Ashley’s journey of hope and inspiration Ashley’s journey of hope and inspiration 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 simply 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 He’d look for gardens with trees big enough to keep the rain off the ground, and rummage for ‘out-of-date’ food that supermarket staff had thrown into the big green bins at the back of the Co-op in the County Durham village where he’d grown up.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 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 really 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 really proud. And yet, pride and self-esteem were hard to find for Ashley. Born in Middlesbrough, he spent the early years of his life in care and various foster homes. At six, he was adopted and went to live in Ferryhill, but was plunged into homelessness when the relationship with his adoptive family broke down when he was 16. But, despite the turmoil of his childhood, 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 Bryan, 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 ran a local roofing company, gave him work 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, while studying for his degree at night and weekends. In a bid to find more time with his sons, he gave up the roofing trade to work for the Fin Machine Company, at Seaham, before becoming a bus driver. “That 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, ended up having a mental breakdown, and that was when he first came across the North East Autism Society. He’d been referred to NEAS for therapy after the breakdown, and that led to an assessment that resulted in him being 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. He was placed on a programme 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 the role of Quality Officer, overseeing the charity’s services, and spent a year writing a quality framework for the Employment Futures department. Two months ago, he was promoted again, to Quality Manager. 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. And he certainly cherishes the opportunity to be guest editor of the Sunderland Echo, and to 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 that those differences can be overcome with a bit of understanding. “Throughout my life, I’ve been helped by acts of kindness when I’ve needed them most, 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.” Join us on the Road to Acceptance. .