Saturday, April 18, 2009
I'm normal . . . I'm just programmed differently
SHE has been arrested for a bomb hoax, expelled twice from school, sectioned in a mental hospital, and admits some days she wakes up with suicidal thoughts.
But Emma Thomson has learned to live with Asperger's syndrome and, despite the daily struggle to deal with society's ignorance of her condition, the 21-year-old from Eaton Socon is doing a media course at Bedford College, sings karaoke in a village pub every Thursday and has established an online support group for fellow sufferers.
Emma blogs on the website nearly every day and, remarkably, has just written a self-published autobiography chronicling her teenage experiences dealing with Asperger's.
"I know that I'll never really fit in because I'm an outsider and there have been people who have said nasty, spiteful things to me because I'm different, but I use those comments to improve myself," says Emma.
"There are still bad days but sometimes you even forget that you're not like the neurotypicals that you hang around with. I've lived my life in bitterness and anger for years because I wanted to be normal, but now I've realised I have to make the best of who I am."
Around quarter of a million people in the UK have Asperger's syndrome - a mild form of autism, which affects the ability to relate to people.
More common in men than women, the syndrome is a lifelong condition for which there is no cure. Medication is available to help with some of the side-effects of the condition, like anxiety or depression.
Experts say it is a "hidden disability" which affects social skills, ability to read body language and sensory sensitivity. Sufferers often have a narrow psychological range and obsessive interests.
"I'm actually offended when people call me autistic because I'm not on that part of the spectrum," says Emma, chatting via email because this is the easiest and most fluid way for her to communicate.
"The best way I can explain it to someone who knows nothing is it's like being drunk. There's a mass full of sights and sounds. People and places just seem to come at you in major ways. It's like having an abstract brain.
"I am technically a normal person, just programmed differently socially. I do get sensory issues and even though I have sensitivity to noises of a certain pitch, I'm still able to participate in karaoke on Thursday nights at a local pub."
Emma is frank about the problems of living with her condition.
"I know that I can get on people's nerves a lot but it's not like I ever mean to actually annoy them," she says. "I sometimes try too hard because I know I have to compensate for my lack of social capacity."
For Emma, the most testing times were during her school years. The National Autistic Society says 25 per cent of children with an autistic spectrum disorder have been excluded from school at least once. Emma was expelled from two different schools in Leicestershire and was also forced to leave another two colleges.
"The schools thought I was thick because of the way I acted socially. I was intelligent but couldn't show it so was put in the bottom sets, and these had the bullies in them so I got targeted worse because of that."
Emma found salvation through her love of music and performing. "I became a different person when I was either singing or acting in school performances," she says.
"When I walked on that stage, I became a different person." An enthusiastic singer, she even auditioned for X Factorin 2006.
"I had the confidence to audition," she recalls, "and although I got nowhere, it was much fun."
To cope with the bullying, Emma also began chronicling her despair in letters to sympathetic teachers. But her obsessive nature rang alarm bells at a college she had turned to after being expelled from school.
"The college gave me an ultimatum saying if I emailed this tutor one more time about anything, I'd be kicked out."
Emma devised a plan in revenge at her exclusion, tipping off a UK airport that the tutor with whom she had become obsessed was carrying a bomb on to a flight. She was subsequently found out and arrested.
After years of misunderstanding and bullying, Emma was diagnosed with Asperger's when she was 16 by the Birmingham Forensic Mental Health unit. The authorities finally took action five years ago when she downed excessive amounts of painkillers and then got in her car and drove from Somerset to Leicestershire. She was arrested while driving and sectioned at Milton Park Hospital in Wyboston, Bedfordshire, where she stayed for a year before moving to residential home Oakley House in Eaton Socon, which cares specifically for adults with Asperger's.
"Although my past has been terrible, I wouldn't be as understanding and accepting as I am today (Thursday, 16 April) if it hadn't all happened," says Emma. "I've learned to cope in the world that I live in now but it's taken a long time."
With the right support and encouragement, Asperger's sufferers can lead full and independent lives, which is what Emma is now aiming to do. She set up the website www.assupportgrouponline.co.uk for Asperger's sufferers when she was 17, and chronicles her experiences on a blog most days.
"If I hadn't been so open about my life since I started the website, I don't think it would have helped other people with the same condition. I sacrificed my privacy to help others really," she explains.
"I care about people, which is the reason why I run the website regardless of the problems in my life."
Emma receives around 50 emails a month from other Asperger's sufferers.
She says: "People have said it is so nice to see someone writing from a personal perspective rather than a professional one."
Emma's autobiography, Tortured Soul, has been self-published and is available online from www.lulu.com
"I have always found it easier to communicate in writing," she says. "I'm going to get my autobiography published properly eventually."
As she matures, Emma has adopted a matter-of-fact approach to life and her condition. "I don't think it's worth placing the blame on anything because it happened and now I just have to deal with it because I have no choice.
"You can either accept it as a gift or a curse.
"If you don't want to live your life in denial and bitterness then accept it as a gift.
"I fight the challenges my disability makes me face with people daily, with all the strength I have inside me and I won't ever give up fighting for things I believe in."
Cambridge News Online, 17th April 2009