A Special Gift

I see Iris and the children at the club being able to naturally self-regulate, understand emotions and follow instructions while they interact with the different animals here at The Little Explorers Activity Club.  For children on the autistic spectrum whose minds can be overcrowded with stimuli, the confusion seems to fade when they hold Luna the rabbit on their lap.  Fingers seeping into her soft white fur, they can open up about what they are struggling with or what their passions are.  You can see them pausing, noting details like her funny little nose or long white whiskers.

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It seems their sensory systems are calmed by these interactions.  Lying on Blue’s back feeling his warmth and deep breaths they can truly relax.  Others are calmed by his rhythmic walk and trot.  Watching the enjoyment and satisfaction some take in grooming his coat is intriguing.   They seem to know instinctively that he will enjoy what many of their own bodies need – repetitive strokes of a heavy brush down his shoulder can help them regulate themselves into a state where anxiety levels drop and communication is possible.

Iris on Blue while lying down

The ease in which conversations can flow is constantly surprising, especially when the notes I have read in advance about a particular child’s challenges can seem so overwhelming.  We have created a comfortable sitting room area right inside the barn with an armchair and rug from our South American travels.  There are toys and books to dip into and provide more moments of amusement.

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Murph the goat, who is the youngest of all our animals, fits into the baby role. With him in your arms your heart melts. He has eyes like a baby deer and faun-like colouring, and never fails to bring out the soft maternal side in everyone.  I love how the animals come in contrasting pairs, each providing something different.

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Smurf is the wild card, confident and strong. He leads the way but only seems to bond with certain characters. Once you are his friend he is incredibly loyal but he can take some time to form those relationships.  This characteristic is incredibly useful in the sessions as the children need to consider their behaviour towards him and he therefore teaches them without them even being aware of it.  It is a similar dynamic with Luna and Shadow, Luna is the relaxed cuddle bunny and Shadow is an excitable bouncy presence.

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People giggled when I announced that Goat Agility was on my mind. I had found a wooden dog agility course that we could adapt for the goats. It turned out Smurf, our black and white goat was an expert and loved showing off his skills.  The children learned how to lead them:  the best position to lead your goat across the ramp is to have a short lead. You have to make sure you go no further ahead of the goat than its shoulder. You need encouraging words and guidance to your goat as he moves forward. It turns out there’s a lot involved.

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It is important to me that our private sessions for families follow what the greatest needs of each family are, and this sometimes means tailoring the sessions to the siblings.  Being a brother or a sister in a special needs family is a remarkable feeling and heartbreaking at the same time. Very often you can see that they put their own needs behind those of their brother or sister.   They love their special sibling and become their best advocates, they know them probably better than anyone. They become used to seeing the unnoticed or the misunderstood.  They are the quiet wingmen to all families affected by autism.  The aim is to give them some time doing an activity that they might not have access to in a world of expensive therapies and needs.

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Respite is also important so sometimes that might mean letting the children play on the apple tree platforms while making the mother some tea. I know how valuable it can be to talk openly with another mother who has been through similar experiences.

The animals are a source of fun, comfort, a diversion and a haven.  They relax us and calm our racing thoughts, giving us time to breathe.  As I watch them playing with the children, sitting on a lap, teaching without knowing it, drawing out the best in these young inspirational minds and ourselves.

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I sometimes think back to the blue butterfly I saw in the jungle – how the wish I made then has been made true tenfold.  Small hands reach out to Blue’s head: he bows his face down to them and their fingers run down his forehead to his soft grey muzzle, whiskers and pony moustache.  Feeling his warm breath against the back of their hands they join him with deep inhalations and shut their eyes.  These animals are a special gift to us all.   As the next months unfold I wish for more adventures for Iris: adventures that will teach her, will excite her, and will help her find her place in the world.

Happy Iris riding Blue

To find out more about The Little Explorers Activity Club click this link

We are very grateful for any donations as it helps pay for more animal feed, materials and the special activities like the archery, cooking, arts and crafts & music workshops for the families.

If you would like to donate please email us at thelittleexplorersactivityclub@yahoo.com and we can send you the details of how to do so.   Or if you have Paypal you can use this link.

To give you an idea of costs and why we need to constantly fundraise for the 3 ponies, 2 goats, 2 rabbits and a cat here are some basics:

A bale of hay costs £7.00 (lasts about a day in the winter)

1 Bedding bale of wood shavings £8.00

Goat Mix £11.00

Farrier £75.00 for a trim and 4 shoes, £25.00 for barefoot trim

We deeply appreciate any help you can give x

 

 

The Wish Granter

A gecko ran across the whitewashed wall chased by Iris’s silhouette, a shadow tied to her as she tiptoed down the path beside the house. With her shoes on, she took my hand to the gate, ‘Let’s go riding’ she said, ready for the days adventure. Could this be the day where riding finally worked? I had been hoping it would ever since we first saw the horses riding along the dirt road to the bohemian beach town Montezuma. The seeds for this had been planted long ago. Just after her diagnosis at two years old we had tried many times to introduce Iris to riding but with very little success. I realised back then that my hopes were heavily clouded with my own desires and passions as I had loved horses and ridden since a child. More recently, I worked alongside another charity which used horses in their therapy program for children on the autistic spectrum: I was once again hoping that Iris might forge a connection with horses. They had been a massive part of my life so when I saw Iris was excited to see them, it sparked up my forgotten wish for us to ride together.

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With the pristine beaches, virgin rainforest and abundant wildlife we were all in high spirits. In fact the only problem seemed to be very loud and boisterous monkeys keeping us up at night. That and the pesky coatimundi, who with their long snouts and sharp teeth were masters at breaking in and stealing our food.
We got in the 4×4 and made our way down the bumpy track, shafts of sunlight penetrating through the trees to the muddy terrain below. Iris pointed at a large Blue Morpho Butterfly for me to see. Its wingspan must have been around 20cm, with bright metallic wings beating slowly in the air. The butterfly was almost in slow motion, shimmering iridescent shades of blues and greens contrasting with its brown camouflaged underside. Each time I saw one I was filled with amazement. They are such an astonishing sight that your eyes long to hang on to them as long as possible, but they would float away with the breeze into the jungle, to be lost in the dense green foliage. In many cultures butterflies are associated with a deep and powerful representation of the soul and spiritual transformation. The blue is thought to symbolize healing. Many natives of the rainforest see the “blue butterfly” as a wish-granter. Before I lost sight of this blue sprite I made a wish: let this be the day that Iris and I could happily ride together.

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We turned left onto the main road, twisting up through the tropical valleys where the ranch lay in a pocket of green fields. A strange sight in the middle of the forest: fenced pasture and cattle that looked like they should be on the African plains.

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Iris got out and was greeted by a huge dog but she ignored him completely. She went up to the first horse that was already tacked up and tried to get on. She could be focussed to the point of seeming rude sometimes: I had to remind her to wait and that we needed to find out which horse would best suit us.

My plan was to ride with her sitting in front of me: that way I would be there for her, whisper to her about the nature and animals we saw and help her ride. I didn’t know how she was going to react to being on a horse again and I felt safer thinking at least I would be with her. It was how we had ridden all those years ago when she was 2 years old. But once we were on our trusty steed this time I realised a flaw in my plan: Iris’s height. My view was out to both sides and a little to the front but Iris’s sun hat obscured some of the way ahead.

We made our way out onto the track and through the jungle. The owner of Indiana Horse Tours, Deanne, rode beside me, I asked her why she had settled here: twenty five years ago she came to Costa Rica and didn’t want to leave. She bought a few horses and began doing the tours. Then she bought a little property and the herd became bigger so Indiana Tours became her way of life. She was trained as a veterinarian which explained why she was surrounded by animals: ten dogs and a few cats roamed the property. She talked to me about her ethos, how the horses lived in a herd and the softness with which she rides them. She respected the horses like I did, appreciating each individual personality and I felt at ease around her. Her approach seemed to reflect my own and reminded me both of my years in France with all of my own horses and the methods I use with Iris.

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As we walked up a steep hill further into the forest I felt like I was in my early twenties, back in Venezuela, trekking through the Andes. I loved this sense of freedom as we strode on ahead of the others. It was a freedom I had thought was behind me: sometimes I feel lost in all of the responsibilities of being a parent of a unique special child. Horses had once been my life, and now after many years they were back with us.  Most excitingly I could tell that Iris was finding a powerful connection too.

Her social skills had developed and she was able to engage with the people around her, take instructions and guidance where needed with very little stress. I hadn’t been able to understand before why riding hadn’t worked for her, but now the pieces were slotting into place. Iris had shut herself off to horses in the past because while she was with them, humans came along too. When she was little there would be someone either side of her, chatting and trying to get her to engage. At that point she couldn’t manage all the stimuli or deal with the sensory information coming in at her from every angle. It was too much.

That was where Thula excelled in Iris’s world, a silent partner by her side. I thought about what people do while they are with a cat: they make predictable movements, they sit beside the cat and stroke their soft fur, they speak in soft low tones and usually move away after a few minutes. Cats provide quiet moments of stillness that are moments of peace. Horses are all about movement and communication as herd animals: when we are with them we naturally mimic that type of behaviour and turn into more social beings. But that only works if we are ready.
As I understood this, it made me realise we need to see the whole picture, step away and understand what our children need and at what stage. Certain animals carry with them characteristics that will fit a child at certain stages in their development. I was realising the potential and how big the role could be for animals when working with children with additional needs. It may not always be a cat; it could be a dog or a horse, or even a farm animal like a goat who are hyper social animals. They all have their own qualities which we can work with to help our children, to aid progression and open up their worlds.

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Iris watched the team untack our horse when we got back. She became fascinated as each horse was dealt with, going from the water station where they were sprayed and back again to the stable to see the next one. Her arms folded behind her back, she studied what was happening with great interest and even got involved in helping. Watching her, I made a plan in my mind to find more places where she could ride. Once home I would contact the equine therapy yard that we visited all those years ago and we would try again. It would be a chance for us both to learn.

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There is no telling how independent Iris will become in the years to come and that can weigh heavily on my mind. But the more we pushed the boundaries of that potential outcome, the more something was released. The freedom began to come back and I could forget to care about all the ‘what if’s’. I could be there in the moment experiencing its joy with Iris. It felt like a perfect day. As we headed for home after spotting some monkeys, we caught sight of another pair of blue beating wings: it was as if the ethereal creature was telling me my wish had been granted.

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A story from our Costa Rica Trip in November 2017.  To find out more about our ‘Forests of the World’ Project visit this page

We are raising funds for our next trip to see the incredible forests in California with Iris’s 2019 calendar

This will make a beautiful Christmas gift for your loved ones, spreading hope and autism awareness too.

Front of the calendar

How is it that a child on the autistic spectrum can thrive on change?

We are led to believe that change is the very thing they struggle to handle.  Theories and methods propose that to help our children overcome their anxieties we must implement a strong structure and routine into their daily lives, encouraging them to find comfort in that.  A day mapped out in pictures, even a card presented for a change or an unpredictable event.  It seems logical in one way: they are distressed by change so you make their world predictable to alleviate that discomfort.

But I began to wonder if in fact what we were doing was reinforcing the very thing we would like to flex.  What I was observing was that a pattern had begun to emerge: the more freedom and movement Iris had, the more the rigidity of her condition was released.  Each time this happened she would gain more confidence and relish the new encounter or situation.  She became excited by the unfamiliar.

Had I without knowing it been guiding her towards this in the way I would pair up new experiences with her passions?  Her first bike ride while listening to her favourite music, Thula on her lap at traffic lights, her violin hidden away in her bag like a comfort blanket at the music concert…Our days of education at home didn’t follow a timetable, they were free, adapting to the weather, to Iris’s mood, to Thula and to Iris’s own interests.  The child I saw in front of me wasn’t afraid of the unknown, quite the opposite, she bounded towards it.

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I made more of an effort to embrace this impulse and allowed Iris to adventure further.  I let her walk on ahead of me and for her to decide which way we went.  Her appetite for exploration exceeded my expectations, eager to experience new landscapes, trees, nature and wildlife.  We left home every day and made it our mission to see something unfamiliar and learn along the way.  I missed her hand in mine, but I got used to following her slim figure, walking in the footsteps of those bright rainbow boots.  Iris’s hands flapped in excitement and moved in the air feeling the energy, delighted by secret undulations that seemed to exclude me from her experience.  As hard as I tried I couldn’t feel what she could, so I felt it in my own way – seeing the joy in her. There doesn’t seem to be a purer feeling of happiness and it made me smile, taking away any sadness from the mystery.

Sometimes she would lead me to places I had no idea existed. On one memorable walk she found a woodland like no other we had been to before.  It was as if we were transported to America, into the magnificent tall Redwoods.  She introduced me to ‘King Tree’, a mighty tree that stood very tall in the avenue.  We explored along paths, through streams and old ruins.  Out there she loved me chatting to her.  I made up stories and she would run along in front of me playing a part in the fairytale.  She hid under bridges pretending to be a troll or a dragon flying in the sky.  This was imaginary play that would have been nearly impossible for her in a noisy school. Her mind seemed free from the confusion.  When she got tired she would lie down flat on the ground, looking up at the sky with her wellie boots splayed out to the sides, total relaxation till she jumped up and marched on.  I admired her connection and faith in nature, I would be checking the ground before sitting carefully so as not to get wet or sit on creepy crawlies. She thought nothing of such things and trusted in nature, enjoying the unexpected textures, feelings, smells that it provided.  She would tell me to ‘look up’ as we walked under the tree canopies and she took great delight in showing me something one day that I hadn’t noticed before.  It was how the trees’ uppermost branches create patterns in the sky. In some parts of the wood they wouldn’t overlap at all and they left rivers of blue in between the crowns of leaves.  It is a naturally occurring phenomenon called ‘crown shyness’ that I had never heard of, but now I could see how it created striking silhouettes, sometimes dramatic like lightning bolts, sometimes more gentle, like paths.  As Iris looked up she raised her hand and pointed her finger, then traced along the lines of blue, mapping a journey in the air.

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I began to take supplies in a backpack, snacks and water so we could stay longer in these newfound worlds.  As each week went on the countryside around us seemed to shrink and I could tell she wanted more.  I knew that feeling very well:  what is around the next corner and over the next hill? Where would these adventures take us?

20819161_1775922292422471_5839185027479227198_oInspired by our rainforest home ed project we came up with an idea of travelling to the  ‘Forests of the World’.  An undeniable traveller’s spirit continuing to emerge in Iris gave me confidence in going ahead with these adventures.  She was filled with a curiosity that was no longer satisfied by her paintings, or the books that used to be her fortress in the confusion of autism. My old home-schooling system of pre-set topics and themes seemed not to be as powerful as it had been: Iris seemed to learn better on the spot and in the moment. She was changing, and my methods needed to transform along with her.

To find out more about our ‘Forests of the World’ Project visit this page

We are raising funds for our next trip to see the incredible forests in California with Iris’s 2019 calendar

This will make a beautiful Christmas gift for your loved ones, spreading hope and autism awareness too.

Front of the calendar

Building your child’s relationships & learning with your pet

Spending time with a pet can be a valuable experience for a child, it was life-changing for Iris and I want to share with you some thoughts on how we can support, encourage and expand on these bonds to further our children’s development. 12291207_1175456022469104_7569663374651159077_o

A French writer, Anatole France, once said that “until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” I have to agree with that statement.  The strong bond between a child and an animal assists in development of important life and social skills, personality traits, responsibility and empathy.  Having a pet in the home can improve the quality of life of the whole family, reducing stress and depression.  Animals also promote physical and mental balance within the home.

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According to the studies, pets allow our children to feel more complete, happy, independant, responsible, and affectionate.  Feeling responsible for and taking care of an animal will greatly improve the child’s self-esteem. They will feel useful, know that they’re doing a good job, and gain a lot of confidence in their abilities.  For special needs children the sensory input they receive and the calming influence is incredible.

A good environment that facilitates a relationship between the child and their pet will improve the child’s integration into the family. An animal can be a very strong uniting force between family members.

Learning to respect the pet from a young age will make the child aware of the need to respect other people, their surroundings, and the environment.  They are an excellent source of support for children during hard times. The unconditional companionship of an animal can alleviate sadness and fear allowing the child to overcome their challenges.

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So it is clear that children and pets are a natural match, but that doesn’t mean your child should be left to their own devices with the animal. To help ensure safe, happy interactions between pets and children I would advise the following

Actively Supervise Interactions – monitoring body language, the child’s and the animal

Teach your child through your own actions how to be gentle.

Provide a getaway space to use if needed

Reward based learning will encourage both of them.

Adults need to be aware of a pet’s body language with children and should be prepared to intervene if a pet starts to be anxious.  It is also important to teach your child how the animal uses their body to express their emotions, and that these communications should be respected.

Greetings, affection and play provide a routine for both your pet and your child. Rewarding these encourages both your pet and your child, helping to teach your pet to associate your child with good things happening in the home.  Encourage them to join you with the child while they play and have a think about how you can tailor their games, education to include the animal.

12493743_1193934543954585_7247443409807534233_oHere is an example of some home education games that I was playing with Iris but I also made sure it was safe for Thula too.  Think about seating, make room for them to be included where possible.

In 2014, I based a whole term of Iris’s education around a ‘cat’ theme to encourage Iris’s academics but also it helped their bond to strengthen.

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Praise them for making good choices, like leaving a sleeping or eating animal alone, calmly inviting a pet to approach them at their own pace, or using gentle hands to touch.

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Rewards reinforce good behavior in your pet and your child, and can help to ensure that the two of them will form a lasting bond.  But try to keep the following in mind:  It can’t be forced.  However, if the child takes on responsibilities like feeding the animal, giving them clean water, bathing them, taking them for walks, including them in their play and education, rides in the car… their bond will start to grow.

Iris Grace

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Thoughts on Therapy Cats

Iris and Thula’s story has inspired many parents to think about a cat as a therapy animal in their own homes so here are some thoughts and practical advice that may help.

Choosing a kitten or rescue cat

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It is important to understand the type of character you are looking for, what you want to achieve and why, before your search begins.  For us, we wanted a highly sociable cat who would encourage Iris to play and explore new things.

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So a lap cat that sleeps all day and wants strokes wouldn’t cut it for our needs. However, for another family who wants to encourage quiet chill time that maybe the perfect cat for them. The same goes with the choice between a kitten or older cat, think about if your child would like a bouncy playful kitten or would that upset them. For some children on the spectrum the unpredictable movement of a kitten maybe too much for them, whereas a settled older cat might be far more relaxing. Think long and hard about what you are looking for and why, I can’t emphasise this enough as it really is key to finding a good partnership. Certain breeds of cat will carry characteristics and attributes that will suit different roles that you would like them to be for your family. Research what would suit you and your child and ask if you can have them on trial first as some cat rehoming centres will allow you to do this.

Harness, Leads & Collars

IMG_7439 copyI personally don’t like the thought of a collar on a cat 24/7 as it may get caught causing problems. If you want to introduce a harness and lead I would advise to do it in the early days, little and often. Pick a harness that has more material parts so it spreads the pressure and is more comforting and comfortable for the cat. Try it on at home where the cat loves to be the most and pair it up with playing with their favourite toy. Make their time in the harness fun and only for short periods of time at first and build on that. The same with the lead, most cats will need a great deal of time and encouragement to walk on a lead and this will have to be worked on slowly.

Indoor or Outdoor

Jungle ThulaThis is such a personal choice that depends on many factors, your own home, garden and environment. Safety concerns like roads and heavy traffic will determine how comfortable you feel with letting your cat roam freely outdoors. Of course, it’s possible to add gates, high fencing to more or less cat proof your garden.  Remember, they are agile, intelligent creatures and ultimately the best escape artists you will ever come across. They are naturally curious as all great hunters are and if they want to explore and be adventurous they will. Studies have proven that on average a cat will roam no further than 100 metres from their home but if you live in a town or city that will be a worrying thought.
We have made a choice to allow Thula to be free and trust that she will be careful. It is very important for her own wellbeing to have time to be a cat, to run, jump, climb, hunt, to use all of her senses in the environment that they were designed to be in. With large solid wooden gates at the entrance of the property I feel happy in the knowledge that at least that problem area has been dealt with. She has free access to fields and farmland at the back of our garden and she does have a large roaming area there. We have come across her hunting on our walks with Iris many fields away from the house but she always comes home and as soon as she sees us she joins us to go back.

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Our way of life here includes open windows, doors, outdoor living and the animals coming and going as they please with even the goats joining us in the kitchen. It simply wouldn’t be possible for me to lock Thula up inside during the day due to Iris’s love of the outside. So fit in how you are with the animals with your lifestyle choices. I made the decision that what we could do was to lock her in at night to reduce risks and that has worked for us very well so far.
I believe they will follow you as long as there is respect and understanding. Some cats I’m sure will thrive on an indoor life if they are provided enough attention and activities while others need to be free. Think of our own choices, some of us love snuggling up on the sofa and watching films all weekend, nice and warm…while others climb mountains in the wild winds. We are unique characters, they are unique too.

Travel

IMG_8624 copy copy (1)Many of you will have seen pictures and film with Thula riding happily in the car and on our bikes. This was, like most things, to do with my approach – a slow introduction with lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement. It’s not something that I would suggest you do with every animal. It could be very dangerous for them if they are not confident yet, but if introduced carefully it can be a lot of fun for both you and your cat.
We started with very short car journeys when she was a young kitten, usually around the village twice a day. This helped Thula get used to sitting on Iris’s lap and she became more comfortable, so we could we gradually lengthen these outings.

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It was a similar method with the basket on the bike. At first I would let her explore the basket while it was on the kitchen floor, after all it was rather like a box and what cat can resist getting into a box. Then I moved it outside and put it in a place where I knew she loved, this was Iris’s tree stump and she jumped inside the basket.  It was introduced in a way that made it her choice to get inside which I feel is critical when you are working with a cat. Then eventually I carried her around in it, got her used to the motion, before finally adding it on the bikes and did little trips.

Expectations

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I feel that we shouldn’t hold onto ideas, thoughts or expectations when we bring a new animal into our lives.  It can stop us living in the moment with them. Some of the most powerful moments between Iris and Thula weren’t led by me, they happened between them through intuition and I learnt so much by observing their relationship. There won’t be another like it, their bond is unique and the experiences between other kids and their pets will be too. Iris is now able to build relationships with others, they are different to what she has with Thula but these advances are brilliant and I’m very thankful to our special feline friend.

Next time I will discuss ideas about how you can encourage a bond between your child and the animal.  Suggestions for games and how to involve the cat in your child’s early learning.

But for now if you would like to learn more about our story and haven’t read ‘Iris Grace’ here is the book

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Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson

 

 

Sour Dough Mania

Iris has been interested in baking since we returned from our first ‘Forests of the World’ trip in Costa Rica and that’s when I started to follow a baker from Slovenia called Anita Sumer.  Her unique twist on cooking inspired me to merge Iris’s artistic skills into her baking.  When we were planning our trip to Slovenia I contacted Anita and she kindly offered us the chance to visit her to have our own private workshop in her apartment.  It was an inspirational start to our trip filling our tummies with yummy food and a perfect way to rejuvenate from our testing journey the day before and fuel us for what was to come over the week ahead.

At first, Iris was a little shy but she got into the swing of things as soon as she saw the dough and made herself at home.

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We made delicious pizzas, a selection of breads and puddings.

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We asked Anita some questions about her journey so far with Sour Dough and I wanted to share this with you.

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How did you start making Sourdough?

I started about 6 years ago when my husband Sašo had his gallbladder removed and was not able to eat yeasted bread as he experienced bloating and stomach issues.  So I researched and stumbled upon sourdough.  I made my very first sourdough starter but sadly it died on me, because I didn’t know how to take good care of it.  But I did not give up and made my second one, Rudl, that’s his name, and he’s been with me ever since. And one day I made a sourdough brick loaf and my husband was able to eat it without problems. We knew at that moment that this bread was something special.

I did not go to any workshops. I’m a self-taught 100% sourdough baker, this means that I’ve been baking for 6 years only with sourdough no commercial yeast added. The more I baked the better understanding of the whole process I got.  With every bake, you make some progress, you just need to be persistent and patient.

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What was your life like before Sourdough? What was your profession?

I’m not a baker by profession but definitely by heart and soul.  My normal occupation is an English teacher and German translator and interpreter.  But lately, I’ve been baking and teaching sourdough baking more than translating.  It is something I enjoy a lot, I pour my love and passion into it and can’t imagine not baking anymore, it has become a part of my life.

Your sourdough breads incredibly beautiful, are arts in your family?

Actually, my mother loves to dance and sing folklore songs, and I’ve always loved arts, made my own greeting cards, and all those hand-crafted items.  When I got the hang of making sourdough bread, I started to decorate it to give it my unique touch.

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What’s your favourite recipe or food from Sourdough?

I love all kinds of bread, there isn’t a favourite one, one day I prefer a heavy rye, some days a light white kamut batard, then on the next day a fluffy and buttery brioche. Sourdough baking is a journey and you get to eat your ups and downs on the way.  To me it is more important that the bread has a nice flavour, is healthy, nutritious, delicious, and if it looks good it’s just a cherry on top.

I have quite a unique approach to sourdough, I use it not only for baking but also for cooking, it’s so versatile.

You have a large following online, how did that happen?

Almost overnight, haha. No, but really, I created my Instagram account (sourdough_mania) two years ago in October 2016, and started posting bread/sourdough-related content every day, videos, pictures, tutorials etc. Somehow the content caught attention of foreign media companies like BuzzFeed, Insider, Business Insider, Daily Mail, Freeda amongst others. They made compilations of my works and the number of followers jumped up a lot. Then the media in Slovenia discovered my story, magazines and televisions came to me to make the interviews, and I became better known also in my home country.

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You’ve recently published a book on Sourdough, how successful has it been?

The book was released on 7th December 2017, it was the first sourdough book in Slovenian language, and the first edition was sold out in 3 months. And now almost half of the second edition is sold as well. And from every book sold, 2 € go for therapies of a 6-year-old-girl with cerebral palsy.  In December, it even surpassed a book by a world-wide known cook book author and celebrity chef in sales at a major book store.

When I was writing this book, I had in mind that I need to include everything that I was missing when I first encountered sourdough. There were no books in Slovenian language six years ago. All the information I found was online. The book is structured as this; first we cover grains with the help of my friend David Kranjc who is a specialist in agronomy, then we move on to different types of flour, after that is time to make our first starter and mix our first bread, knead, stretch and fold, preshape and shape, then proof, score and bake. Then I also showed some procedures in detail (for example how to make rye bread, croissants, pizza etc.). The first part of more than 150 pages is dedicated to procedures and theory and is very rich in photography with beautiful pictures of my friend and photographer Primož Lavre who is also a devoted sourdough baker himself.

The second part includes more than 45 recipes that cover different types of bread, pastries, sweet and savoury delights etc. Then at the end, there’s an extensive SOS chapter with questions and answers to the most common situations in sourdough baking. And a baking schedule so the reader can adapt the process to fit their time and life.

The book is having a huge impact and the sourdoughmania is slowly evolving into a movement for better bread.

Next year it will be published in two foreign languages as well, approximately in May there will be a Croatian edition, and in autumn another language will be added to the sourdoughmania edition.

I’m so grateful to be able to make a change, with small steps we can all contribute to a better well-being.

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You run workshops on Sourdough, tell me about the people who go to them?

My classes are visited by professionals and amateurs alike. Though this January I gave a special course for chefs with many well-known and excellent Slovenian chefs, Luka Košir for example came to my workshop in Ljubljana as well as Matej Zupančič, and Črt Butul, we had one whole day dedicated especially to sourdough baking in restaurants, and it was a blast and a lot of fun. Good bread is critical for a good restaurant, the first thing a person gets on the table is bread, and you need to make a good entrance with it.

Where has Sourdough taken you in your travels?

So far I’ve visited Portugal, Russia, Jamaica, Singapore, Bangkok, England, Belgium, the Netherlands and also Croatia. Every country has its charm,  I love them all and I enjoy getting to know other cultures, especially food-wise, I love to eat and experiment. But I think Asia has found a weak spot in me, I got immersed in its rich culinary background, lots of new and exciting things to try, such amazing hospitality, a friend of mine and a fellow questor chef William Woo organised my first 2-day-masterclass in his artisan school in Singapore and a 3-day-masterclass in Bangkok. We baked a lot, also traditional Slovenian goods like fruit bread, potica, buhteljni, doughnuts etc.  Sharing the culinary tradition around the world is also a privilege, seeing the students trying something they’ve never had before and enjoying it is really rewarding.

Do you have any advice for people starting in baking?

Yes, of course, don’t be intimidated by sourdough, it’s just fermented flour and water, anyone can learn.  You just need to be patient and persistent, don’t give up if you don’t succeed the first time. When you get the hang of the process, observe it with all your senses and you will make it, and the reward is a loaf of flavourful, delicious and healthy bread.

Know your flour well, try to use local organic ingredients if possible. Good flour is the key to good sourdough starter and then to delicious bread.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to spread the sourdoughmania bug around Slovenia and the world, share my knowledge, get to learn new countries and their culture, meet other sourdough enthusiasts, and I hope to see my book translated into other languages as well.

How do you book on to one of your courses?

I’m usually contacted by email – info@drozomanija.si or over Instagram if someone wants to invite me over to do a masterclass. There are a few foreign workshops already planned for next year, some old locations and some new ones too, you can find more information on my website – www.sourdoughmania.com (will be up and running at the end of November) and on my Instagram (sourdough_mania).

Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson, Harry Speller & Sourdoughmania



Gorges & Lakes in Slovenia

For as long as I can remember Iris has loved watching water, the light and the colours that dance around her.  So on our Forests of the World trip to Slovenia even though we didn’t go to a beach we found other ways to delight her senses with the deep gorge near Lake Bled and the Lake itself.   The Vintgar Gorge has attracted tourists since the 19th century.  Wooden bridges and viewing galleries lead you down the 1.6 km long gorge among waterfalls, pools, and cascades. A stone, single-arch, former railway bridge also towers above the gorge with the awe-inspiring waterfalls cascading beside us and rainbows in the mist.

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With its bluish-green pristine lake, picture-postcard church on an island, a medieval castle clinging to a rocky cliff and some of the highest peaks of the Julian Alps and the Karavanke as backdrops, Bled is Slovenia’s most popular resort and we were very excited to visit this incredible location.

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Traditional wooden boats – pletnas – have been taking visitors to the island in the middle of the lake for centuries.  After landing, we climbed 99 stone steps to reach the Church, we listened to the church bells which carry legends that will make your wishes come true, for Iris this was a delicious chocolate bar bought from the souvenir shop.

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Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson & Harry Speller



Forests of Slovenia

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Iris’s love of nature is the foundation of her development, the inspiration for her paintings and where I have found she learns best.  Our Forests of the World project started last November in Costa Rica and is taking us all the way around the world to some unexpected but totally inspiring places.  In September 2018 we visited the Forests of Slovenia and we were blown away by it’s magical landscape.  These trips have become more than just education for Iris they are a journey of self-discovery, pushing limits and has given her a confidence that I couldn’t have imagined years ago when she was first diagnosed with autism.

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In the picture above Iris crossed this river which at first glance may seem like a risky option to take with a kid on the spectrum.  I know most parents will be worried even looking at the image, no handrail on one side, the dangers…but she was listening to me and concentrating hard, taking in all of my instructions.  I trust her and she trusts me and with that, she gains a strength that she will need to overcome many challenges in the future.  It’s a fine balance of course, how far to let them explore before you jump in and hold them tight but the more I try the better I get at judging and understanding these boundaries.

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Sometimes her excitement gets to the point where she quite literally rockets to the sky flying so high.  I adore these moments as her joy passes to me and it’s an incredible feeling but I know that I need to be there for her to help her self-regulate.  Sometimes it’s just to allow her to hold my hand or for me to repeat the sounds she makes, reply to her riddles of phrases and parts to songs.  Then at other times she brings me close, she wraps my arms around her slim body and presses my hands.  She enjoys the deep pressure, it comforts and restores her balance, giving her what she needs to move on.

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Out in the forests of Slovenia she became an intrepid explorer and at times it was hard to keep up with those long legs of hers.  She moved like a mountain goat up the steep rocky hillsides to see the beautiful waterfalls and we found many intriguing creatures along the path.

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Our travels to The Forests of the World are a tale of freedom, of education and adventure.  They teach me more about being a parent than anything ever has and for Iris it’s giving her happiness, teaching her adaptability and encouraging independence.

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Photography by Harry Speller & Arabella Carter-Johnson




Exploring Postojna Caves, Slovenia

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I don’t think any of us will ever forget our adventures in Postojna Caves, with magnificent cave formations and an unforgettable ride on the underground train.  Iris was exhilarated and in awe of this fascinating subterranean paradise shaped by tiny droplets over millions of years.  At times we thought that she wouldn’t be able to cope – surging crowds behind us, waves of tourists that come and sweep over you but then they recede and you have a chance to breathe.  We were able to take in the enormity of all that surrounded us, the water that slowly dripped down the stalagmite deposits, some estimated at about 150,000 years old.  The formation of Postojna Cave goes back to approximately three million years ago.  A dripstone forest that had to be on our list of places to visit on our quest to see the Forests of the World.

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Photography by Arabella Carter-Johnson & Harry Speller





Career Opportunity

Working Student Placement available at The Little Explorers Activity Club in the UK with Iris Grace.

A fantastic opportunity to work alongside best selling author Arabella Carter-Johnson and her daughter Iris Grace.  Accommodation provided on site and access to transport.  Driving Licence preferred but an electric bike is also available.  Only one mile away from town and train station (55mins to London) but set in beautiful countryside.  A keen interest in Autism, Education, Gardening & Animals is essential.  Self-motivated to help with the following duties – Saturday children’s club, routine tasks looking after the animals and the aquaponics system, light gardening & some Nanny work.
If you are interested please Email Arabella at thelittleexplorersactivityclub@yahoo.com
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Forests of The World

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Donate

The Forests of the World Project will be in aid of WWF, the world’s leading independent conservation organisation, documented by the bestselling author & photographer Arabella Carter-Johnson.

Following Iris has always been an adventure, her paintings have inspired people throughout the world allowing us to see beyond a diagnosis. We believe ‘Different is Brilliant’ raising positive awareness for Autism. It’s all about building on strengths instead of focussing on the weaknesses and following the lead of your child – that is the precious key.

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Iris’s love of nature is the foundation of her development, the inspiration for her paintings and where I have found she learns best.  We are now embarking on a new adventure together travelling to the Forests of the World.  Each trip will be tailored to Iris’s interests and we will educate her throughout the journey.  After all where better to learn about the jungle or volcanoes, eco systems and different cultures than be immersed in them.  She will learn in a real way that means something to her and I will document the process inspiring others, showing them the beauty in our world that needs to be protected for future generations.

The Forests of the World Project will be in aid of WWF, the world’s leading independent conservation organisation.  Their mission is to create a world where people and wildlife can thrive together. To achieve this mission, they are finding ways to help transform the future for the world’s wildlife, rivers, forests and seas.

We will discover and share the delights of the forests in California, Cambodia, Canada, Romania, Chile, New Zealand, Germany, India, Finland, China, Romania, Madagascar and hopefully others too over the coming years but our first trip this year will be to Costa Rica as it is a fine example of how it can be possible to live in harmony with nature.  A 5 week adventure that will be inspiring, challenging, mind expanding & a joyful celebration of our beautiful planet that needs to be protected and of course how ‘Different is Brilliant’ with Iris Grace.

Join us on Facebook or Instagram  to follow our journey
and Donate through this page to raise funds in aid of the WWF

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Costa Rica is considered to possess the highest density of biodiversity of any country worldwide.  Its biodiversity can be attributed to the variety of ecosystems within the country. Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, Atlantic and Pacific coastline, cloud forests, and mangrove forests.

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Beautiful, dense vegetation from the cloud forests in Costa Rica.

This incredible country shows us how people and wildlife can thrive together, over twenty-seven percent of the country’s land has a protected status as national parks, wildlife refuges & forest preserves.  The Costa Rican government is active in protecting its biodiversity, encouraging tree farming to provide some habitat for wildlife, enabling some measure of biodiversity to remain in these areas despite humans’ use of these natural resources.  Jaguar ‘corridors’ have been created, protected trails which allow these big cats to pass safely from one area to another.

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Ecotourism brings in 2.8 billion dollars in revenue for the country.  Ecotourism is defined as “tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, especially to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.”  The profitable industry of ecotourism entices businesses to capitalize on natural resources by protecting and preserving them rather than consuming them.