The understanding, support and encouragement of others has made a huge difference to who I am today.
Long before I received my autism diagnosis there were experiences where I knew I was different but didn’t understand why. Only the kindness, understanding and support of others has enabled me to achieve what I have and improved the quality of my life. For anybody who wants to appreciate what is necessary for autistic people to thrive here are the examples of what made a difference to me:
My school friends
At school I was a loner, I would seek out desks away from others fearing the interaction and the possible difficulties I might experience in communicating with fellow pupils. I would be quiet in class worried about drawing attention to myself and preferring instead to hide away. All my school reports said I could have done better if I was more outgoing and joined in more, but this was just too much of a challenge for me. While all the other pupils were lively and chatting ten to the dozen, I preferred to find a quiet place or stand alone. The only thing that saved my school life from being a complete nightmare was the small group of friends I formed during these years and who are still friends today.
They made sure that, instead of sitting in the corner and being alone, I always had someone I could turn to and who I could relate to. They understood that I might be different but accepted me for who I was, they encouraged me and were kind to me recognising what I needed without it actually being talked about. I am proud that we are still in touch and feel that I have made friends for life.
My Sixth Form Teacher
Exam season was a challenge for me. Sitting in a hall, needing to be extremely silent unnerved me. I found it difficult to concentrate because other people were too close, and teachers paced up and down which distracted me, and I couldn’t focus. Consequently, I didn’t get the best exam results and really didn’t qualify for 6th form. However, the then Head of Sixth Form – Nigel Pressnell – recognised that I could benefit from extra support. He correctly identified that I wasn’t ready to start work and that an extra 2 years in the Sixth Form would better serve me and prepare me for what was to come. This added time at school and his support and encouragement boosted my confidence and gave me time to get ready for the next stage of my life. Without his understanding and kindness I have no doubt that I would have really struggled with life and the transitions to the next stage.
Throughout all my early life, my family understood that I might be different, that I was particularly sensitive to external surroundings and changes in routine but there was no explanation for this. It was only when I took a job in a warehouse processing book deliveries and couldn’t meet the speed at which this needed to be done, that my Mum decided that we needed to get some outside help. My Mum made an appointment with our doctor and from there my autism discovery began. This was in 2005 and after referrals to specialists, I received my diagnosis in 2006.
Suddenly everything made sense and we understood why I had struggled with certain situations. Without my Mum’s determination and the support of my dad, and my brother I would still be unsure and confused about why I couldn’t deal with things in the same way as others. I would still feel that I was a bit weird, I would be lost and would have retreated into solitude and my own company rather than face the outside world without knowing why.
Now, whenever I meet anybody new, I am comfortable in explaining about my autism, it makes me feel less anxious to tell people so that they understand and in almost all circumstances I have had only good responses which has taken the pressure off me of trying to manage my symptoms alone.
My support networks
Thanks to my Mum I got involved in a voluntary group – Avon Tyrell – where people who had mental health difficulties could go a couple of times a week to help build confidence and get involved in work such as gardening. It was amazing to be able to laugh and joke with others without being nervous, to experience what it was like to be part of a team – something about this environment just worked for me. The people that ran it were really patient and kind. They encouraged me to consider what I could achieve and gave me the self-belief that I could do this. Thanks to them I realised that it was OK to be different and that we are all different in some way. Today, I still meet with the people in the same group as me - we still laugh and joke together and encourage each other through shared experiences.
Another big part of my progress is the support I’ve had from Autism Unlimited. Their support workers guided me in the right direction in a positive way and thanks to their amazing mentoring I now work 3 days a week as a volunteer in their admin office. Without their help I wouldn’t have even considered this, but they have encouraged me to stretch my boundaries in a way that works for me. I receive great feedback from them about how I am doing and am now the go-to person for answering the ‘phone, something I couldn’t have considered previously.
Learn, Understand, Accept
I think it is so important for everybody to recognise how far kindness and encouragement go in life. If I hadn’t met these people at various stages of my journey who were prepared to spend some time with me, to mentor me, to encourage me and to support me I would have a very different story to tell. I feel proud of what I have achieved but I know that each of the people I have met along the way have played a big part in my progress.