Ipswich woman Gemma Grace campaigning for autism awareness
Autism is not an illness, it is just a different way of seeing the world.
This is the message that Ipswich campaigner Gemma Grace has been pushing ever since she was diagnosed with high-functioning autism two years ago at the age of 25.
In this time Gemma has taken her plight all over the country, giving talks to medical professionals, footballers, police officers – and even to Westminster.
It took Gemma two and half years of “battling with the system”, being told that she was just a typical teenager and that she would grow out of it, before she was finally given her diagnosis in January 2014.
And now her mission is to raise awareness of what autism is, how to spot the signs in people, how to treat someone on the spectrum and what is it like living day to day with the condition.
“I’m hoping this profile of awareness will help people understand that autism isn’t a bad thing to have, it’s just a different way of seeing the world,” the now 27-year-old said.
“Autism is not a big bad thing to be scared of, we need to be accepting of disability, not just autism but mental health as well.”
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Gemma’s symptoms include: an increased sensitivity to loud sounds; difficulty with social interaction and communication; and a need for structure and routine.
For the past three years Gemma has volunteered two days a week in the physiotherapy department of Ipswich Hospital and since February she has lived in a flat of her own in Kemball Street, Ipswich.
She said: “A lot of people think people with autism aren’t capable of being independent, and the stereotypical judgement is most autistic people can’t live on their own, which obviously I prove that we can.”
Describing her experience at high school as “hell”, Gemma said she endured constant torment and bullying from other pupils, and a lack of empathy from teachers.
It wasn’t until she met Youth Parliament member Matthew Percy, who also had high-functioning autism, that she really found her calling in life.
Matthew, who had served on Kesgrave Town Council, died in April last year at the age of 21 when he was hit by a train at Ipswich station.
Gemma said: “My campaigning is what keeps me very happy and I got into the political arena with my late friend Matthew Percy.
“Me and Matthew were very, very similar, we both enjoyed politics, but he was a Labour supporter whereas I’m a Conservative voter and he used to tease me about that.
“We had so many fun debates, some about autism, some about mental health, and the last one we had was about setting up an autism social group but for Matthew I didn’t realise that social situations were so overwhelming.
“To me he coped so well because he was very chatty and shook hands with people and made eye contact, whereas I’m the complete opposite.
“The day I found out what had happened I couldn’t control myself, I was crying, I was angry, I didn’t know what to do.
“Now I’m more passionate than ever to carry on doing something for him and other young people as well.”
To follow her journey, find her on Twitter on @gemma_gems1 or visit her Amazing Autism Facebook page.