I am a kickboxing world champion who has Asperger's Syndrome. I want to show through my sport that people with Asperger's can be successful and also to promote awareness and more importantly understanding of Asperger's Syndrome - starting with this blog.
I always seem to be saying this but it really is true so maybe I should be getting used to it but November has been a very busy, hectic month for me. Sooo much has happened, a lot of wonderful things but truthfully I have been struggling a lot.
Since coming back from Italy and the World Championships I have really struggled. It is not something that is new, I always feel this way after the World Championships and I always forget (inconveniently) that this happens. I get extremely anxious because that goal I was focusing on is suddenly not there anymore and yes it was something I achieved and that was great but it is a bigger change in my life than it may outwardly appear. My training - diet and exercise regimen is so structured, I need adequate amounts of sleep, a little bit of remedial work, eating at specific times and of course training. I have fixed appointments in my calendar and I have something to aim for. Then I go away to a place I have never been before - where things might be done slightly different to the last time I went to a World Championships and then I come back home to a completely different scenario. When I come home everyone wants to see me, wants to congratulate me and catch up. All that structure and training routine is not there anymore, I can still go to the sessions but most of my team are not there, they are resting. I can eat what I like, when I like. It is all different. It feels impossible to keep up that training regimen without the rest of my team doing it, without that clear goal and when those months of hard training are taking their toll. I do need a rest, but I don't like it. So I'm anxious, I have all these other things I can be doing but I don't know where to start or what to do. I don't have the structure I need anymore and I know in a month or two I will be back in that hard training again anyway so whatever I do now is a gap fill. It is tough to deal with and I have been very anxious these past few weeks, so much so it has been hard to get on top of things.
But nevertheless I have still had some great things happen. For a start I was nominated for Northants Sports Disabled Sports Person of the Year, an award I won last year. I was nominated by my friend Austin Hughes who came along with my husband and I. My coach Alex Barrowman was also up for the Coach of the Year award after winning the district award. I didn't expect to win as I was up against some tough contenders who had competed in the Paralympics, plus I had won the award the year before so I was incredibly taken aback when I was announced the winner.
My coach and I at the Northants Sports Awards
This was a great achievement but then I was invited to speak at Anna Kennedy's Autism's Got Talent Roadshow at Baston House in Bromley on the 16th November. It is always an honour to be a part of these events. Everyone performing is so talented at what they do and there is always a great feeling amongst those performing at the show. I had a difficult and emotional speech lined up, I wondered how I would be able to deliver it without any problems but I needn't have worried. Normally for Autism's Got Talent my speeches had been about the things I had achieved and telling my story, I felt this time that many people were already aware of my story and that I needed to deliver more of a message through my story. I am proud to say that it went amazingly well, I had a lot of positive feedback afterwards and Anna requested that I do this speech again when I speak at her autism event at the House of Commons in December. After then I will hopefully be posting and sharing this speech on youtube.
The very next day, 17th November, I was at the Martial Arts Illustrated Hall of Fame awards where I was put forward for an award. I was given my award for determination and achievement in martial arts. It was an honour to receive such an award in the presence of so many dedicated and talented martial artists. There was also an opportunity to say a few words and five years ago I would have been too scared to but this time I saw it as practise to speak to such a large audience. I spoke for only a few minutes but had standing ovations from some areas of the crowd which I didn't notice until I was told by people I was sitting with.
Martial Arts Hall of Fame Award
It has been wonderful to have been recognised both in local sport and also the world of martial arts for my achievements and I also really enjoyed speaking at Autism's Got Talent. Now all that needs to happen is this anxiety to pass and to establish a good structure again.
Earlier this year I was asked to become a patron for Anna Kennedy Online, a charity promoting autism awareness and supporting those affected by autism. I do not take this role lightly, in fact I see it as a responsibility just as I see the success I have had within my sport - I have a responsibility to encourage others, share my success, my stories in the hope they may help someone. I remember vividly how I felt in my younger years and I want to be a role model to people who are struggling with confidence issues - believe in yourself because you are capable of more than you know. So when Anna asked me to write something for anti-bullying I dropped everything to give this my full attention.
"Most people would walk straight past me in the street and
never imagine that I am a three times kickboxing world champion, just like they
would never guess I have Asperger’s Syndrome.In fact upon meeting with people I used to go school with – fellow
pupils and old teachers – it seems that I would be the last person any of them
would have picked to have achieved what I have.At school I was withdrawn, extremely quiet, very anxious with low self
esteem and no confidence to speak of whatsoever.
I grew up without a diagnosis and not really
understanding why I felt so different, but in this case this is beside the
point.I grew up being made fun of,
excluded, called names, taunted, pushed around, taken advantage of and it
didn’t stop once I became an adult.As
an adult I was ostracised in the workplace, I had my privacy invaded and was
emotionally bullied.I was bullied at
school and in the workplace because of my appearance, my sexuality and because
I was different in how I acted and reacted to things.Some of the bullying I experienced I did not
realise was classed as bullying at the time and some of it was more obvious.Being on the autism spectrum can sometimes
make it difficult to recognise when the way you are being treated is wrong.
Bullying does not have to be physical, you don’t need to
be hurt physically or beaten up regularly, spat at or the target of flying
objects or a quick shove over.Bullying
takes on many different forms in both a direct and indirect way.It can be as obvious as somebody calling you
abusive names, taunting or insulting you persistently over things such as
appearance, intellect, disability, sexuality, ethnicity, beliefs; or as a
subtle as someone creating false rumours about you or purposefully excluding
you from being part of an activity.It
can be carried out by one person or a group of people but the general aim is to
establish a power over you, to make you feel inferior, vulnerable and maybe
manipulate you into doing things you wouldn’t otherwise willingly choose to do.
Along with advancements in technology bullying has also
evolved.Online or cyber bullying has
become commonplace and prominent and ranges from harassment via prank calls, instant
messaging, email, text message, online chat, facebook and twitter, to hot or
not videos or other videos on facebook and twitter and even to defamatory
websites, forums and the hacking of email, facebook and twitter accounts etc.The internet is a wonderful thing but it has
also enabled bullying to become more intrusive and even for people to be
Bullying in any form is not ok or acceptable.It is not ok for anybody to hurt you, it is
not ok for anybody to take things from you without you giving permission
willingly and it is not ok for anybody to make you feel inferior or less by
excluding you on purpose or telling lies about you.It is also wrong for people to make you think
you have to do certain things that you do not willingly choose to do in order
to avoid any of the treatment described above.
I hated myself when I was younger, I felt lonely and I
believed that I was no good to anybody and that I would never achieve
anything.There were even people who
laughed at me when I started kickboxing, who told me I would never be any good
at kickboxing – how wrong were they?!I
tried to stay in the background and avoid attention but I was not made to be in
the background – just as any other person I was made to live a life that I
chose.And I chose kickboxing.At 13 years old, when I was at school and
bullied, I decided I was going to be a world champion, I was going to be the
best.And it was my focus on this that
helped me get through the tough years I had as a teenager.Things turned out well for me in the end but
it was excruciatingly painful and you can’t take that chance.You shouldn’t have to suffer in silence like
If you are being bullied, if somebody is treating you in
any way that causes you hurt and distress or even if you think some of the things
you might be being asked to do seem strange and different it is so important
that you tell somebody in authority like a teacher, your manager, your
parents.I know as a person on the
autism spectrum that this can be difficult, I know that it is hard sometimes to
approach anybody, let alone somebody with authority.You don’t have to approach them directly face
to face, you can ask somebody you trust like a friend to help you or you could even
write a note.But it is important you
tell somebody because they can help it stop and keep you safeguarded.Nobody deserves to be bullied or treated
badly, for whatever reason.We are all
worthy of being treated with love, dignity and respect just for being who we
are.Different is not less."
Over the last month Facebook discovered Bitstrips, an app which allows you to create cartoons of you and your friends. I have used Bitstrips (and this took me hours) to put together a comic about Autism and Asperger's Syndrome. It was difficult to cover every characteristic without doing too much but I hope that I have found a good balance. Anna Kennedy initially asked if I could do an anti-bullying cartoon for her 'Give Us A Break' campaign but the general awareness one seemed to take over as I realised how these cartoon images could really help to depict some of the challenges and characteristics of Autism and Asperger's. This comic is now going to print but can be viewed in an album on Facebook, just check out the link below.
Well I went to Italy and came back World Champion, my third world title. And I am pleased to have achieved this, really pleased but that week was a tough week. I should be really proud of how I handled it but last couple of weeks I have felt a little bit sad about it and I wasn't sure if I should write about it because at the end of the day I came out of it as a World Champion but this is exactly the reason I set up my blog for, to write about and bring awareness to things like this.
Going into a competition as the reigning two times World Champion it gets difficult. There is the pressure of being the champion and people expecting you to win but also there is that how do you measure yourself and how do you show you get better? Personally I measure against myself and my previous performances, so I set myself my own standards to beat. Last year I had injuries and didn't feel fully fit, this year I did and I wanted to fight as well as I could - that's what it is all about putting on your best performance on the big stage and sadly I didn't feel that I quite did that. As a person with Asperger's I find it difficult to let go of disappointments and need to understand why things happen like they do. So I ruminate and dwell.
I have said in speeches and in things I have written that it wasn't easy for me doing what I do and that there are barriers caused by Asperger's to my sport. But even so sometimes even I forget these as "normal" and think really? In Italy I was unlucky, a lot of things happened out of my control that all together meant that the issues I have were more prominent for me where normally I cope so well. I rarely feel so on the spectrum as I did that week and chances are few people actually really noticed this.
Anyone who has Asperger's or autism in their lives, whether it be themselves or family, will understand the importance of or even how vital plans are. I have to have everything planned out, step by step how I expect it to happen, I love my processes and knowing how things are going to work. By now I get the plan and process of going to a world championship, this was my fifth time but I still need to reaffirm and go over that plan before we go away just to remind myself and to take into account travel plans. I dont like to be away from what is familiar to me. And this year things were different.
I have been fighting with my team for over 10 years now and for the first time ever unexpectedly my coach was unable to come with us due to illness. Before we even left I really didn't like this, it didn't feel right, I'm sure a lot of my team felt the same but for me it wasn't part of the plan and a major change. I don't like changes to the plan. We still as a team had to carry on but I really felt the loss of him not being there.
We set off and it took us 15 hours to reach our destination in Italy. Now I'm sure there are few people who would actually enjoy a journey like this but can you imagine spending all that time in airports waiting around if you are on the spectrum or have a family member on the spectrum? You guys will know exactly what I mean. The journeys are usually long and I use diazepam to help me cope in airports, I needed two lots of medication on the way out. All it does is chill me out so I don't reach the point where I shut or melt down. I'm still coping with the sensory input and social stuff going on around me to an extent and I still present as I would normally albeit more spaced out. I was diagnosed late in my life and have learnt to just "get through" things with minimal fuss despite how much pain it causes me, and you can't always tell when I'm in pain. I have people say Jo why don't you do this, try this or ask for this - those things never occurred to me before because its not something I knew I could do. So I wore sunglasses in the airport this year, which massively massively helped.
At the end of this journey was weighing in, possibly what I find the worst part of the whole fighting experience - my feelings and issues on weighing in are covered in my book, so I won't spoil it! I get really anxious about it worrying I won't make my weight, despite this having never happened to me and there is a lot of waiting around which makes it like hell. Not making my weight to me would be disastrous because I would not be where I was supposed to be, again it would be another deviation from the plan but on this occasion and as usual my weight was spot on.
So once that was over I thought I can relax now, eat what I like and look forward to fighting. Wrong. There was no choice of food. And the food that was there was ridiculously priced. Obviously another inconvenience for everyone but on the spectrum I had a plan of the kind of food I wanted to try and eat and when and I couldn't do this. I respond like a child when I'm not able to do the things I want to do because I can't cope with it, so instantly I hated everything and my husband had a real nightmare on his hands. The place to eat was full of everyone in the hotel all trying to get some food, buffet style - queues, lots of background noise which is hard for me to filter out. I struggled a lot in there, I felt on edge, anxious and sick everytime we were there. All of which probably only my husband would be able to tell. The meals I had were not meals, they were random foods thrown together, a little bit of this or that on a plate.
Part of my plan for the week was that I was going to fight on a certain day, this didn't happen. It was different to my plan and that was really tough for me to cope with. I'd built myself up psychologically, prepared physically and it didn't happen. That change in the plan again was one thing but there's also the need I have to fight. Fighting relieves my stress and after a long stressful journey the sooner I have a good scrap the better. Instead this time these feelings were left to build up. I like to work my way through competitions and go through the process, on this occasion I went into the process at a later stage and for me that was difficult to cope with.
Then where we would be fighting, in a marquee in a field. This was not so bad, there were the usual crowds of people shouting, cheering and clapping which is painful to me but which I am accustomed to, expect and cope with using my iPod and taking time out if I can. The issue here was the lighting, the marquee was lit up by bright halogen lights shining onto the fighting mats. They didn't startle me but they did feel like they were burning into me when I fought. And when I fought for the first time I can remember there was no escape. Normally fighting relaxes me and I lose track of all the shouting and what's going on around me, this time these lights were drawing me out of that place that I like to be in and it was as frustrating as hell. I trained so hard, travelled all that way and I didn't feel like normal when I fought. And because of that I hated myself. Again most people are probably now thinking why?! But when it comes to fighting, the thing I love to do the most, my feelings are always extreme. I don't always notice how I feel until I feel in an extreme way and I blamed myself for being on the spectrum for not fighting as I wanted, for stopping me from escaping and taking away those moments I usually enjoy so much. It was my fault because I had Asperger's and those issues were there because of that - which doesn't make sense but gives an indication of how extreme I felt.
Of course as well there were the social things to deal with too. I love my team, who did amazingly well bringing back around 40 medals between 22 of us, and I do feel part of my team but when it comes to the social stuff I sometimes feel like a complete idiot. It's hard to sit and not know how to get involved. The fact I don't drink probably makes it a little harder. At the after party again I hated I had Asperger's, like nobody liked me because of that - which is of course stupid but that's just how I feel sometimes because I'm frustrated and I feel like the odd one out. The social stuff was harder because everything else had been harder.
Anyone who has heard me speak or who has had a conversation with me about Asperger's will know that I am entirely positive about who I am and that having Asperger's is part of that - so you know things were bad if I'm saying I hate myself because I have Asperger's right? Any parent of a kid with Asperger's who has said this will know those are some hard feelings to be dealing with and I still am now. It won't last long, it never does but it does happen and I can't not be open about those feelings now because these moments make me who I am too and if I hide them doesn't that make me ashamed of them? I'm not infallible, I'm not perfect and I don't have all the answers - I have to show both the good and the bad. On returning from Italy I had lost sight of my achievement and I couldn't recognise that I did well to get through the week but I do now. Now two weeks on I'm still drained, exhausted and feeling the impact of the travel, the tough week and the months of preparation. I'm struggling to adjust to a life without the focus of the world championships and to be social again after a week spent pushed to the limits of social interaction. I've been quiet and withdrawn - this is not me ignoring people, I'm just too worn out to cope with people. I'm proud to be a three times world champion but I'm also tired and not feeling my best. This is all part of me and part of living with Aspergers and that's why I had to share this.
Once again I'm really grateful to all those who supported me in getting to this competition and those who supported me once out there in whatever capacity. That support means a lot to me and is crucial. I love to compete on this stage and some of the challenges I faced are always there and expected but this time I struggled more with the process as there were some additional challenges I didn't expect or foresee. This is all part of life and learning and I have chosen to write this because being on the spectrum it is important to me to bring awareness to issues like these that might otherwise not be seen. Just because they are not as visible it doesn't mean they aren't there. I want to congratulate all my team mates on their success too and to thank my husband for keeping it all together for me that week.