My autism makes me who I am today

Andy Kirtland

My parents knew something was wrong from the age of two weeks onwards. I screamed for no apparent reason throughout the day and night for many months. My early life was complicated by the onset of severe eczema and a number of allergies including intolerance to dairy products.

At the age of two-and-a-half I hit my head at the corner of a table raising a lump in the middle of my forehead. I recovered well but a week later my parents found me unconscious in bed and I was admitted to hospital. I had a fit shortly thereafter which was at the time labelled to be a febrile convulsion. However, the fits reoccurred and a diagnosis of grand mal epilepsy was made.

The medical opinion at the time was that the epilepsy was not related to the head injury but my parents never were convinced and still disagree. I didn't like to be cuddled and showed no desire to be picked up and at first my parents suspected that this may have been caused by the eczema. I didn't demand attention, wouldn’t smile or wave goodbye and also responded poorly to speech. I barely babbled and did not engage in proto conversations. I showed very little interest in the environment and was very sensitive to smells, less so to noise.

Growing up, I did not respond to physical affection or seek comfort when I was distressed. I lacked empathy and tended to stare a lot at people. My parents and I made a number of visits to both doctors and psychologists, hoping to get an answer to my odd behaviours but they only focused on my skin and epilepsy.

I coped relatively well in mainstream schools and I think over the years I have learnt to modify my behaviour and learnt a lot mainly thanks to the help from the communications class at my last ever school (1998-2002) where I first heard about Asperger syndrome. It was from there that I slowly but surely started to like myself, rather than wondering why I was indifferent.

I'm lucky compared to others as I always had a small group of friends, who were always there for me regardless of my need. We are still in touch with each other which is a good sign as they have seen it all through my highs and lows. I tried so hard to fit in with others outside my circle of real friends back at high school, probably to hard.

I just wanted to let them know that I always liked them, I just couldn't put my thoughts into words back then and sometimes couldn't control what I said, I just came out with things without thinking. I still occasionally fall back into that habit but very rarely these days, I guess it is part of autism. Today, I have a fantastic social life and a number of great friends - they know who they are and I will always thank them and regard it a pleasure to be part of their lives.

The only down side that remains ever since I left college upbeat and really happy in 2004, has been the lack of job opportunities. Over the past five years my jobs have been very limited. I've only been lucky enough to have had seasonal and voluntary positions in gardening and working for a local charity but never had a full or even a part time job which made me feel pretty down and depressed in the past. Those who denied me an opportunity should think again, I've remained cheerful and positive considering the outcome and believed in my own ability, regardless.

I'm 26 years old and just lately things are starting to take shape. I've been taking driving lessons and was given the all clear by my medical centre back in the summer of 2009, the same time I finally got diagnosed with high functioning autism. Years ago I was once told I would never drive, but there is always hope out there for us all and I knew one day I may get my chance. Now I have my chance, I'm taking it with both hands and feet. The way I see it, I have already beaten the odds and should I pass my driving test I will see it as a bonus more than anything else, as it will almost certainly improve my independence and could open many doors for me - but I won’t stop there.

I'm also about to start a sports coaching course at a residential college. I know I've managed to cope in mainstream schools and colleges over the years and believe I've got to the age where I'm more mature and see this by no means a backwards step but a forwards step. This will be the first time I will be going into special education, I will make up for the mistakes I made in my past and know that I can get the right support there if I ask, something I didn't really have as such in the past when I needed the most.

I am more keen to learn then ever before and I believe the only way from here is up. I hope to reward my whole family and friends for their support and understanding. All my past, present and future success is for you lot. Thank you so much for your time and efforts, it means a lot to me - I wouldn't be who I am today without you and I'm no way ashamed of my autism, it makes me who I am today and now I have the social skills, am proud and most importantly see the strengths it brings.

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