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'I am discovering things about myself that I had never realised before'

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I am writing this blog sitting in front of a log fire in a Finnish log cabin, surrounded by woods and looking out over Lake Ahtarinjarvi. It is without doubt the most beautiful place I have ever visited in my life. 

It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that I am out here on holiday, but I’m not, I’m actually spending eight-weeks on placement at the Lehtimaen Opisto, a large residential college for people with learning disabilities and autism in a small town called Lehtimaki. The experience so far has been absolutely out of this world.

I have got to admit, the decision to spend two months on my own, in a foreign country where I am unable to speak the language, was not an easy one, and I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how I would make it work, how I would be able to afford it, and how I would get all of my outstanding academic work completed around such a monolithic experience.

Luckily for me, my worries have so far been without substance, and I am here, working hard, living well, and finding plenty of time for hiking, relaxing, and also for writing that dreaded dissertation. It looks like a decision well made. 

The experience is proving to be life-defining both personally and professionally, and I am discovering things about myself that I had never realised before. I am also discovering skills and areas of practice that I would like to develop further over the course of my career, as well as learning from the many therapeutic approaches and environments that I have been exposed to.

Although I do not have the word count to talk about everything I would like to, I just wanted to share some of my key observations from my first two weeks.

Can do attitude

This is arguably the major thing I will take home with me. The person-centredness at the Opisto is a notch above anything I have ever experienced before. No matter what the activity, everybody is involved to a degree that they can be, if of course they choose to be involved at all.

The focus is well and truly on what people can do, rather than what they can’t, and the question is always ‘how can we do something?’ rather than finding reasons why it’s not possible.

Green care

There has been much talk about ‘green care’ during my first two weeks, which is an approach that uses nature and animals to enhance the quality of life and wellbeing of people, especially people with complex needs, mental health conditions, autism, and learning disabilities.

The approach is used as a preventative measure, and it aims to support both physical and mental health by promoting relaxation and decreasing stress. Several methods are used in this approach – animal assisted therapy and activities; nature-assisted methods; and horticultural therapy. I have experienced horse therapy first hand and was absolutely amazed by the impact that it had on the young man involved.

Size does not matter

In the learning disability field, we talk about institutionalisation a lot, and rightly so, but it’s easy sometimes to forget exactly what it is. Institutionalisation is not about the size of an establishment, but it is about the attitudes and environment that are employed in that establishment.

The Opisto where I am working is huge – it can be home to up to 150 people at a time, all of whom have varying degrees of learning disability and/or autism.

”The sheer variety of lessons, therapies and activities on offer is truly amazing”

Every person there, however, has their own person-centred schedule; no two students have the same timetable; and sometimes there are only one or two students in a class.

The sheer variety of lessons, therapies and activities on offer is truly amazing and the amount of happy, smiling faces around the place speaks volumes. I can honestly say that if I could break this place down brick by brick, I would quite happily bring it home with me. 

Anyway, I am going to leave you with those thoughts as I have marshmallows to toast and hot chocolate on the stove, but if you want to know anything at all about foreign placements, Finland, Lehtimaen Opisto, or toasting marshmallows then please do get in touch.

Alternatively, if you are interested and want to follow my Finnish adventure, I am writing a weekly blog which you can follow.

Hyvastit nyt (goodbye for now),

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