Tony is 22 years old and lives with his mum and dad on the outskirts of Dartford. Tony struggled through most of his time at school. He wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until he was 15 years’ old so didn’t get any of the help and support that many young people with autism or Asperger’s now get. He just went through school being labelled as a ‘trouble-maker’ or deliberately causing problems in the class so that he’d get sent to the quiet room. Tony says he quite liked that because there were no other kids that he’d have to interact with. For a short time, things got a little better in the supported learning department of a local college until the make-up of the classes changed and it became more of the same for Tony. He left shortly afterwards.
After that, life became the four walls of Tony’s bedroom. “Before I started Life Choices I stayed in bed most of the time,” Tony explains. “I didn’t go out for months at a time. Six months was the longest. I never left my room, pretty much. That was all my life was back then. I’ve had enough of sitting in my room.”
I first started working with Tony as part of Skillnet’s Life Choices project in February 2017. Tony was referred to Skillnet by his Case Manager at Kent County Council’s Autistic Spectrum Conditions Team. He’d been feeling depressed for a long time and had been attending a variety of group support sessions with MIND, as well as some work skills sessions. Although the sessions helped him, Tony had got to the point where he was tired of talking about his feelings and just wanted to start getting out and experiencing life. In fact, a key goal for Tony was to become much more independent and less reliable on his parents. Tony takes up the story: “I felt angry with myself for not being more independent. Other people my age have been doing these things for years but I could never see myself being able to get out and do things.”
I met Tony with his parents and Case Manager. We discussed what he wanted from the project and, in particular, what he wanted from spending regular weekly 1:1 sessions with a coach/supporter. Tony had some pretty clear goals:
- To be able to travel on public transport on his own
- To lead a more independent life, without relying on his parents so much
- To get a job one day
- To live on his own one day
Our early support sessions focussed on helping Tony to become confident in travelling on public transport independently, as well as being out in public and, occasionally, interacting with people. We started by taking the same bus from close to his house to Dartford Town Centre. We’d have a stroll around Dartford, visit the large park and have a social coffee break before catching the bus back. Using a travel training plan, that included my support gradually fading away, Tony’s independence and confidence grew to the point where he began to feel able to do the journey on his own. After around six weeks, he took our regular bus to Dartford on his own, where he walked around the market and bought himself a new hoody!
After Tony’s amazing success, we changed our journey to the Bluewater shopping centre, which he now regularly visits on his own. He recently took his mum on the bus to watch the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie there, something that he could never imagine doing in the past!
Whilst we have participated in a number of other activities since, Tony sees this early work as key to his increased confidence and self-esteem. “Life Choices has taught me how to be out in public a bit more and how to cope with being more confident around people,” he says. “I’ve started looking after my own money, travel training, getting buses, understanding timetables and thinking about the time when I’m out.”
Throughout this time, Tony has continued to battle through the effects of his depression. Having someone to talk with has helped but the key has been to provide him with a reason to get out of bed a couple of times a week. He has gradually begun to feel more positive but he still gives himself a hard time about where he finds himself at this stage of his life. He experiences a certain amount of frustration with what he sees as the life that other young people of his age have. But he can also look to the positives: “Being part of Life Choices gets me used to different situations and coping with things that happen out of the blue,” he explains. “It helps me to build up a bank of experience in case things don’t go to plan. In the past, I would have panicked and not known what to do and probably just not done anything. With Martin, I’ve had experiences and good conversations about what to do in certain situations. This has helped me to work out what to do if I’m in that situation in the future. I’ve learnt how to be more flexible and adaptable.”
As Tony began to feel more confident and positive about life, we began to discuss the potential for him finding paid employment one day. In September 2017, I supported him in beginning a volunteer role at the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Dartford. Tony had done some work experience in the past but this was a huge step for him. When he first met the store manager, she was very impressed with his previous experience and how well he spoke. She has a lot of experience of working with people with autism and she was really impressed with what Tony had to say and how he said it. She was very happy to give him an opportunity to prove himself. He currently works at the shop for half a day a week, and is looking forward to trying the whole range of tasks on offer. It’s the first step towards the paid job that Tony said he wanted in our very first meeting.
I like the fact that Tony is aware of and reflects on his feelings. I think it’s this aspect of his personality that is helping him to grow and push himself to have new experiences. It’s to his credit that his life has changed so much in such a short space of time; he really is a great example of how someone, with a little support, can turn their life into a much more positive and fulfilling one.
I asked Tony what he’d say to someone who had the chance of being part of Life Choices; it didn’t take him long to reply. “Instead of being locked away in your room all day, the support worker encourages you to get out and be independent,” he says. “The project takes away a lot of anxiety and I feel much more confident when dealing with people: I have bought things in shops and talked to bus drivers. Before, I would never have done any of these things. The project has given me the confidence to be independent and to get out and do things myself.”
Martin Street, Life Choices Coach & Supporter. September 2017