Derry artist speaks of living with autism and adapting to situations

Lauren Watson, Co-worker, Autism Initiatives, Sarah Mullan, service user and Thomas Carlin, manager Autism Initiatives. DER1419GS-013
Lauren Watson, Co-worker, Autism Initiatives, Sarah Mullan, service user and Thomas Carlin, manager Autism Initiatives. DER1419GS-013

A young Derry woman has spoken of the importance of having a support network as she related her experiences of living day-to-day with Autism.

Sarah Mullan (23) from Galliagh is a service user at Autism Initiatives, a local floating support service working with adults with autism and offering free practical support, advice and assistance.

Speaking at the organisation’s recently opened premises in the city centre, Sarah, who is an artist, kept herself to herself growing up and said that it made sense when she was diagnosed with autism at around the age of 12/13.

“I remember in school and growing up I did feel different and I couldn’t understand why I was such a target at school. It helped me make sense of myself,” she says.

“I don’t know why or what it is, but people just don’t necessarily accept difference, they think it’s something to point out and taunt rather than accept.”

After being diagnosed, Sarah joined the One Stop Shop and became a member of POCA (Parents of Children with Autism), before going on to volunteer with the same organisation, something she really enjoyed. “They run their group every Friday helping young ones with autism and other learning difficulties, and I always wanted to help out and be involved when I found out I had Asperger’s.

“I’ve always kind of been good with children rather than adults myself because adults are rather complicated and children are straight forward, they will tell you what they want to do.”

Sarah, whose art works were praised following exhibitions recently at the Void Gallery and The Gasyard, said she always enjoyed art. “It was kind of a way I would express myself whenever I didn’t have the right words in my head. It was kind of like a wee escape for me. I’ve been drawing and doing wee arts and crafts things since I could walk,” she says.

Growing up with autism/ Asperger’s is difficult for anyone, she said, but advises that it’s better then when you find out, and says “it’s not a bad thing either, it just means you see everything slightly differently from others”.

Sarah said that everyone living with autism was unique. “It’s a misconception people with autism can’t communicate or that they are complete and utter geniuses either - I haven’t got everything figured out, and it’s only in my adult life I am able to communicate a bit better. It’s a spectrum, not a scale, so everybody is slightly different from the next person that has it.”

Sarah got involved with Autism Initiatives through the floating support service. Explaining how that works, Manager Thomas Carlin said: “We support people like Sarah to develop their daily living skills and that can be anything from managing their finances, budgeting, shopping, learning how to cook to maintaining attendance. It’s unique to every single person, you couldn’t plan a programme for every single person on the spectrum.

“Some of our service users are reluctant to go shopping so that causes them to stay at home, and social isolation comes into play then and sometimes people’s eating habits can be bad if they buying something handy they don’t need to cook.”

Sarah said that for a little child with autism, something like such a trip to the shop can be terrifying. “Speaking for myself, I can manage slightly better because I have learned to cope with it growing up, but whenever my anxiety levels have risen a wee bit I do get a bit overwhelmed, but whenever you go into a shop you are automatically hearing everybody chatting around you, you are hearing the noises of all the machines, ATMs, seeing the bright lights and all different smells, so it’s complete sensory overload. It is very scary, and there’s days I’m not prepared for it so I get where the isolation comes.”

Sarah said the support of her family has been very important. “It’s important to have a good support network and that’s why Autism Initiatives is great. I chat to Fiona who works here every week and it’s good to talk about things with her and she helps me manage my stress and anxiety, which I do still struggle with a lot in my adult life. It just makes me feel like you can deflate yourself from something that has built up.”

Thomas adds: “We don’t do things for people, we work with people to develop their own skills and to empower them. Because everyone is different each support plan is totally different too. It’s important as adults we try to try to accept and understand what’s going on instead of trying to fight or resist it, and allow people with autism to be themselves.”

Sarah said breaking out of a mould of repetitiveness can be difficult, as many people with autism like having every detail of their week structured, and while she hasn’t changed, the support and growing up has given her better mechanisms to deal with situations.

“I don’t necessarily have a structure but I rely heavily on the calendar on my phone,” she said. “On the inside I am still the exact same as I was when I was younger. I like hiding away in my room sometimes reading a book or whatever, enjoying nothing but my own atmosphere, but because I’m an adult you have to break your comfort zones a wee bit, get out and about so, I’ve had to adapt to the way things are now around me.”

Sarah said that myths about vaccines causing autism or ‘cures’ for autism were nonsensical. “I’ve seen really silly things. Vaccines don’t cause autism, that’s fake news, and the whole thing about a cure for autism that’s far-fetched because you are talking about completely re-wiring somebody’s personality. It’s literally the make up of someone’s personality. I don’t want to be cured, it’s far too interesting!

“If you are going to be autistic, that’s programmed into you in the womb, it’s literally who you are, it is not something you are going to catch or whatever.”

Autism Initiatives will today launch a new Active Autism project in Derry, with Sarah and the other clients and staff joining Mayor John Boyle, and representatives from funders The Honourable The Irish Society, the Western Trust and other local organisations.

*To contact Autism Initiatives in Derry e-mail info@ai-ni.co.uk or by phone 028 71369287.