'Delivering a positive message' - Sunderland Echo's guest editor on the importance of autism acceptance
At the start of World Autism Acceptance Week, ASHLEY JONES – guest editor of today's Sunderland Echo – talks about his life and how he was an adult before he was finally diagnosed as autistic.
As a troubled teenager, Ashley Jones found himself on the streets. He was homeless and his daily objectives were finding something to eat and somewhere dry to sleep.
He'd look for gardens with trees big enough to keep the rain off the ground and rummage for “out-of-date” food that supermarket staff had thrown into the big green bins at the back of the Co-op in the County Durham village where he'd grown up.
"It was a bit dicey for a while," he recalls. "I was six stone wet through – just floating around, not knowing what I was going to do, or where I'd end up."
Today, 20 years on, so much has happened, and life is very different for Ashley.
He's a father of three boys, and has finally been diagnosed as autistic, giving him a greater understanding of the difficulties he had faced.
That diagnosis has led to an important role – based in Sunderland – with the North East Autism Society (NEAS).
He's also earned a degree in Applied Business Management at Sunderland University, gone on to study for a Master's degree in psychology and has now broken new ground by becoming editor of the Sunderland Echo for a day.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to be guest editor of a paper like the Sunderland Echo and to raise awareness of the importance of autism acceptance," he says. "It's a huge honour, and it makes me proud."
And yet, pride and self-esteem were hard to find for Ashley.
Born in Middlesbrough, he spent his early years in care and various foster homes. At six, he was adopted and went to live in Ferryhill, but was plunged into homelessness after the relationship with his adoptive family broke down when he was 16.
But, despite his childhood turmoil, Ashley looks back on the acts of kindness that have come to his rescue at different stages of his life.
He'd been homeless for six months when a social worker, Judith Bryant, picked him up, helped him onto hardship allowance, and found him a place to live at Bowburn.
After embarking on an ill-fated bid to be reunited with his birth mother, he returned to Ferryhill, and another act of kindness turned his life around when Trevor Elsdon, who runs a local roofing company, employed him as a labourer.
"It put money in my pocket, gave me a purpose and a renewed sense of hope," he explains. "It saved my life."
Trevor also helped Ashley get a driving licence, supplied him with a van and became something of the father figure he'd never had.
At 26, Ashley had gained enough skills and confidence to try his hand as a self-employed roofer for a couple of years before giving up the roofing trade to spend more time to be with his sons.
He started working for the Fin Machine Company, at Seaham, while studying for his degree at night and weekends.
His next step was to become a bus driver but that proved to be a mistake: “It wasn't a good idea – I didn't deal well with lots of people," he admits.
Around the same time, his older brother took his own life. Ashley couldn't cope and ended up having a mental breakdown.
The NHS referred him to a specialist autism team and, after a six-month assessment, he was diagnosed as autistic.
"It helped me come to terms with why I'd struggled with relationships, couldn't fit in at school, and explained why no one ever took to me," he says.
His first experience with NEAS came when he was placed on a programme run by the charity to help autistic and neurodiverse people into work, and, suddenly, the world began to fit: "For the first time in my life, I was with people I understood, and who understood me. I finally felt part of something."
Derek Groves, employment services manager for NEAS, saw potential in Ashley and suggested he should apply for a role as an employment specialist, based in Sunderland.
He then used his wealth of personal experience to take on a quality officer's role, overseeing the quality of the charity's services within the Employment Futures department, and spending a year writing a quality framework.
Two months ago, he was promoted again to the position of quality manager, joining a think tank on the charity’s wider practices.
"I know what it's like to be bottom of the pile, not knowing where I'd be sleeping or what I'd be eating, so I cherish every opportunity I'm given," he says.
And he certainly cherishes the opportunity to be guest editor of the Sunderland Echo and help drive home the message about autism acceptance.
"I want to speak with my own words and be heard, delivering a positive message that the differences between us are not that great – and they can be overcome with a bit of understanding.
"Throughout my life, I've been helped by acts of kindness, and that's what I want the message to be – just be kind. The North-East is full of good people, so if we can get the right information out, the kindness is already there to help us move forward."