333 is super attractive, and pi is beautiful. 

His skill to see numbers in this way means when he does big sums in his head, he doesn’t just calculate numbers, he experiences them.

In Daniel’s words, "When I multiply numbers together, I see two shapes. The image starts to change and evolve, and a third shape emerges. That's the answer. It's mental imagery. It's like maths without having to think." 

Fact #3. Daniel can recite the number pi to 22,514 digits

Daniel Tammet

For those who don’t know, pi is an ‘irrational’ number - which means it is never-ending (3.14159….). 

For most people, even reciting pi to 50 or 100 digits would be an amazing achievement. 

But for Daniel, he recited the number to an astonishing 22,514 digits from memory, a task that took him five hours and nine minutes – but which he claimed was ‘easy’.

To him, it was just like watching a film projected in front of his eyes – and describing it as he watched.

Why did Daniel bother with such a task? He wanted to prove a point. As he explained, “I just wanted to show people that disability needn’t get in the way.” 

Fact #4. He taught himself Icelandic in just one week

In 2005, Daniel took part in a documentary called “The Boy with the Incredible Brain.” 

While filming was taking place, the crew challenged Daniel to learn to speak Icelandic, a notoriously difficult language. 

Having already mastered 10 different languages at the time (English, Finnish, French, German, Lithuanian, Esperanto, Spanish, Romanian, Estonian, and Welsh), Daniel took on the challenge, and shocked onlookers when he was able to have a fluent conversation with a local presenter on live Icelandic TV just one week later.

Not content to stop there, Daniel went on to create his own language, Mänti, which so far consists of around 1,000 words.  

Fact #5. Daniel didn’t find out he had autism until he was 25

While Daniel had amazing abilities from a young age, it took almost 25 years for doctors to diagnose him with savant syndrome and high-functioning autism. 

Tammet says, "Years before doctors informed me of my high-functioning autism and the disconnect it causes between person and language, I had to figure out the world as best I could. I was a misfit. The world was made up of words. But I thought and felt and sometimes dreamed in a private language of numbers.” 

Because of his autism, some things are still overwhelming for Daniel – for example, he finds beaches impossible because there are ‘too many pebbles to count’, he has to drink his tea at exactly the same time every day, and he eats exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast each morning. 

Fact #6. Experts still cannot explain how Daniel’s brain works 

Even though Daniel had received his diagnosis of autism and savant syndrome, it’s still unclear what makes him so different to most.

Amongst the medical community, opinions are divided.

While some scientists believe that the signals from two hemispheres in Daniel’s brain may have become ‘scrambled’ after his childhood epileptic seizures, others think his abilities just boil down to using intensive memory techniques.

What we do know is, Daniel is unique as unlike most savants, he has no intellectual disability - this is important to scientists as he can describe his own thought process.

As one scientist said, "Savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do. It just comes to them. Daniel can describe what he sees in his head. That's why he's exciting.”

Fact #7. He’s written three international best sellers 

Inspired to share his story, Daniel released his first book in 2006: a memoir entitled ‘Born on a Blue Day’. He went on to write two more books, ‘Embracing the Wide Sky’ and ‘Thinking in Colours’ both of which expanded on the themes of mathematics and linguistics. 

All three books became best sellers, and have been published in 20 languages (only appropriate given the linguistic talents of their author!).

Over the years he has appeared on TV chat shows to talk about his books, and of course to give us a sneak peek into his amazing abilities.

Fact #8. Daniel will always be extraordinary, but now lives a happily ‘ordinary’ life  

After astounding the world with his accomplishments, Daniel has now settled down in Paris with his husband. 

Because of his need for ritual, he runs his own business where he spends his days teaching email courses in languages and literacy, and he also sells his own paintings which show how he sees those number landscapes he describes to us.

He also does the occasional lecture tour, so keep an eye out, and if you’re lucky one day he might come to a city near you.

Read our other blogs

Get to know the real Rain Man: Kim Peek
Never heard of stimming? You probably do it...
6 suprising facts about Stephen Hawking

Find out about disability services at House with No Steps

Image 1: By jurvets (Born on a Blue Day) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By MelodyNelson18 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tags: famous faces

Get to know the real Rain Man: Kim Peek

Date Posted: Thursday, 16 November 2017 15:26
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

You may have seen the movie Rain Man (starring Dustin Hoffman), but what you may not know is that his character, Raymond Babbit, was inspired by a real person named Kim Peek.

Kim Peek

Kim was a man with a rare condition called savant syndrome, which gave him exceptional abilities including a phenomenal memory. 

As creative license is often used on the big screen, we thought it was worth shedding some light on the true story of Kim Peek, and revealing some fascinating facts about the life he actually led. You will probably even find that it’s more interesting than the movie version!

Fact #1. Kim’s brain is actually different to most…

While his mum’s pregnancy was fairly uncomplicated, Kim was born in 1951 with a condition which caused his head to be abnormally large - macrocephaly. Doctors also found that he had damage to his cerebellum, and the bundle of nerves (the corpus callosum), that usually connects the two hemispheres of the brain was also missing.

When Kim was nine months old, doctors broke the news that he’d never be able to walk or talk and they strongly advised that Kim should be placed in an institution. Kim’s parents thankfully dismissed the idea, and chose to raise him at home with their other children as planned.

Fact #2. Kim’s unbelievable memory became apparent very early on

When he was just over a year old, Kim started memorising entire books that were read to him – after only hearing them once. 

Actually, after he’d heard a story, he’d make sure he put the book upside down on his shelf to show he knew it off by heart, and to make sure that nobody would try to read it to him again. 

Placing books upside down once he’d finished them is actually something Kim continued doing his whole life after he had finished reading a book. 

Fact #3. Not everyone saw Kim’s abilities in the same light

Young Kim Peek

Growing up, Kim did have trouble with his motor skills and wasn’t able to do tasks like buttoning up his shirt. Also, because of the weight of his head, he was not able to walk until he was 4 years old, and then in a sidelong manner. 

When Kim was only six years old, doctors started recommending he have a lobotomy to ‘cure’ his non-stop talking, fidgeting and pacing – and at age seven, he was expelled from school for his supposedly uncontrollable behaviour. 

Fortunately, instead of following the advice, his parents arranged tutors to come and teach Kim at home. By the age of 7 he’d memorised every single word of the bible, by 14 he’d completed high school, and by 18, he was employed full-time in a payroll position (for which he never needed a calculator).

Fact #4. Kim took speed reading to a whole new level

Kim Peek with book

Over time, Kim’s reading became so fast he could get through a decent sized book in just half an hour. How? He developed an amazing skill to read both pages at the same time, one with his left eye and one with his right (even if he was reading the book upside down or sideways)! 

And when we say ‘scan’, we don’t mean flip through – Kim remembered up to 98% of what he read. Pretty handy if you’re cramming for an exam! 

It’s estimated that in his lifetime Kim read and memorised as many as 12,000 books. 

Kim’s reputation for being a walking encyclopedia became renowned, and five universities decided to study him over his life. All five declared Kim a genius in multiple subjects (including maths, music, geography and history). While people with savant syndrome often show exceptional ability, most of them only reach this standard in one or two subjects, while Kim boasted at least fifteen!

Fact #5. Kim’s talents weren’t just limited to memorising books

Kim’s talents stretched much further than just reading and retaining books – he also memorised musical compositions note-for-note, could provide driving directions between almost any two cities in the world, and if someone gave him their address he’d be able to tell them the names of the people who lived next door (through memorising the phonebook)!

He could also do calendar calculations (like work out what day of the week it was on June 24,1632), and later in his life, he even developed the skills to play the piano from memory.

Fact #6. It was Kim himself that inspired Rain Man

Dustin Hoffman

It’s fair to assume that without Kim, the blockbuster hit probably would never have existed. In 1985, screenwriter Barry Morrow met Kim Peek by chance, and was so blown away by his mind that he decided to write a story about a savant who was rediscovered by his brother. This eventually became the famous film, Rain Man. 

In 1987, Dustin Hoffman requested to meet Kim, to help him prepare for his role or Raymond Babbit in Rain Man. Kim’s mother, Fran, remembers Dustin’s parting remark to Kim being “I may be the star but you are the heavens.”  

Although Kim was the inspiration, the movie did end up having some fairly big changes – for example, Raymond is shown to have autism, but Kim didn’t actually have autism (although he was originally incorrectly diagnosed with it).

Fact #7. Kim used his profile to spread a positive message 

Kim Peek Presenting

Following the success of the film, Kim received lots of requests to make public appearances – and together with his father, he set off around the world promoting messages of equality to students, pensioners, prisoners, and politicians. 

It’s estimated Kim gave lectures to over two million people, but he never accepted a cent for any of them. 

After Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for his star performance as Raymond, he even gave the statue to Kim to take with him on his speaking tour - it has since been known as the "Most Loved Oscar Statue" because it has been held by more people than any other. 

Fact #8. To this day Kim’s incredible ability is still unexplained

In psychological testing, Peek scored below average (87) on general IQ tests, he also found it difficult to follow directions, and he continued to have difficulty with his motor skills throughout his life - for example he wasn't able to find the silverware drawer at home or dress himself.

Unlike many people living with savant syndrome, Kim didn’t have autism, nor did he have difficulties with social understanding or communication. A 2008 study concluded that Peek probably had FG syndrome, a rare condition that causing symptoms such as low muscle tone, an abnormally large head, and developmental delays.

Some think that due to the lack of connection between the two hemispheres (the missing nerves), his brain could have developed different ‘wiring’ that enabled him to think the way he did. But really, it’s still a mystery to this day why Kim was so exceptional.

Sadly, in 2009 at age 58, Kim had a heart attack and passed away at home. Although this meant his life was fairly short, there’s little doubt that he made an enormous impact on the world in the time he was given.

Check out our other blogs

5 amazing people with savant syndrome 
8 incredible facts about Helen Keller

6 suprising facts about Stephen Hawking 

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

By Gorup de Besanez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Dmadeo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Author: Darold A. Treffert, M.D. and the Wisconsin Medical Society Source URL: 
Author: Darold A. Treffert, M.D. and the Wisconsin Medical Society Source URL: 
Tags: famous faces

Physical symptoms you didn't realise depression could cause

Date Posted: Thursday, 02 November 2017 13:43
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Most people will agree that depression can cause emotional symptoms – feeling sad, low, down, numb… But what many don’t realise is that depression can have a very real effect on your body as a whole.

Women with physical symptoms of depression

We are taking a look at seven common physical symptoms of depression, some of which you might find surprising.

Symptom #1. Chest pain

Firstly, if you’re experiencing chest pain of any kind, it is extremely important that you get it checked immediately to rule out heart attacks and other serious conditions. After all, these can be potentially fatal. 

But, chest pain can actually be linked to depression. Seems strange, but there is a good reason: depression often goes hand-in-hand with anxiety and panic attacks, which are typically felt in the chest. In fact studies have shown that depression is one of the more common explanations of chest pain, making this a helpful indicator for diagnosis.

Symptom #2. Aches and pains

Pain and depression often go hand in hand. Depression can cause pain — and pain can cause depression. This means that for people with an existing condition such as arthritis or an injury, they may see their pain get worse.

People who have depression can also often feel unexplained aches and pains, whether it’s in the abdomen, joints, neck or back – or all over.

Many professionals even believe that depression causes people to process and feel pain differently than those in perfect health, as it affects a person’s sensitivity to pain stimuli and reduces their coping skills. 

Symptom #3. Funny tummy

Ever totally lost your appetite, felt queasy, or had a churning stomach when you felt anxious or were going through a tough time? Well, you weren’t being dramatic – the fact is, a person’s digestive system is incredibly sensitive to emotions, and it can be one of the first things to be affected. 

For those with depression, stomach and digestive issues are often an ongoing concern, especially in kids and teenagers. Nausea, diarrhea and constipation can all be symptoms – and studies have shown up to 60% of people with irritable bowel syndrome have a mental illness such as depression or anxiety.

Symptom #4. Headaches

Headaches are another symptom closely linked to depression – with people often complaining of a dull headache which is at its worse in the morning and at night. 

These are likely to be tension headaches that happen when the muscles in your neck and scalp are strained. Why does this occur? People with depression often subconsciously tense up this muscle group and without even realising, give themselves a headache. 

Symptom #5. Exhaustion & trouble sleeping 

Because depression and fatigue are so intertwined, it can be really hard to separate them or determine which came first. 

Having no energy is a common complaint from people with depression. But there’s a lot more to this than not feeling motivated. Experts say depression causes a complete lack of energy termed ‘anergia’. This can be so severe that moving around becomes excruciating, with some people saying that even getting out of bed is a daunting task. 

This isn’t ‘tiredness’ that can be cured with sleep. This is fatigue which is a very different beast - with people feeling exhausted from the moment they wake up. 

Another physical sign of depression is sleepless nights, with up to 80% of people with  experiencing insomnia. This could mean having trouble drifting off or waking up throughout the night. But on the flip side, for others, depression can actually cause them to sleep excessively.

Symptom #6. You’re never in ‘the mood’

For many people, depression has a marked impact on sexual libido – whether it’s due to emotional reasons (like lack of confidence) or physical reasons (exhaustion or taking longer to climax). Even anti-depressants can affect people's sex drive.

Whatever the case, it’s worth talking to your doctor about a change in sex drive, to pinpoint the cause and find a solution – sometimes a simple change in medication or treatment can help. It might feel awkward, but remember, doctors are professionals and it’s their job to help.

Symptom #7. Irregular weight

Given the impact depression has on appetite and motivation, it’s no surprise that the condition can lead to weight loss or even weigh gain. 

Losing weight is quite common, as people simply lose interest in food. But for some people, they experience weight gain which is thought to be because they may not be as active, or they use food as a response to the emotional stress and sadness.

Where can I find support?

If you (or someone you know) are concerned about any symptoms of depression or mental illness, talk to a GP or medical professional.

In times of crisis you can also contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or for advice and support contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Read our other blogs

10 things not to say to someone with a mental illness
10 benefits of mindfulness for mental health
Never heard of stimming? You probably do it...

Find out more about disabilty services at House with No Steps

The story behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Date Posted: Thursday, 12 October 2017 12:16
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

We think Jean-Dominique Bauby's determination was pretty mind-blowing, so we're sharing some of the most interesting facts about his life with you.

Jean-Dominique Bauby in hospital[1]

Jean was Editor-In-Chief of glamourous French fashion mag, Elle

Jean-Dominique Bauby (or Jean-Do as he was better known) was a vivacious, handsome and charismatic man with many talents. 

As well as heading up French fashion magazine, Elle, he could also list ‘actor’ and ‘author’ as professions on his impressive CV. Jean-Do was known for his love of fast cars, good banter, high fashion, and fine foods. He loved the high-life, so he lived it!

He was married to Sylvie de la Rochefoucauld, and had two children, Théophile and Céleste – according to Céleste’s memory of her childhood, they enjoyed a very happy life. 

Jean-Do had a stroke and woke up with ‘locked-in syndrome’ 

One day in 1995, Jean and his son Théophile were enjoying a drive together, when suddenly Jean started seeing double. He was rushed to hospital where he slipped into a coma, where he remained for almost three weeks. 

When Jean woke, he was completely paralysed as a result of a rare condition called locked-in syndrome which had been caused by a stroke.

Although he wasn’t able to move his body (apart from his left eyelid), his mind remained fully alert.

From that point on, Jean wasn’t able to eat, swallow, or breathe without assistance. But he could still feel pain, ''my hands, lying curled on the yellow sheets, are hurting, although I can't tell if they are burning hot or ice cold''.

Sadly, Jean’s prognosis wasn’t promising – they were hoping for  some improvement with his digestion and respiration, or perhaps reach a point where he could “muster enough breath to make my vocal cords vibrate.”

Jean turned a corner in the blink of an eye

At just 43 years old, Jean now had no way of communicating with the world. Then one day his friend, Bernard Chapuis (former editor of Men's Vogue), noticed Jean’s left eye twitching. He quickly asked Jean to blink if he could understand him, and lo and behold, he did. 

After that, Jean was sent three hours from Paris to Berck, where he started work with a speech therapist who specialised in the ‘the alphabet of silence’. 

The therapist would call out and point at letters (arranged by how frequently they are used in the French language), and Jean would make words and sentences by blinking his eye when she got to the letter he needed.

“It is a simple enough system,” he explained. “You read off the alphabet… until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted.”

He wrote best-seller the Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking 200K times 

Jean wasn’t prepared to give up – instead, he decided he had to write a book about what it was like to be 'trapped inside' his body.

With the help of a specialised nurse, Claude Mendibil, he was able to write his book - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. For the next few months, Mendibil spent three hours, six days a week, taking dictation – using the same method he was taught by his speech therapist. 

Each night, he would edit his thoughts in his head, and compose and memorise sentences so that when Mendibil arrived in the morning he could dictate his latest installment.

It took him 200,000 blinks to complete it. 

The book’s title refers to the immobility of his body by comparing it to old-fashioned heavy diving headgear, inside which he describes his mind fluttering as delicately as a butterfly.  

Sadly, Jean did not live to see the success of his novel 

Just two days after the French publication of his book, Jean died from pneumonia – with no inkling he had just penned an international best-seller. 

Despite how Jean wrote his book, his book wasn’t fragmented, stiff or overly factual; instead it flowed beautifully with rich imagery. Over the years, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ touched the hearts of countless readers, and has even been made into a critically acclaimed movie which was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. 

“My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.” 

Check out our other blogs

8 incredible facts about Helen Keller

6 suprising facts about Stephen Hawking 
7 suprising facts about Louis Braille

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps
[1]  By Rehman90 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Tags: famous faces

Little known facts about panic attacks

Date Posted: Wednesday, 27 September 2017 08:50
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

If you’ve never had a panic attack, you’ll probably find the concept hard to wrap your head around. But if you have ‘been there’, you’ll be nodding along to these 6 little known facts about panic attacks...

Woman having panic attack

Surprisingly, panic attacks are actually something many people experience (up to 35% of us to be exact) but the topic is rarely discussed. We decided the best way to help you really understand panic attacks was by sharing some of the more little known facts… 

Fact #1. A panic attack can feel like you’re dying 

Panic attack symptoms can vary from person-to-person, but some of the most common symptoms include intense anxiety, sweating, dizziness, a racing heart, shortness of breath, nausea, chest pain, numbness, even stomach cramping and headaches. 

To get an idea of what a panic attack is like, imagine suddenly experiencing some of these symptoms, and not having any control of them. Scary right? 

When a panic attack takes hold, it’s common for people to mistake it as a heart attack – or terrifyingly, even think they’re dying. 

Panic attacks technically aren’t dangerous – that said, it’s really important to get a proper diagnosis from a medical professional, as the symptoms can resemble other serious health problems (which you need to rule out!) like a heart attack, diabetes, thyroid disease, and asthma. 

Fact #2. There is not always a trigger 

It’s true that sometimes you can easily pinpoint the cause of a panic attack: you might have serious money stresses, been fired from your job, recently lost a loved one, gone through a divorce, or you maybe you are in a crowded space. 

However, there doesn’t have to be a cause – and there very often isn’t. Attacks can seemingly come out of nowhere (you could be driving, in a meeting, or in a public space) and can start at any stage of your life - no matter if if you’ve had a history of anxiety before.
It’s actually quite common for people to experience a one or two panic attacks, and then never have another. Some people, however, do have regular, recurring panic attacks. This is called ‘panic disorder’ and affects as many as 5% of Australians. 

Fact #3. Panic attacks can happen while you’re sleeping

It’s actually possible to have a panic attack while you’re fast asleep. 

These are called ‘nocturnal panic attacks’ and are similar to the ones people have when they’re awake. 

Similar to a daytime attack, symptoms can involve shaking, sweating and chest pains, and you can find yourself waking up gasping for air and feeling scared. As you can imagine, not a great way to start your day...

Fact #4. Panic attacks activate the ‘flight or fight’ response

Strangely enough, researchers actually think panic attacks are the human body’s response to perceived danger – part of our in-built ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This floods our bodies with chemicals like adrenaline, which trigger physiological changes.

For example, if a grizzly bear was coming after you, your body would react instinctively – your heart would start beating faster, you would breath much more quickly, and your body would prepare for combat (and get ready to run!).

A panic attack actually triggers the same response in people – but the difference is there is no imminent danger.

Fact #5. Avoidance is not the best policy

If you know a particular thing or event triggers your attacks (like flying or speaking in public), it can be tempting to try and avoid this altogether. 

People will do anything to avoid having a panic attack – in fact, one of the worst things is the overwhelming fear that you might have another one at any moment. 

However, avoiding certain environments or events that could trigger an attack is actually not a good thing to do, as avoiding the fear tends to just exacerbate it. As the saying goes, ‘you’ve got to face your fears head on’. 

Experts say the best approach is to use CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) techniques or other methods prescribed by a professional. 

Fact #6. Panic attacks can be treated

The good news? Professional treatment can be very successful. Medication, psychotherapy and stress management are just some of the tools that professionals use to treat people who experience panic attacks – and in lots of cases, this reduces the intensity and frequency of their attacks.

These approaches can also provide people with useful techniques that help them to cope when a panic starts to sets in.

As well as seeking medical help, there are some techniques that can help:

  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, smoking and drugs
  • Practicing stress management (making sure you have time to switch off) and relaxation techniques (like meditation) 
  • Getting physical (make sure you factor exercise into your routine to get the endorphins flowing)
  • Sleeping (experts recommend between 7-8 hours)

If you need to talk to someone about or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

Read our other blogs

Never heard of stimming? You probably do it...

6 facts about sensory hypersensitivity

5 things about invisible disabilities you need to know

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps.

The incredible life of Lionel Watts

Date Posted: Thursday, 14 September 2017 13:00
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

We thought it was time we brought you up to speed on the story of a man close to our hearts... Lionel Watts.

Lionel Watts as a young man

“When I first became disabled, I looked around and I tried to find my way back into the community. I hadn’t really looked at my reflection and in my own mind I still considered myself as being fairly able, rather than disabled.” - Lionel Watts

Lionel met the love of his life when he was 19

Lionel and Dorothy on their first date

In 1947, Lionel and his mates made a pact to sign up to the Navy.

Unfortunately, when it came to the crunch, Lionel was the only one to go through with it (as what he didn’t know is, he friends’ mothers had forbid them to go).

There was a silver lining though – and it came in the form of a young woman named Dorothy, who Lionel met when he was stationed at Geelong.

After the two met at a dance, they fell in love and went on to marry. He later paid tribute to this enduring love, saying: “Her love and devotion have been my inspiration; for me, she has made it all possible.”

In Lionel’s late 20s, an unexpected illness changed everything

Lionel Watts in hospital

By the age of 28, Lionel was happily living in Narrabeen with his wife Dorothy and young daughters, Nicole and Kerry. He had a successful career as a Junior Executive Manager for GJ Coles, and a very promising future lay ahead. Life was sweet.

One day, Lionel caught what he (and his doctors) thought was the flu, however, they were unfortunately mistaken. Lionel had in fact actually contracted polio, just one year before the vaccination was circulated in Australia.

As a result, Lionel had developed quadriplegia – and spent two whole years in hospital recovering, weighing only 32 kilos.

In Lionel’s day, people were ashamed of disability

Group of people with a disability at a BBQ

While today, disability is something to be embraced, the world was a much harsher place back in the 1960’s.

There was a widespread belief that if someone had a disability, they were being punished by God – which meant families would hide or barely acknowledge family members with a disability.

In Lionel’s words, “restaurants would refuse to have disabled people on the basis that it would upset the other clients. Banks and other services also felt that it would upset other customers to have that so called ‘ugly’ person in their premises."

Lionel wanted to work, but nobody would give him a chance

Lionel Watts with the first members of House with No Steps

When Lionel finally returned home from hospital, he got knocked back time and time again from job after job.

Not only was Lionel marginalised by his community, he was even rejected by rehabilitation centres, who claimed he was “too badly handicapped even to be rehabilitated”.

Quickly, Lionel realised if this was happening to him, it was happening to others too. Refusing to accept this warped view of people with disability, Lionel decided change had to happen – and together with a group of peers, he started the group that would one day become House with No Steps.

Lionel used a deck chair to build one of the first electric wheelchairs

One of the first electric wheelchairs

At the time, Lionel was still finding it hard to get around, so his next goal was to create a chair that he, and others, could use themselves.

Armed with a deckchair, parts purchased from a disposal store, and a little help from his brother and friends, Lionel started the process of designing one of Australia’s first ever electric wheelchairs.

Parking for people with a disability was Lionel’s doing….

International symbol of access

In the 1960 and 70s, travelling around was not easy for people with a disability.

One of Lionel’s friends at the time described Sydney’s Central Station as a ‘disabled person’s chamber of horrors. “I found that I had to go down two flights of steps and up another two. The descent was comparatively easy – I could always fall down if necessary!” he explained.

After hearing about and experiencing these issues himself, now as the chairman of the Architectural Barriers Committee for ACROD (the old name for NDS), Lionel set about campaigning for better wheelchair access for all Australians.

During his time in the position, the committee helped introduce parking permits for people with a disability and made it compulsory for all public buildings, footpaths and crossings to be accessible by wheelchair - a huge leap forward in Australia at the time.

Word of Lionel’s work spread all the way to the White House

Lionel Dorothy and President Nixon

A man of real determination and courage, Lionel was increasingly recognised for all his hard work.

In 1969, President Nixon even invited him to attend the President’s Committee on Rehabilitation in Washington – and over the next eight years, he went on to attend another five similar seminars.

Happily, Lionel wasn’t just heard, he was celebrated too. Not only did he receive an M.B.E. for his contribution to the lives of people with disability, Lionel was also appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work in rehabilitation.

Lionel’s legacy lives on today

Lionel Watts portrait

While Lionel sadly passed away in 2000, his legacy will live on forever in the organisation he established - House with No Steps.

To this day, his wife, Dorothy still plays an active role in House with No Steps – attending functions, visiting facilities, and advocating for the rights of people living with a disability. We are proud to have such inspiring founders, and strive to carry on their great work in everything we do.

Read our other blogs

6 suprising facts about Stephen Hawking
8 incredible facts about Helen Keller
7 suprising facts about Louis Braille

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps.

Tags: famous faces

Never heard of stimming? You probably do it…

Date Posted: Wednesday, 06 September 2017 11:43
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Never heard of ‘stimming’ before? Don’t worry, we’re here to help explain what this word actually means. Who knows, you may be more familiar with it than you realised…

Boy stimming with fidget spinner

Ever bitten your nails before an interview, jiggled your knee nervously, twirled your hair around your finger, clicked your pen in a meeting, or anxiously paced around a room? Well, these are all examples of ‘stimming’.

Sometimes referred to as self-stimulatory behaviour, stimming is: ‘repetitive or unusual body movement or noise’.

For most people, these ‘stims’ tend to be occasional, and to some degree we’re able to control them (you wouldn’t bite your nails in a job interview would you?).

But, for some people with a disability such as autism, stimming can be harder to control. 

How is stimming different for people with autism?

Stimming is most commonly seen in children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder. 

While most of us stim from time to time, the biggest difference for people with autism is the type, frequency and obviousness of the behaviour. 

Common stims for people with autism include hand flapping, rocking, flicking or snapping fingers, bouncing or jumping, pacing, head banging, spinning objects, and repeating words.

Some people with autism may stim a lot, others only a little. Some may ‘grow out’ of the behaviour, while others may stim throughout their lives.

We’re not quite sure why people with autism stim

While it’s pretty common, stimming still isn’t fully understood, even by experts. 

It’s believed that people with autism stim for different reasons such as when they are stressed, excited, anxious, or overwhelmed.

Some people may stim because they are oversensitive to their environment – and it is a calming distraction that helps them to focus and reduce sensory overload. Others may stim because they are under sensitive to their environment and are looking to stimulate their ‘underactive’ senses.

Stimming can also be a habit, like whistling when walking down the street. 

Stimming isn’t always a problem 

While sometimes there is a stigma around stimming, it can actually help people with autism manage challenging situations. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

On the flipside: if it becomes distracting, creates social problems, causes physical harm to the person or others, or interferes with daily life, then it may need to be managed.  

For example, if a child is absorbed in watching their fingers instead of listening to their teacher, they may be missing out on learning about the lesson or developing their social skills.

For some people as well, stimming can cause injury - such as severe hand-biting or head banging. 

It is possible to manage stimming

If you think that stimming is a cause for concern for you or your child, there are techniques which can help to manage it (although it may not be possible to eliminate altogether).

Often, the first step is to talk to a health professional who can help to understand the reason behind it – remember behaviour such as stimming can be a form of communication.

Once you understand, you can explore different ways to manage it, such as providing alternative forms of stimulation, adjusting environmental factors, reducing anxiety, or increasing physical activity.

‘Stimtoys’ do exist… and you’ve almost certainly encountered one

Heard of the Fidget Spinner? Well, it’s a huge craze that swept into classrooms earlier this year. It’s basically a toy you can stim with it – a device on bearings that you hold between your thumb and finger and when you flick it, it spins for ages. 

Fidget spinners were so popular, that by May this year, they accounted for 17% of all online toy sales.

While it may seem strange that kids would be encouraged to play with toys in class, the reason for this was some people said the Fidget Spinner had the capacity to calm and focus kids who have anxiety, ADHD and autism. 

But do they actually help?

While some parents do report positive effects for their child, anecdotal evidence (people sharing their experiences), is different to scientific evidence (formal studies done by the experts). And so far, there’s no actual scientific evidence to support these marketing claims. 

Read our other blogs

6 facts about sensory hypersensitivity
6 facts you might not know about therapy animals
Facts about being diagnosed with autism as an adult

Find out about disability services at House with No Steps

7 facts about the life of Beethoven

Date Posted: Tuesday, 29 August 2017 11:41
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Beethoven might be considered one of the greatest composers of all time, but it’s surprising how little many people actually know about him. 

This musical master managed to achieve some remarkable things in his life - including composing his most complex and highly regarded symphony, while deaf.

Find out more about this remarkable man. 

Fact #1. Beethoven’s father pushed him to become a child prodigy

Beethoven as a boy

Beethoven’s Dad (a music teacher), planned all along for Beethoven to be a child prodigy. Born in Germany in 1770, Beethoven was thrown into the world of music from a very young age and made his public performance debut at just 7 (although his Dad told everyone he was 6 to create extra hype). 

Sadly, it wasn’t just encouragement Beethoven got from his Dad – he also regularly received emotional and physical abuse and was forced to practice for days on end.

Legend goes that as a small child, Beethoven was forced to stand on a stool, so he could reach the piano keys and was whipped for any mistakes.

Fact #2. We don’t know what caused Beethoven to lose his hearing

Beethoven as a young man

There are lots of theories flying around about what caused Beethoven to lose his hearing, including syphilis, lead poisoning, and lupus. Some even blamed his habit of dunking his head in cold water when he was tired! 

But the truth is, no one can confirm the cause – what we do know is at 26, he started hearing a ringing and a buzzing in his ears, and things worsened from there. 

Beethoven’s biggest fear was that his lack of hearing would affect his career, so even though he had nearly completely lost his hearing by the time he was 44, he desperately tried to hide this from everyone, even his closest friends.

This caused a big impact on his social life, with Beethoven writing "for two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people 'I am deaf’. "If I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession, it is a frightful state."

Fact #3. His hearing loss never stopped him composing

Beethoven as a young man

Even though his hearing was steadily deteriorating, he still managed to compose an opera, six symphonies, four solo concerti, five string quartets, six string sonatas, seven piano sonatas, five sets of piano variations, four overtures, four trios, two sextets, and 72 songs! This flurry of activity still ranks as one of the most productive periods in the life of any musician!
Because Beethoven had been immersed in music from such a young age (and because he was a pretty exceptional man) – even after he lost his hearing, he could still ‘hear’ the music in his head. 

His housekeepers also told of how he would sit at his piano with a pencil in his mouth touching the instrument, so he could feel the vibration of the notes while he worked away. 

Fact #4. His hearing loss did impact his music

Beethoven composing

Beethoven’s hearing loss actually did influenced his composition style. 

In his earlier works when he could hear the full range of frequencies, he often used lots of high notes. But as his hearing began to worsen, he could no longer hear these high notes so instead he chose to use lower notes in his compositions which were easier for him to hear. 

But towards the end of his life, the high notes actually returned – this is when he started to let his compositions take shape in his imagination and listen with his ‘inner ear’.

Fact #5. Although he couldn't hear, he insisted on conducting his famous Ninth Symphony


Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (also one of his most complex pieces) was written when he was almost entirely deaf - but even so, he actually insisted on conducting the first performance of this masterpiece. But, the orchestra actually arranged another conductor, Michael Umlauf to stand beside him and it’s believed Umlauf told the orchestra to ‘ignore Beethoven’ and follow him instead. 

But Beethoven’s enthusiasm was clear to everyone there, with one of the musicians reporting, “he stood in front of the conductor’s stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor. He flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.”

Fact #6: He couldn’t hear the huge applause at the end of the Ninth Symphony

Beethoven portrait

When the first performance of his Ninth Symphony ended, Beethoven couldn’t hear the thunderous applause, and remained with his back to the crowd. Although the crowd were determined to make him realise how much they loved his symphony with five standing ovations.

Legend has it that a young female singer approached the maestro and turned him around to face the audience, to see the ovation.

Fact #7. There are some wild theories about Beethoven’s final words

Beethoven in 1824

Beethoven died at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm that his friend likened to one of the composer’s great symphonies, saying “crashes that sound like hammering on the portals of Fate”. 

Looking back on his life, Beethoven was plagued with poor health including chronic hepatitis, jaundice, colitis, various skin diseases, rheumatic fever and cirrhosis of the liver – but his actual cause of his death is still unknown.

Like the cause of his death, Beethoven’s final words are also a mystery.

Some report that after receiving a case of wine as a gift, he said “Pity, pity, too late”. Others speculate these words were "Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est" meaning, “applaud, my friends, the comedy is over" and some say his final statement was “I shall hear in heaven”.

Check out our other blogs

7 surprising facts about Louis Braille
8 incredible facts about Helen Keller

6 surprising facts about Stephen Hawking

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

Tags: famous faces

Mitchell’s tattoo dream comes true

Date Posted: Monday, 21 August 2017 16:33
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Mitchell is one of our customers from the Central Coast and he just got his first tattoo! His mum, Robyn, tells us the story...

Mitchell getting his tattoo

For over two years, my 21yr old son Mitchell has been asking for a tattoo, but being his mum I didn’t think this was a good idea.

But one day, one of the support staff at House with No Steps, Ben, came to discuss it with me. At first I dismissed him as I had many others, but Mitchell knew what he wanted, and he and Ben had come up with an 8 step plan for getting the tattoo.

Mitchell and Ben’s plan:

  1. Ben would take Mitchell to the tattoo parlour to look around and chat to the staff
  2. Mitchell would meet with the tattoo artist to talk about what design he would like
  3. Mitchell would watch the artist tattooing another customer (with permission of course)
  4. If Mitchell was still keen, he would visit again to design the tattoo
  5. If Mitchell was not keen after seeing a tattoo being done, then game over (this was the one I was hoping for)
  6. A booking would be made for the sitting, including confirming costs and time
  7. The time, costs and process would be discussed with Mitchell
  8. Mitchel would get a tattoo!

It was a great plan, however, I still had my concerns. What if he got half way through and changed his mind, what if he got scared and ended up with an ugly mark?

So Ben and Mitchell took me to talk to the tattooist about my concerns. The tattooist asked me “did you ask these same questions with your other son?” I did not. So I looked at Mitchell and asked if he was sure, and he said yes.

The booking was made and Mitchell wanted Ben to go with him “cause it’s a man thing.” The appointment took 4 hours and Mitchell did not complain once about the pain.

He now proudly displays his tattoo at every chance and wears a lot of singlets! He is so happy that he’s already designing his next tattoo.

Mitchell and Ben did this together and with respect for everyone concerned. This dream and goal would never have happened without the advocacy for Mitchell’s rights and the Active Support from the House with No Steps team.

Mitchell has achieved one of his dreams, and for that I am grateful to Ben for his perseverance in advocating for Mitchell’s rights.

- Robyn Black

Read our other blogs

"I think it's just awesome to be in love"

Raising a son with Down syndrome means wearing many different hats 

Myths about Down syndrome

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

8 facts you need to know about using a wheelchair

Date Posted: Monday, 21 August 2017 16:06
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

When people see someone using a wheelchair, they often tend to jump to conclusions – sometimes without even realising. But like many assumptions, these are often incorrect.

Young man and lady in wheelchair hanging out in the park

To help shed some light and clear up some confusion, we’ve put together 8 facts you need to know about using a wheelchair.

Fact #1. People are not “Wheelchair Bound”

The fact is, wheelchair users aren’t bound to their chair; it’s simply a device that lets them get from A to B. And when you think about it, using a wheelchair is actually quite the opposite of being bound – it is liberating and enabling for the person!

And remember, not all people need to use their chair at all times, so there is no need to be shocked or accuse wheelchair users of ‘faking it’ when they stand up. 

The fact is there are many reasons someone may use a wheelchair periods of time only – many conditions for example can cause chronic pain, fatigue or restrict mobility. It could be that someone has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for example, and some days they might choose to walk, but on their ‘bad’ days they might choose to use their chair. 

Fact #2. A wheelchair is part of someone’s personal space 

For many people, a wheelchair is an extension of their body and therefore the rules of personal space apply to it as well! 

So, that means… do not rest your feet on it, lean on it or use it as an armchair! This is an invasion of personal space – it’s the same as a stranger coming along and resting their arm on your shoulder. 

Also, the general rule is: don’t ever touch or move someone’s wheelchair without permission from the owner. This even applies if the chair is not currently being used!

Fact #3. Don’t assume someone who uses a wheelchair will need your help

Often people’s sentiment is in the right place when they jump to attention to help someone who uses a wheelchair – but we often see people going overboard to help someone when it’s not actually needed. 

The thing is, many people don’t actually need help and are quite comfy going about their day to day.

But if you do see someone who you think could use a hand, the best thing to do is actually just ask them if they need some help! But if they say no, respect their answer and don’t push the subject. Simple as that!

Fact #4. People who use a wheelchair can have fantastic sex lives

Sex is a natural human desire – and people who use a wheelchair feel no differently about sex than any other person would. 

While some disabilities can make ‘traditional’ sex difficult, many people (even many with spinal cord injuries) can still have full sensation and control ‘down there’.  And what actually is ‘traditional sex’ anyway – sex can be anything including intimacy like kissing, touching and massage. 

Props like wedges, sliding chairs and swings can make sex easier too – and even a wheelchair can be a great tool if you use a little imagination! Where there’s a will, there’s a way! 

If you’re curious you may like to check out our article about sex and disability.

Fact #5. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t shake up the dance floor

Unfortunately, it not uncommon for people to stare or comment when they see someone in a wheelchair at a club, bar or party – but why can’t someone in a wheelchair be shaking up the dance floor if they want to? 

In the words of the late Stella Young: “I am never more aware of my body than I am at around midnight on a Friday. More often than not, I'm on a dance floor, feeling music pulse through my body and moving it accordingly. I'm surrounded by people. They're dancing. I'm dancing.”

“It's my body, and I'll bloody well dance if I want to.” 

Fact #6. A wheelchair user doesn’t just hang out with their ‘carers’

It might sound obvious, but people who use wheelchairs have friends, partners, kids, parents and siblings just like anyone else. So if you see someone with a wheelchair hanging out some of their peeps - don’t assume they’re their carers!

To quote the late Stella Young again, “Quite often these people are hanging out with us because they like to, not because we need looking after. It's annoying when people assume the only reason someone is hanging out with you is because they have to.”

Fact #7. Accessible toilets and parking spots are important

The general story here is simple: accessible facilities such as toilets and parking spots exist because people need them. It’s important to remember that these facilities are often limited too – so just because you don’t want to stand in line or do another lap around the carpark is not an excuse to use them!

In fact – it’s illegal to use an accessible parking space without a permit, and it’s just not chill to use an accessible toilet if you don’t need to.

We’ve written a whole blog about people with invisible disabilities using accessible parking before too, because remember – as long as someone has an appropriate permit, it’s not up to you to judge who can park there!

Fact #8. Yes someone who uses a wheelchair can drive

In many cases, cars actually be modified to allow someone who uses a wheelchair to drive - 
foot pedals can be raised, re-positioned, or even replaced with hand-controlled devices. 

In some vehicles, a wheelchair user can get behind the wheel while still using their chair, thanks to a neat docking device that anchors their chair to the car floor.

While modifications such as these are not possible on all vehicles (and drivers may need to be assessed and trained by an Occupational Therapist before driving), these modifications do mean that for many wheelchair users, they can definitely get behind the wheel!

Check out our other blogs

Sex and disability: the facts
10 things not to say to someone with a disability 
10 things not to say to someone with a mental illness

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

6 surprising facts about Stephen Hawking

Date Posted: Thursday, 17 August 2017 12:22
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

While world-renowned physicist, cosmologist and author, Stephen Hawking's academic achievements were outstanding, there’s another remarkable side to Stephen’s story: his determination. 

We’ve gathered some of the lesser known facts about Stephen’s life, to give you a different insight into this fascinating man.

Stephen Hawking at Nasa in the 1980s

#1. He was a pretty average student at Primary school

Stephen might be considered a genius today, but back in his early school days, he certainly wasn’t top of his class! He was eight before he learnt to read - and at nine, and his grades were among the worst in his class!

However, he was always inquisitive, and his friends and teachers saw his potential early on and gave him the nickname, ‘Einstein’.

Towards the end of high school, Stephen started showing an interest in science and quickly developed an astounding grasp of time and space. 

Now more studious, he set his heart on going to Oxford University but his parents couldn’t afford the fees. Fortunately he passed the entrance exam with flying colours, scoring an almost perfect score in physics and winning a scholarship. 

Later, Stephen dubbed his first two years of Oxford the most boring of his life, saying he found it ridiculously easy. 

#2. When Stephen was 21, he was told he only had a few years to live

Stephen Hawking

When Stephen came home from graduate school for Christmas at age 21, his family noticed he was often tripping over and was generally clumsier than usual. 

He was taken to a doctor, where they ran tests for over two weeks, and eventually diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease. ALS is a neurological condition that causes people to gradually lose control of their voluntary muscles. 

At just 21, shockingly, doctors told Stephen he only had two years to live. But while Stephen soon had difficulty walking and his speech became almost incomprehensible, his disease progressed more slowly than the doctors had predicted. 

Despite ALS usually being fatal after three years, Stephen managed to prove the doctor’s diagnosis wrong – and passed away at the age of 76.

#3. There’s a story behind Stephen losing his speech

Stephen Hawking giving presentation

By the time Stephen was in his thirties, his speech had deteriorated so much that only his family and best friends could understand him. 

Then at 43, he contracted pneumonia and the prognosis looked so bad, Stephen’s doctors asked his wife if they should turn off his life support. 

Although she refused, Stephen’s doctors did need to carry out a tracheotomy to allow him to breathe. This involved cutting an incision into the windpipe, meaning the little speech he had left would be lost. 

#4. He favoured the American accent

Stephen Hawking with Obama

Follow the op, Stephen was no longer able to speak and had to raise his eyebrows to communicate different words – that was, until he came across his now famous device called the ‘Equalizer’. 

This device allowed Stephen to press a switch to select phrases, words or letters, and with its help, Stephen could communicate up to 15 words a minute. 

The only slight drawback was the fact that the Equalizer only had one accent: American (and Stephen was very much British). Funnily enough, the accent grew on Stephen, and when the machine was later updated to include other accent options, he chose to stick with his US one, saying "I keep it because I have not heard a voice I like better."

Gradually, Stephen lost the use of his hands but (being ever-determined!), he started operating the voice synthesizer with movements of his cheek at a rate of about 1 word per minute, and later in life he used word prediction software (similar to a smartphone) to communicate.  

#5. Stephen was a man of many talents 

It’s not common for scientists to star on sitcoms but Stephen did – making guest appearances on The Simpsons, Star Trek, and The Big Bang Theory. Not one to do things in halves, he didn’t end his acting career there, also appearing in the science show, A Brief History of Time, as well as biographical films about his life. 

Stephen’s creative skills weren't limited to acting, either. In 2007, he also published a children’s book in collaboration with his daughter, Lucy. The book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, explains pretty heavy concepts like black holes in kids’ terms and was received so well, they followed it up with four sequels.

#6. At 65, Stephen managed a backflip (yes, literally!)

Thanks to Richard Branson, in 2007 when Stephen was 65 years old, he got to take the trip of a lifetime: heading off to experience zero-gravity. While floating in space, Stephen ditched his chair and even managed to do backflips!

Of course, this being Stephen, he wanted more – and publically declared his ultimate goal: to travel into space. 

Hearing this, Richard Branson has since offered Stephen a ride on the Virgin Galactic space flights – a winged spacecraft specifically designed to carry 'space tourists'. While the ships don't go into orbit – all passengers, including Stephen, would officially be granted official astronaut status once reaching space!

Check out our other blogs

7 surprising facts about Louis Braille
8 incredible facts about Helen Keller
5 amazing people with savant syndrome 

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

Tags: famous faces

Understanding addiction: 7 things you need to know

Date Posted: Friday, 04 August 2017 09:00
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

Addiction is one of the most misunderstood conditions around, and one that everyone seems to have an opinion on. There’s also sadly still a stigma surrounding addiction, but we are hoping to improve people's understanding by shedding light on 7 things you need to know.

Addiction support group

Fact #1. There’s a lot more to addiction than ‘substances’

A lot of people think the word ‘addiction’ only applies to drugs, alcohol or smoking. But the truth is, you can develop an addiction to all sorts of things: exercise, sex, food, gambling, shopping, work, online gaming, behavioural patterns, the list goes on and on. 

Addiction is a need to do, take, or use something, to the point where it could be harmful and you’re not in control.

It doesn’t really matter what the person is addicted to, be it alcohol, cigarettes, or prescription drugs. To the person, the effect is what counts, not the substance. 

It’s true that some substances can be more addictive than others, and some are more dangerous than others, but any addiction can cause physical, mental and social damage. It really just depends on the individual; but whatever the case, an addiction should always be taken seriously.

Fact #2. Addiction isn’t something you choose 

Frustratingly there are lots of common misconceptions around this one. 

Often people wonder why people with addiction don’t just stop. They’re not weak-willed nor inherently bad - addiction is a chronic, debilitating and potentially fatal disease which has long been recognised by the WHO (World Health Organisation).

While using a substance or behaving in a certain way may start out voluntarily, with addiction it doesn’t stay that way. 

Once someone has an addiction, they’re certainly no longer making a choice – it has become compulsive. People lose control, no matter the negative consequences - loss of friends, family, jobs, and housing as well as negative physical and mental health effects. 

Another factor to keep in mind is dependency. Sometimes your body becomes used to a substance (such as a drug), and you can become physically reliant, making it a whole lot harder to just quit. In fact with drug use, drugs actually change the brain to foster compulsive drug abuse. 

Fact #3. People with addiction come from all walks of life

Some people think that those with addiction must look a certain way, but the truth is, any stereotypes that people may have in their minds are just not true. 

Sometimes they may discover that a friend, family member or neighbour with a stable career and family, has an addiction to alcohol or drugs. And they're shocked. But addiction can affect anyone – you don’t need to have lived through a rough past, be a certain race or gender, or have a particular lifestyle.

So next time you’re shocked to find out someone has an addiction, remember that there are no simple generalisations that can be made, and like any condition, anyone can develop addiction.

Fact #4. No one factor means someone will develop an addiction

No one factor can predict if a person will develop an addiction, or predict how many times it will take before they become addicted. 

Many factors can contribute including early trauma, family’s beliefs and attitudes, stress, use of substances early in life, and peer pressure.

Once someone has started a certain behaviour or using a substance, the development of this into an addiction can see genetics start to play more of a role in combination with environmental factors. While some people can have a casual drink or play the pokies from time to time, others will find it turns into a destructive habit. 

Fact #5. People with a disability are more likely to have an addiction

It has been found that people with a disability such as depression, PTSD, intellectual disability, spinal cord injury, or ADHD are more likely to have an addiction. 

Sadly, often services for disability and substance abuse don’t overlap; meaning they’re treated by different people at different facilities. So professionals in one field aren’t knowledgeable about the issues in the other field. This can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult. 

Although research has shown that people with a dual diagnosis (disability and addiction) respond well to integrated treatment, this type of treatment is uncommon and difficult to access. 

The good news is, the number of workers trained in dual diagnosis treatment is slowly increasing so we hope to see these overlapping services rolled out more widely. 

Fact #6. You don’t need to hit 'rock bottom' to recover

Have you heard ‘you have to hit rock bottom before you can climb back up’ before? This just isn’t true (what does ‘rock bottom’ even mean?) 

The reality is, everyone has a different lowest point: for some it may mean calling in sick to work, while for others it can mean being in jail. The issue with spreading the ‘rock bottom’ message is it leaves people feeling like they can’t ask for help because things haven’t gotten ‘serious’ enough yet. 

In reality, it’s always better to ask for help sooner rather than later.

Fact #7. Relapse doesn’t equal failure

Addiction is a long-term condition that can include periods of recovery as well as relapse. 
With many conditions, the possibility of relapse is always present. Addiction is no exception.

Sometimes relapse can be seen as a sign that your approach and treatment needs to be adjusted or new supports added, but viewing it as a failure can actually be detrimental – leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety. 

Just like the condition itself, the recovery plan should also be long-term and most people find the most successful treatments are programs that are created for the long haul, with support available whenever it’s needed.

Where to get support

If you or someone close to you is having trouble with addiction, there are services that can help. We’ve included a few below. You can also consult your doctor, physician, or an addiction specialist about possible treatment options too.

Counselling Online lets you communicate online with a professional counsellor about any alcohol or drug related concern, and it’s available 24hrs a day. 

Gambling Help Online is a 24hr counselling and referral service for people concerned about their own, or someone else's, gambling.

Family Drug Support is for families and friends of people who use drugs or alcohol.

Kids Help Line is available 24 hours a day to children and young people aged 5–25.

Lifeline is a 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention service.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – 12 step self help groups where all attendees are fellow alcoholics or addicts

Al-Anon and Nar-Anon – sister groups of AA and NA for family and friends whose lives are affected by the addiction of a loved one

Read our other blogs

Raising awareness of addiction and mental illness - a mother's story
5 things about invisible disabilities you need to know

10 things not to say to someone with a mental illness

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

Tags: addiction

8 incredible facts about Helen Keller

Date Posted: Thursday, 13 July 2017 12:50
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

You would all know the story of Helen Keller, the well known writer, political activist and pioneer for people with disability. 

But there’s a lot more to Helen’s story than you’ve probably heard – so we decided to dig a little deeper, and share some lesser known facts about this remarkable woman.

Helen Keller reading braille

Fact #1. A childhood illness took Helen’s sight and hearing.

Helen Keller wasn’t born with a disability, but when she was only 19 months old, she became sick with what the doctors called “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain”. These days her illness probably would have been labelled Scarlet Fever or Meningitis - both which could now be treated, but back then they often had severe consequences.

A few days after Helen’s fever broke, her Mum noticed she wasn’t responding when the bell was rung for dinner, or when a hand was waved in front of her face.

Soon after, they realised that Helen had lost both her sight and hearing.

Fact #2. Helen was called an ‘unruly child' when she was young.

Helen Keller as a child

When Helen was a a young child, her behaviour had become highly erratic. She was having daily outbursts of emotion; kicking and screaming when she felt angry, and giggling uncontrollably when she was happy. Many of her relatives even thought she be put in an institution

But the truth was, this behaviour really only boiled down to her high level of intelligence, and her frustration at not being able to communicate once she realised other were having conversations she couldn't join.

The desire to be able to speak out became so strong, Helen even created a kind of sign language with her friend Marsha Washington – and by the time she was just seven years old, they’d already made up over 60 signs to communicate to each other.

Fact #3. Helen believed her life started at the age of seven.

Helen Keller as a child with Anne Sullivan

It wasn’t until Helen met her teacher Anne Sullivan (who went on to become her mentor and friend), that she believed her ‘soul was born’. 

Anne showed up in Helen’s life in March 1887, when Helen was seven years old. Only 14 years older than Helen, Anne was also visually impaired and just recently graduated from school. 

Before long, Anne had taught Helen ‘finger spelling’, which allowed her to finally communicate with those around her.

To do this, Anne gave Helen an object such as a doll and traced the word 'd-o-l-l' onto her palm.

At first Helen did not make the connection between the letters on her palm and the objects. But the famous watershed moment came when Anne took Helen to the water pump outside and while spelling “w-a-t-e-r” into Helen’s palm, let water run over the girl’s other hand.  

Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.

Fact #4. She called Mark Twain a best mate.

Mark Twain Portrait

Surprising but true! Helen met Mark when she was just 14, when going to Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and they stayed close friends until Mark’s death 16 years later. 

Handily for Helen, Mark smoked 10 to 20 cigars a day, so she could easily recognise her friend from his scent. 

When describing Mark in her autobiography, she wrote, “he treated me not as a freak, but as a handicapped woman seeking a way to circumvent extraordinary difficulties.” 

Fact #5. Helen was the very first person who was deaf and blind to graduate.

Helen Keller Graduating

In 1900 Helen was accepted into the famous Radcliff College in Cambridge (along with her loyal teacher Anne, who attended alongside her to help interpret lectures and texts). 

It was during Helen’s junior year here that she wrote her autobiography, ‘The Story of My Life’. 

By 1904, she had not only written a book, but graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, becoming the first person who was deaf and blind to earn a college degree. 

By the time she went to college, she had also mastered several ways to communicate, including reading by touching people's lips, braille, typing and finger spelling. She had also learned to speak, although she was always unhappy with her voice as it was hard to understand.

Fact #6. Helen was on the FBI’s radar.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Helen was a true pioneer in her time, and for a woman living in the early 20th century, she was very political and was seen to have some pretty radical ideas. 

She went on to become a world-famous author and speaker, with a particular focus on speaking out for people with disabilities.

But she didn’t stop there – she also focused on social and political issues, tackling a women’s right to vote and use birth control, and was avidly anti-war (something Mark Twain and Helen had in common). Helen also founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

She was even investigated by the FBI because of her extreme left views. 

Fact #7. She was forbidden from marrying her fiancé.

Helen Keller holding flower

It’s heart-breaking and hard to understand, but in Helen’s day, society believed that women with disabilities shouldn’t fall in love or experience romance of any kind – let alone get married. 

But when Helen was 36 she fell deeply in love with a man called Peter Fagan, an ex-newspaper reporter who was working as her secretary, and they were secretly engaged. 

They even managed to get a marriage license before Helen’s family caught on and forbid them from going any further because of her disabilities. 

Helen regretted never marrying, sadly saying later “If I could see, I would marry first of all.”

Fact #8. Helen’s teacher died while holding her hand.  

Helen Keller hugging Anne Sullivan

Helen remained close to her beloved teacher Anne for an incredible 49 years. 

In 1936, Anne went into a coma after suffering with coronary thrombosis, and heartbreakingly, she died. Right up until the end Helen was there with her, and was holding onto Helen’s hand when she died. 

Even to this day they’re still by each other’s side – with Helen’s ashes being placed next to Anne’s in 1968, when she died peacefully in her sleep.

Check out our other blogs

7 surprising facts about Louis Braille
6 amazing facts about Stephen Hawking 

7 facts about the life of Beethoven

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

Learning my child has a disability

Date Posted: Tuesday, 04 July 2017 09:18
Posted By: Nadia Pocock

When Debra was told her son Tobias had autism, she describes the feeling as having a brain freeze after eating really cold ice cream - but the difference was the feeling didn't go away.

Debra with her sons Tobias and Judah

When Tobias was 2 ½ years old, he had very few words, little eye contact and was still crawling. At the time, I was a new Mum with very little understanding of a child's development or the challenges for families with a member with a disability.   

I recall his first year and realising that yes, something wasn't right. I was frequently comparing the milestones of my niece who was 3 months older, with Tobias.

He was a premmie and so was expected to be delayed somewhat and yet as time passed, the gaps became more obvious and my knowledge of this gap equally so. I could see there was a delay but receiving the autism diagnosis is hard to describe.

I had asked Mum to come to the appointment with the Developmental Paediatrician with me. I expected to hear nothing new. The Paediatrician asked Tobias some very clear questions, all of which he did not take in or respond to;

'Look here Tobias' as he pointed
'What's your name?'

Tobias blankly stared, showing no eye contact with the Doctor yet quite content in his world that day. The Doctor quietly asked me to come and sit down.

'Your son has Autism' he said, and I heard nothing more. I think I tried to engage with him, I'm not entirely sure. He handed me some papers and I could see his mouth moving but didn't hear a thing. I looked down at the information sheet and saw 'Autism is a lifelong disorder'.   

The type of shock experienced by a diagnosis like that is hard to describe. It reminds me of a cold headache, where you swallow a large mouthful of really cold ice cream and your brain freezes.

You can't speak and can only shake your head waiting for it to pass. Your whole body is chilled and frozen for those seconds. Hearing the autism diagnosis was like that... but it didn't go away.

My body is freezing... cold... blank... shaking my head
Please pass
Please pass

I remember biting my lip hard, holding my breath and trying not to let the tears fall in front of this man I didn't know, who had just broken my world. The cold headache had obliterated everything I knew of my child and the tears dripped from my chin. 

I walked out holding Tobias, hoping the secretary didn't see my distress and blindly into the car park with Mum following. She grabbed me and I sobbed into her, both of us clinging onto Tobias. The cold freeze continued and I was silent. I stumbled to the car. Mum took Tobias from me and buckled him into his car seat.

The only way I could work out how to deal with the 'freeze' after that day was to focus on an action. I knew nothing of my current world but could focus on what was ahead. 

I had worked in the Disability Sector with adults with multiple disabilities and I knew exactly what autism could look like. I knew the potential difficulties with communication, the lack of intimate relationships in severe cases, the smearing, the indignity really.

I read that the best support available was Behavioural Therapy and I went to an assessment session with the closest organisation I could find. I didn't contemplate the obstacles. I'm a determined person and I simply didn't care.   

My mother, father, partner and I all trained as therapists and his program began when he was two and a half years old. My second son Judah had just been born and we were doing 15 hours of one on one therapy a week. We were all exhausted but his gains were enormous.   

In many ways it was quite an isolating experience. There was little time for play dates with children we met through other activities... in fact other than extended family there were few other children.

Our lives operated around the start and finish of shifts, rostering, fortnightly team meetings, diverting repetitive behaviours, doctor’s appointments, and consistency in all communication with Tobias.

Our house was filled with a stream of people coming and going and the bills piled up as therapy hit $1000 a week. Most people could simply not relate to this experience.

Most often people would empathise and really listen to what was going on. They walked beside us in the experience which was all I wanted. Other times I would be met with a blank stare and see the pity coming;

'God has chosen you for this'
'You must be a saint'

Blah blah blah

In response I just wanted to scream and prove them wrong. I didn't want this for my children! I didn't want my entire day to revolve around avoiding every day sounds like hairdryers, coffee grinders, vacuums and lawn mowers. I just wanted to be a ‘normal’ mum hanging out with other new mums. Quite frankly, it was really shit.

It was challenging and exhausting but I had never before felt such purpose. I felt a drive and determination to give Tobias the best possible chance. There was no time for self pity. We had up until the age of 5, the critical brain development phase to cover as much ground as possible.

Not long after Tobias’s first diagnosis, he was given his primary diagnosis of Williams Syndrome. This curve ball presented a whole different focus and set of challenges.

People with this diagnosis are described as having a ‘cocktail party personality’ where they will talk to anyone... and I mean anyone. Going to parks were a particular challenge. He would join every party in sight, hug random strangers and even ask to be picked up. At the same time, I have never met so many people in my life!

Our first Williams Syndrome annual picnic was an enlightening experience. I was welcomed from the moment I arrived. There was no hesitation about being approached or shyness in conversation. In fact, when it came time for speeches, people had to line up to take turns. It was refreshing and disarming.

When Tobias turned 5 we were attending interviews for mainstream schooling and it became obvious that he simply wasn't going to fit... yet.

His obsessions with spinning things had continued from the age of 1 and no amount of diverting had resolved it. The pleasure he gained from watching whirly birds on houses or fans was just too strong. This posed safety issues as he would take off to stare at these things whenever they were nearby, regardless of what any teacher said.

Toward the end of the year, Tobias was offered a spot in a private, autism specific school. I was incredibly relieved but sad at the same time. I knew I didn't need to worry for his safety and yet my dreams for Tobias were starting to seem just that. 

Taking him to that school on his first day was such a confronting experience. All these children were doing unusual things; flapping, jumping and repeating things. Some weren't speaking at all and here was my precious child happily amongst them.

There were all sorts of outdoor therapy equipment like trampolines and swings and every door and gate was locked. I had spent over three years trying to support Tobias to fit in to a 'typical' environment. I didn't want to leave him that morning.

My sister had taken my niece to school and was sad about leaving her. The difference was she was doing all the things everyone else was doing. My sister was sad she was growing up. I was grieving that he wasn't ready for life yet.

They call this experience 'Living Grief'. Most other types of grief come after an event; the death of a relationship, or person, or end of a job. It has happened, it is over. Having a child with unique challenges is different. Every day you face the reality that they are struggling. Every day you see the differences between other children and your own. Every single day is a challenge for you and them.

This is not to say that it has been all sadness. That's definitely not the case. There has been so much depth and a lot of beauty, too much beauty really.

I remember Mum calling me one day crying and it took me a while to work out that Tobias had walked three steps during a therapy session! Three steps at 2 1/2 when coaxed with chocolate! The time he started using full words, then two word sentences, then three word sentences. The time he was able to climb a ladder and jump on a trampoline independently. The day he chose his first library book called 'I love chocolate'. All of these skills were hard won. They were broken into minuscule steps and he worked every step of the way for years, trying his hardest to bludge where possible, his funny little personality shining through.

In many ways I feel lucky, I really do. We have this completely accepting and supportive family, an extended network of Williams Syndrome families who understand the challenges, my second son Judah learning at a speed which amazes me, access to doctors who are the best in the world at what they do, as much food as I need, and a roof over my head.

There is still sadness in me but overwhelmingly I see this beautiful, individual, social, naughty, tantruming, nose picking, affectionate little boy and I adore him for who he is.

- Debra

Check out our other blogs

Myths about autism
4 things that don't cause autism
Raising my son who has autism and ADHD

Find out more about disability services at House with No Steps

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