Edinburgh Napier University
April the 2nd 2019
Firstly, a big congratulations to you all on gaining your autism certificate today. It is a great
achievement. It reminds me of when I graduated from university in 2012. I hope that you have
learned a huge amount about autism during your time on the course and that what you have
learned will help you in the future.
I’m here today, at the kind invitation of The Richmond Fellowship Scotland, to talk to you about my experiences of being autistic. I will talk about some of the challenges that I have faced with
being autistic and will then focus on what I feel are the positives that I find with having
Asperger’s Syndrome (autism spectrum disorder)
For me, being autistic has been a real adventure of ups and downs. There have been many
challenges over the years and I want to pick out two particular challenges that have caused me
problems over the years.
- Communication and socialising: as you are no doubt aware people on the autism
spectrum have challenges in relation to how they communicate and socialise. For me I struggled to make friendships when I was younger. I suffered from social isolation in my local community and during my time at school. I did not get invited out to parties and had very little or no peer support. Why was that? I think it was because I did not fit in with the crowd and I did not have the skills to communicate and express myself. I was also aware that I spoke differently to my peers and that made me ashamed. As a result I rarely spoke out in class and I found doing presentations in front of my peers a nightmare. Even today, whilst I have made friends from my interests, I still find communicating and getting on with people in the area where I come from quite difficult.It is bit easier due to the fact that more people know about my autism which is good but I always think that that will always be a problem albeit more of a minor one than what it was when I was younger. I also have some problems with expressing emotions. I can get too passionate and too wound up about things especially politics and I can hit out at myself quite hard. I can also be quite intense towards people at times and that has caused me to lose friends as well. Thats down to me feeling lonely and having a desire to try and socialise (but doing so in such a bad way). When it comes to love and romance then my communication skills can let me down. I do not know how to read if someone is interested in me and my confidence from being bullied in the past has led to me having several severe meltdowns on this issue. I have had to try and support myself in the best possible way on this issue but that has meant many mistakes have been made and many rejections endured. I must also be the world expert in being rejected for the purposes of romance!! However, these mistakes and these rejections have made me stronger and I must keep hopeful for the future.
- Authenticity: Another challenge that I have faced since I was diagnosed with ASD 11 years ago has been around authenticity and who my true self is. I felt different at school and in my community and that has grown as I have developed and, dare I say it, grown older. I do not fit in well to the working class culture of where I come from. It does not help me that I do not speak with a broad Fife accent. Instead I speak with a broad and refined Scottish accent and that created challenges. For me the sense of not fitting in to where I came from has placed huge pressure on me to change who I am. Indeed I have tried to change my persona and who I am as an individual in order to please people and to try and make friends. This has been apparent on social media. Facebook, in particular, has caused immense difficulties. Seeing people get into relationships, going on holidays, having lovely meals and whatever else can make me and others on the spectrum feel totally inadequate. Also these reality TV shows such as “Love Island” and so on can also add to the feeling of inadequacy. I have seen clips from the programmes and I have asked myself the question of “is this how one has to behave to get on in life?” The answer to that is: of course not. This “masking” of my true self has caused numerous episodes of anxiety and mental health challenges. I have had various “depressive” episodes where my head feels like a huge black cloud has moved over it. It creates a hellish situation and that has allowed me to become too ashamed to allow myself the freedom to be true to who I truly am because of the hassle I may get from people. That in turn has also meant that I have not been able to showcase my potential and talents in the way that I have wanted to. I deeply regret that.
These challenges have brought about some low points in my life as an autistic young man but as I have grown up I am beginning to appreciate and celebrate the many positives that having Aspergers Syndrome brings to my life and how important it is to embrace my condition.
As I approach my 30th birthday, the time has come for me to celebrate who my true self is with all the good and bad points mixed in and to release my potential. I am still finding myself but I feel more positive for the future. It is time for the real me to come out of his shell.
For me being autistic means that I am: awkward at times, caring, courageous, bloody difficult, eccentric at times, driven, fun, good humoured, loyal, passionate, sets exceptionally high standards for himself, old school and traditionalist, pragmatic, serious and reserved.No wonder some people struggle to understand me and think I am a complex character! Indeed I probably drive my friends bloody mad at some of my antics. They’ve probably held their heads in their hands at times as I persist with a perfectionist attitude and not doing some things in a more fun and relaxed attitude. However, all of these traits do make me individual that I am and they have all helped me to get to where I am in life now and I need to celebrate that fact. Some of them, like being difficult can be a weakness at times but that can be balanced out by the good traits such as being loyal and pragmatic. They all form my true self.
Being autistic also means that I have an intense focus on subjects which really interest me. These include music, politics and the countryside.
Music, in particular, has been hugely influential in helping me to cope with having Aspergers Syndrome. I have been playing the fiddle (of which I will be performing after this speech) for 19 years. The relationship I have with my instrument is special and lifelong. It has helped me to communicate my emotions, to express myself and to make friends with some wonderful people. Friends who like me for who I am. That is just brilliant. I want to thank them for putting up with me and for helping me to find my confidence when it comes to my musical talent. Whenever I feel anxious or frustrated a few tunes on my instrument usually helps to settle me down. When I was doing my final year of school up in the West Highlands I was allowed to take time out of class for 15-20 minutes to play some tunes on my instrument and that helped hugely. The staff recognised that what I was passionate about was also a tool in helping me to de-stress. For the school staff to recognise that was a positive step indeed. I would hope that up and down Scotland school staff and those working with people on the autism spectrum appreciate and indeed recognise, that what people with autism are interested in and passionate about can be used as tools to navigate challenging situations.
I look forward to taking my music forwards. I want to develop my music, create a sound that I am happy with and work in the music community with a respect for tradition, a respect for my instrument and the music that I play, a sense of quiet determination and a deep sense of humility. I’m busy working on establishing my own band and hope to do my debut album next year so that is exciting. I have chosen exceptionally good people and all round great friends to be part of this journey with me. As an autistic musician it is important to have people who understand me well to be around me on this exciting adventure.I also look forward to performing with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra which is like a big family to me.I want to demonstrate that having Aspergers Syndrome should be no barrier to fully participating in the world of traditional music. It will be good to spend more time with my musical friends and performing with them.
I am also passionate about politics. People may wonder why the hell I’m interested in politics giving all the chaos that is going on. The answer to that is I want to contribute positively to the country and help ensure that every single person on the autism spectrum gets access to the support that they need and that they have the opportunities available to them to lead happy and successful lives.That is what drives me. A duty to help other people and to help the country progress. To me politics is not a game. It’s about creating positive change. For me I want to see a country that is both autism friendly and one which is compassionate, open, forward looking, pragmatic, moderate in its politics,optimistic and tolerant. The current situation makes me very angry and very sad indeed. I hate confrontation and intolerance. As an autistic young man too much aggression makes me incredibly anxious and nervous. Does that affect my mental health? Of course it does and I bet I’m not the only one that has suffered anxiety because of political events. To see Parliament paralysed with indecision and political debate descending into the gutter of personal abuse, division and downright nastiness threatens to put good people like me off from participating in the political process. Politics can be better than what it is now. If we want more disabled people, women and other minority groups into parliament then the tone of political discourse and the way we do politics has to change,
One question that people have often asked is: “do I have ambitions to stand for parliament?”Now what is the answer to that? Yes is the answer but for the time being my priority is on my music. I want to gain more life experience before even attempting to stand to be a parliamentary candidate. It would be good to see more autistic political activists getting involved in politics and getting the support to stand for elected office. Politics and parliament would be enriched if it had more autistic and more disabled people in the House of Commons and in the Scottish Parliament. It would be good to see autistic people taking up leadership roles in charities businesses and across all areas of society.
I take great inspiration from the young Swedish Climate change activist Greta Thunberg who has Aspergers Syndrome. She has shown that people on the spectrum do have the potential and power to push for positive action and to keep on fighting for change. Politicians take note: autistic people like Greta and myself and others besides, have voices and we will fight for what we believe in. We may have our vulnerabilities but don’t underestimate our resolve to keep on going. We can and we will be bloody difficult. We are resilient and we are fighters. We will not accept being patronised or made to feel little. We want to lead on issues that affect us. We want to be the ones that take forward the agenda for positive change.
My other passion involves the countryside. I was lucky enough to be brought up on a smallholding in central Fife. It has been a place where I learned a lot about communication, discipline and teamwork. Being in the countryside also enables me to relax and de-stress which is always good. We have a Clydesdale horse and the horse always makes me smile (unless he misbehaves himself). I always think that animals can have a really positive impact on those on the autism spectrum and especially with those on the lower end of the spectrum. They can help them to express themselves and communicate. It would be great if more people on the autism spectrum could have access to the countryside, learn about what goes on there and have the opportunity to meet and interact with animals. That would be good. I also hope that this year I can meet other young people who come from a rural background. That would help to enhance my social skills, build up my confidence and enhance my strong rural roots and my pride in being a country boy.
These interests have all contributed to me becoming a more confident and positive young man. They shape who my authentic self is and in particular music and the countryside have helped me greatly when my mental health has not been good.
As I look ahead, I want to say this. I do not and never will regret being on autism spectrum. Never. I will never apologise for being who I am. I have the same ambitions and hopes as many of my non-autistic peers right across the country. I want to succeed at what I love the most: music. I want to marry, have children, go travelling and have many adventures. I want to contribute to the life of the countryside and to politics. I want to move away from Fife. Being autistic will not be a barrier to me achieving all of what I want to achieve. That I am quite sure of. I want to move forward by celebrating being different and being positive about my condition. The time has come for me to be the young man I know I can be and to exercise the freedom that I have to lead the life that I want to. I want to take this opportunity to thank my parents and the good supportive friends that I have in my life for all their encouragement and support. It is and always will be much appreciated.
Before I conclude I also want to say this. People on the autism spectrum, such as myself, may be deemed by some as being loners, freaks and all out weird but that is negative rubbish. I’ve had all that flung at me at points during my life. These people are not only plain ignorant but wrong. We are different but difference is good. We won’t allow others to try and dictate how we should lead our lives. In a world where division and intolerance is rife, we need to do everything possible to highlight and in some cases fight for diversity and to embrace it. We need to champion compassion and tolerance in all walks of life. We need people in all areas of society to support us, to view our condition in a more positive light and help us to reach for the stars. It is important for you to go out there, after finishing the course that you have done, and do what you can to make Scotland and the wider United Kingdom much more autism friendly. Work with people on the autism spectrum, embrace the potential that they have and to showcase the talents that they all have.
In conclusion I hope you have all found my presentation to be informative and once again I thank The Richard Fellowship Scotland for inviting me along today. I has been a real pleasure speaking to you all. I now look forward to giving you a few tunes on my fiddle. Thank you.