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My story - David Leah

My name is David Leah. I work at Witham Library as part of the Inclusive Communication Essex (ICE) team, and I edit the Autism Hub for Living Well Essex. As part of the ICE team, I help make information accessible for people with learning disabilities, and I provide communication equipment for loan from the Library. I also have Asperger's Syndrome.

Early years

My mother always suspected that I had some form of autism. I did not know how to interact with other children. At school I could not stay focused in class.

Although my brother Jonathan helped me make friends, he did not improve my short attention span. In class I received help from a teaching assistant. She made sure that I paid attention and stayed focused on a task.

Communication difficulties

In conversations I regularly misunderstood what other people were saying. I was especially confused by figures of speech, such as idioms and metaphors. For example, I considered a phrase such as "Hold your horses" as nonsensical, because I would interpret the sentence in its literal sense.

I struggled to use the right words to describe myself or a situation. In class I was once told to write about what I did during the weekend. Instead, I wrote a story that involved something I saw on television, like in Star Trek or Power Rangers. It may have been because I did not have the vocabulary to describe my weekend or elaborate the past. Or perhaps I just didn't think my weekend was that interesting.

My surroundings and environment

I found my immediate surroundings intimidating. Busy places made me feel uncomfortable, because there was too much sensory input to process. I knew well enough to stay away from strangers, as I have always been uncertain of unfamiliar people. I still think of large crowds as intrusive.

For these reasons I would walk in public wearing a rain coat with the hood up - even during the summer time. The hood acted like a shield when I walked through crowds, wide-open spaces, or anywhere that made feel vulnerable. I also refused to wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts as they made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

My interests and strengths

Having autism isn't necessarily a negative experience. Most people with autism have special interests in particular subjects or objects. My special interests were in tall structures such as pylons and skyscrapers. These inspired me to build models of cities and power stations, which I created using wooden blocks, spare toys, and video cases.

I could also memorise scenes from movies I had watched with my brother. We would both watch Star Wars and start playing characters from the movie. I found characters in Disney movies that I could sympathise with, though they were mostly animals and comic relief.

Animals and cartoons were more identifiable to me than real human expressions. An exaggerated expression of a frightened cartoon cat is easier to identify than human features, which are more subtle and complex.

This could be why I always preferred fantasy fiction rather than realism. A fictional story has a fixed framed narrative, whereas the real world is unwritten, and is filled with uncertainty and hidden dangers.

Unwritten social rules

Secondary school was more challenging, as the main aim was to prepare children for adulthood. Unfortunately, I could not comprehend the unwritten social rules. These are the social norms that teenagers pick up as they move into adulthood.

For example, I did not know when it was appropriate to laugh at a joke. Most classmates would laugh at jokes I failed to find funny, such as puns and innuendo. I preferred slapstick and physical comedy, which other students considered childish and dated.

Teenagers tend to learn unwritten social rules intuitively, whereas someone with autism prefers to follow written instructions. These unwritten social rules were never taught in class or by my parents. Therefore I could not understand why other pupils felt uncomfortable if I stood too close to them or stared directly at them. No one told me if this was wrong, or that it was intrusive behaviour.

Due to these experiences, I soon came to avoid eye contact altogether. As an adult I have had to learn how to make eye contact when speaking with someone in a work environment.

Gaining independence

Fortunately, I was gradually becoming more independent. Secondary school is also about adapting, and I soon found that working on my own was more rewarding. There were times when I needed support from a teaching assistant. However, there were more tasks that I could perform independently.

A lot of my experience in a mainstream school helped me to adapt to my environment. These were not easy experiences, and there were times I overstepped social boundaries. However, without these mistakes I would never have learnt how to cope in the outside world. Learning is a process of trial and error, and this is just as important for someone on the autism spectrum.

Higher education

Throughout my school years, my interests began to develop into different categories that I could no longer identify. It was difficult to answer the school careers advisor when she asked me about my choices for the future. I knew that I enjoyed anything that involved the supernatural, and that my goal was to go to university.

I was far less dependent at college, where I managed to complete 3 A-levels. My interests in fantasy inspired me to take up creative writing. I did receive learning support, but I continued to be more independent and resourceful.

I enrolled at the University Campus Suffolk (UCS) to study English. I was thankful to have understanding lecturers and tutors during my college and university years. I eventually graduated with a BA English degree with Honours.

Socialising and work experience

Unfortunately, I was still lacking in social skills. By the time I graduated, I was still reluctant to approach someone I did not know. I knew this would make finding work and attending job interviews a difficult experience.

Since university, I have been doing voluntary work for one day a week at a local garden centre, where I work alongside other people with learning disabilities. My experience with them has gained me more understanding of other people with learning disabilities.

I received further help from an employment advisor at ECL, as I was keen to move on to paid employment. I discussed my skills and interests with her, and provided a list of qualifications. She then guided me on writing my CV, and got me involved in a couple of unpaid work trials. I had an unpaid work placement in an office for two mornings per week, which gained me practical skills for a work environment.

My employment adviser also got me involved in a local writers' group. She accompanied me on my first few meetings. I gradually began to socialise with the other writers, and I was soon able to attend on my own. It was an intimidating experience to read out my short stories in a public space. However, I eventually felt more comfortable with the group, and I have since become an active, regular member.

I therefore feel that I have learnt more about socialising outside of university. A fixed academic environment is a comfortable and safe place to learn. However, experience has been just as important in my personal development.

Paid employment

Social skills have helped me to develop my employment skills. Most of the social and practical skills I have today were learnt whilst I was in paid employment.

My line manager gave me time to adjust into my work schedule. He asked me to set up protocols that I could follow so I could complete regular tasks independently. I designed flowcharts and posted them on the office wall. These remind me what I must do when I receive an item from another library. I have written scripted responses so that I can give a prompt reply to customers with the relevant answer.

Over time, my line manager has given me more responsibilities and allowed me to develop in my performance. I am now mentoring school students with autism for work experience with our service. I've been able to organise the work schedule for work placements, and readjust their timetable according to their needs.

Overcoming social difficulties

There are tasks in my job that are still difficult to complete. For example, I am cautious and uncertain as to when it is appropriate to approach someone at a conference. Part of my job is to attend conferences and speak with members of the public, so that I can explain our service.

Over time I have managed to cope with scenarios that I would have previously avoided. I have attended customer service training to encourage me to contact customers by telephone. My team also suggested that I create a display sign with my photo on that says, "Ask me for help", for when I attend my next event.

Achievements

I was awarded 2016 Employee of the Year at Essex County Council. I have even been given an invitation to Buckingham Palace. I have been honoured and humbled by the recognition I have received, and hope that my contribution will allow a platform for other people with ASC.

Writing content for the Autism Hub has allowed me to share my experiences of autism with the wider public. I was fortunate to be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of 7, because my mother identified some of the traits. Today, there are many people who are not diagnosed until late adulthood and do not get the support they need.

Although I have improved socially, I am still wary of crowded public spaces. I still have my own preferences, such as personal space and dislike of certain sounds, such as car horns or clicking fingers. Despite these difficulties, I have been successful in work and at having an active social life.

 

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