We are sat in Costa in our town centre, chatting over a cup of coffee. It’s general chit-chat at first, but then we get down to business.
Autism isn’t talked about much, you see. Yes, it is known and, yes, it is recognised, but there is a stigma attached to it that isn’t as prominent with other disabilities. It’s the one people aren’t familiar with…Autism, what’s that?
Steph Gowers looks at the bill, confused at the total. We are meant to get 10 percent off. Steph asks the barrister and he bluntly points out that the discount is written at the foot of the bill. He isn’t what I would call nice about it.
“See it’s things like that, I have never been very good in social groups or with people,” Steph, who is Autistic, says. “I have been picked on ever since I went to school. Always in my own little world, could never get out of my routine. I am quite brutally honest, blunt. I don’t realise I hurt people’s feelings and I definitely don’t pick up sarcasm very well.”
The Costa employee looked at Steph as if she was a bit stupid. But she isn’t stupid, far from it.
“I am cleverer than people think. Often people with Autism are very bright people,” Steph comments. “We lean towards one of numbers or words. My speciality is words. Oh, I love reading too, I always have my nose in a book!”
When I turned up Steph was popping a book back in her bag – it being the famous Treasure Island.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
Autistic people see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. If you are autistic, you are autistic for life; autism is not an illness or disease and cannot be ‘cured‘. Often people feel being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity.
Autism is a spectrum condition. All autistic people share certain difficulties, but being autistic will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people also have learning disabilities, mental health issues or other conditions, meaning people need different levels of support. All people on the autism spectrum learn and develop. With the right sort of support, all can be helped to live a more fulfilling life of their own choosing.
“It is important that there are charities to help with Autism as not many people understand it. Like my mum says: Our brains are wired differently, we are not all the same,” she recalls. “I want there to be more charities out there; I am Autistic and also have Aspergers, which is part of the Autism spectrum. I didn’t really know I had it when I was younger
“I have never liked being in bring groups, and I still don’t like it now. I feel edgy around new people, and find talking to new people very difficult. If I get angry, I can rant for hours. And I have to get it all out. If it happens at work, I can hide it until I get home, but it is extremely difficult. When I get home, I let go. I get it all off my chest.
“If I don’t like people, I find it really hard to express that I do like them. Some people can cover up how they feel but I can’t hide it. I can’t help it. I’m not being horrible, it’s just the way it is. If something comes into my head, I can’t help but say it…and sometimes that’s a very bad thing. There are certain things that I have to bite my tongue at.”
Growing up was difficult for Steph, she was bullied constantly as she explains.
“When I was younger, I was at school and sitting in a big class. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t know why. I mean, I was tall, lanky and awkward but I didn’t know what they had against me, I just thought it was the popular group being up themselves. I just didn’t know what was wrong with me. I realised then that many people were only pretending to be my friends and the friends that I did have would come and go quickly.
“I didn’t get diagnosed until I was older, in my teens. I felt that I had another label attached to me. Nowadays I don’t really care, but it affected me vastly back then. I didn’t like being different. I just wanted to be normal…I wanted to be accepted.
“I hated school, getting bullied made it horrible. I didn’t want to go, I wanted to stay at home. I would speak to my teachers about what was going on and then they would pick on me further for telling on them. It was a vicious circle. I was called horrible names, they picked on one boy and forced him to go out with me. I didn’t realise until we met later on in life and he confessed to me. The whole school situation was awful. I couldn’t wait to leave so I wouldn’t get laughed at anymore.”
There was, however, one escape that made school more tolerable.
“I loved learning, I still do. I am not stupid…I’m great at English despite having dyspraxia. I got excellent grades. My drama lessons were my escape, I felt like I could be a different person. That was the only time that people didn’t bully me.”
Now, Steph’s message is clear. She doesn’t want other people to hate school because they were teased. Teased by people who were neither educated nor understanding of her disability.
“I want to help now because there are so many people out there that have Autism worse than me, I don’t think that there’s enough support in place at the moment,” she says. “You know, I want them to see that there is a place out there for people who don’t know how to deal with it. I was lucky that my parents were brilliant but, even for them, it was difficult to understand the full extent of my disability.
“I am lucky to have an excellent boyfriend. At the beginning, his mum and dad found me hard to understand, and I can see why. But now they have become more understanding; I gave them a book called “Every cat has Autism”. Since then they have been incredibly supportive. His mum is a great person to talk to and her and my boyfriend always look out for me. We look out for each other. He makes me laugh and that is excellent for someone like me.
“In a decade’s time, I want there to be more awareness of Autism, in schools especially. If my classmates had understood my disability, perhaps my time at school would have been more enjoyable.”
Steph urges you to donate whatever you can here: www.autism.org.uk ; even 50 pence will help to make a difference. Let’s ensure that the next generation is educated on Autism. It’s important to talk about.
National Autism week is from the 27th March to the 2nd April.