My story begins at a very early age when I was misdiagnosed with a language disorder. This meant that I was treated as having ‘special needs’ in school. It turns out that I do have special needs but not because of a language disorder. It’s because I am autistic.
I always struggled with fully understanding people and, therefore, struggled to make and maintain friendships. This wasn’t too bad while I was young as I had the friends that I gew up with but all of that changed when my family moved from Sussex up to the East Midlands.
I had spent my whole life in one town in Sussex and now I was being asked to leave everything I knew and loved behind to start a new life somewhere I had never been. If I’d had a choice I’d have said no but my dad’s job was relocating so that wasn’t an option.
My wee brother was fine. He was only 9 and he was really sociable so he made new friends easily at his new primary school.
For me, all my worst nightmares began to take shape. I was painfully shy and because I was autistic, I never got involved with anything that I believed was wrong (like mucking about in class or bullying other people) so other kids thought I was an easy target and they bullied me, mercilessly.
Before moving schools, my mum had a lot of conversations stressing how much help I would need to make new friends. She knew that this would be the lynchpin to my happiness and success during my GCSE years which were approaching rapidly.
Sadly however, the school systematically failed to provide support of any kind in this area. I was placed in a tutor group run by the SENCO herself. To be fair she wanted to keep a close eye on me, but her tutor group comprised all of the ‘misfits’; the loudest, roughest, toughest most badly behaved kids in the year group – exactly the type of child that I couldn’t understand and simply had no chance of befriending.
Slowly but surely, I began to fall apart, showing all the classic signs of advancing stress-induced illness: blackouts, panic attacks, severe nightmares, little sleep, withdrawal…. the list goes on and these are only the bits that I’m prepared to share. The hidden stuff was SO much worse.
Instead of helping me the school just made things worse. The SENCO tried her best I believe but her hands were tied by the Headmistress (a woman who should never have been allowed near vulnerable children).
At my lowest point, instead of offering me support, the school excluded me. I should tell you that one of my main goals at school was to never, ever get a detention. I succeeded in this and all my school reports from Reception to Year 11 were superb and yet, at my lowest ebb I was excluded. This resulted in my parents having to take me to the doctor for a suicide assessment.
Six months before the final GCSE exams I started having full-blown seizures. The diagnosis for these wasn’t epilepsy, it was – as I’m sure you’ve already guessed – stress.
Thankfully, the seizures didn’t happen too frequently and the last one happened just at the beginning of the GCSE exams (that is, until I started learning to drive!). Then something in me changed. I decided that I’d had enough of feeling this low and I started to do something about it with help from my parents. I got through the exams without too much trouble and that was the beginning of the rest of my life.
In just two years I completely turned my life around – no longer showing any signs of stress (except nightmares at times when I was under a lot of pressure); I became physically very fit and healthy, choosing to work out any anger or frustration by running and by going to the gym; I got almost the highest marks possible at college and then went on to work full time as a lifeguard; I made a small group of friends and travelled twice to Tenerife – the first time as a volunteer on a dolphin and whale conservation project and, the second, as a member of staff on the same project. I also began to help other young people who were struggling.
Life has moved on a lot since then. I am now in South Africa living my dream of becoming a Safari Ranger. I fit and healthy, I haven’t had any seizures for years, I have a gun licence (necessary for my job), I have friends and I am very optimistic for the future. If I can do this – anyone can!