Dami Benbow is the Participation Coordinator for the charity Ambitious about Autism working on a new civic engagement project for young people with autism: myVoice. He was diagnosed with ADHD in his early childhood and autism when he was 14 years old. Dami started his journey in youth participation when he was elected deputy young mayor of Lewisham at 15 and then went on to become a volunteer youth worker for the project helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds use politics to improve their lives. Dami has recently completed a degree in politics and parliamentary studies from the University of Leeds where he completed a one year political internship before taking up his role at Ambitious about Autism. Everything Dami does is driven by the singular goal of giving young people the opportunity to discover where their passion lies, in the same way he was given that opportunity when he was 15.
Every young person growing up struggles to think of their place in the world, what their future will look like and whether they are going down the right path. Every young person feels this, that’s why it’s called growing up. That process, however, is complicated when you receive a diagnosis of autism. I received my autism diagnosis when I was 14 years old and all of a sudden my world had changed. I didn’t even know autism existed until I was diagnosed with it.
I always thought there was “something” wrong with me, I was diagnosed with ADHD at five and I was different from the other kids, I was constantly getting into trouble at school but I always thought that was just me. However now there was more concrete reason to explain my “behaviour”. This didn’t mean that receiving a diagnosis of autism made things better however, I now saw myself as disabled, I was less of a person, there would always be things I would never be able to do. Now you may read this and think that is ridiculous for someone to think, but try to put yourself into the mind of a 14 year old whose entire experience of “disability” came from the mainstream media.
Although I am sure there are some who will criticise me for not having a more positive view of disability could you even really blame me for thinking that way? 25% of autistic people progress to further and higher education, 26% of university graduates are unemployed and only 15% of autistic people are in full time employment. These statistics are shocking. Maybe the reason I felt so bad about my diagnosis, and the reason why so many people across the planet are uneasy about themselves when diagnosed with autism, is because we as a society treat people with autism so badly. By denying people with autism a role in our society we not only lose out on valuable talents and skills but we also deny those very people the ability to discover for themselves exactly who they are.
I consider myself very lucky; I was able to buck the trend. I did manage to progress past secondary education and into university. I was able to complete a parliamentary internship and I am now working a full time job as the Participation Coordinator for Ambitious about Autism. This was not an easy journey, however, and my successes and failures in each of these positions were in direct correlation to how much support I received.
At university I was very lucky to have got a 2:1 in Politics and Parliamentary studies, I very nearly failed. I owe my success at university to the fact that when I eventually owned up to the fact that I needed support, it was very forthcoming from my student support officer and the university disabilities team. Without these people pushing me to stay in university and not let me fail myself it’s safe to say that I would indeed have failed my degree and my story would be very different to what it is now. I am in debt to these hard working people who pushed me to become the very best I could be.[ My experience at university is testament that with the right support any person can achieve what they dream. ]
My experience in Westminster was completely different. I completed two internships over the course of a year with two employers. The first employer I worked with was very apprehensive at first and I will also admit that my behaviour initially was not conducive to a working environment.
However after a disclosure of my autism to my office manager and a slight change to my working environment I was able to do extremely well within the office. Despite being an intern I was able to do the same job as my colleagues and they were very sad to see me go. My second internship however was nothing short of disastrous. Being told by my colleagues that “autism was a made up diagnosis so that people can get away with whatever they want” should have let me know exactly what I was getting myself into.
A lack of support coupled with bullying from my colleagues left me extremely depressed and my ability to work suffered hugely.
The day I left that internship was the happiest day of my life and its results still mark me to this day. It is because of that experience that I no longer want to go into politics and my lifelong dream is now dead. It has also affected me professionally as I am now constantly second guessing every piece of work that I do and I am constantly on edge that the work that I do is never good enough.
It’s important to note that not every story has a happy ending but at least my story ends on a positive note, if you want to find a happy ending you will have to ask me in 70 years. I was extremely lucky to experience only three months of unemployment before getting a job in January 2015 at Ambitious about Autism as their Participation Coordinator. My job is to help young people with autism aged 16-25 become active citizens in their communities through the myVoice project and I am able to draw upon my extensive experience of being a volunteer youth worker for 10 years prior. I do not think I could have found a better place to work especially after my previous disastrous internship. As an autism charity it’s not surprising that Ambitious understands what it is I am going through and gives me the support to become as effective a worker as possible. At Ambitious I am able to play to my strengths and my colleagues are able to recognise when I am going through difficulties and adjust accordingly.
Having this job has let me rebuild my shattered confidence and self esteem. I may not be perfect but I am able to do this job to the best of my ability. Most importantly of all I am able to make good on the promise I made 10 years ago to myself. After extensive help from youth workers after my diagnosis to develop my passion for politics and allow me to see my place in the world, I swore that I would not rest until I was able to give this same opportunity to other people. Through my job I am now able to do just that making sure that young people with autism receive the same care and guidance that was provided to me. No person wants to fail at life, nobody wants to be written off and as long as I am helping people who were in a similar position to me navigate this complex and difficult world I will always be able to go to sleep with a smile on my face.
My journey through life is not over and the future will bring what it brings but we can all do our little part to make sure that people with autism have the same life chances that other people have.
Sometimes all that is needed is a little understanding, making adjustments needn’t be expensive and time consuming. One thing is clear however: every time a person with autism goes through life thinking they have no place in the world we as a society have failed. When a person with autism thinks they will never find employment we have failed as a society. When a person with autism is bullied out of their job for no fault of their own we have failed as a society. Autism does not need to hold someone back in life, with the right support a person with autism can go on to do great things.
All we need to do is understand autism, so I ask the question: why has it taken us so long to reach this point?