Being diagnosed later in life resulted in a whole new career for Ben Stewart, who didn’t even know he was autistic until he was 41.

Although he had struggled from mental health issues for most of his life, Ben never imagined that it would be a positive contributing factor in changing his life.

When he left college, Ben had no idea what he wanted to do, and ‘sort of fell into’ working at a call centre, which meant unsociable evening shifts. While there, he continued looking for jobs that would allow him to work during the day, and, again, ‘fell into’ a role as a mortgage advisor with national bank.

“Although I didn’t really enjoy the job, but I was convinced that I couldn’t do anything else,” says Ben. “I progressed through to Team Leader, then Section Manager, and ended up as Underwriter, making decisions about lending.”

Then, in 2007 came the financial collapse of the bank which impacted on Ben’s role, and on his mental health.

Things at the organisation just got worse and worse, and in 2017 I hit bottom

The company failed to take his poor health into consideration, and Ben lost his job.

Fortunately, he was already engaged with the mental health services, and someone who was working within the Community Psychiatric Nursing discipline, asked him if he had ever undergone a diagnosis for autism.

“I admit that I was a bit shocked when it was raised, but when I thought about it, it did sound familiar. I did some reading and thought- yeah, this really does chime with my experience.

“Funnily enough,” he says, “I learnt later that my wife was trying to work out how to raise the subject with me as well! I’d met a friend of hers from work who commented that I reminded her of her son who had been diagnosed with autism.”

Although there were family members on one side who were diagnosed autistic, Ben didn’t really know much about it, and had never thought that it might apply to him. But, because it had now been flagged up, he decided to start the process.

He also decided to challenge his employer on not taking his health into account when he lost his job, and he won a settlement that allowed him to have a year off while he took stock and underwent the diagnoses process.

It took a year-and-a-half for his diagnoses to be confirmed, but during that time he learnt to drive, which had always been an ambition.

However, he still had no idea what he would do about finding a job.

Coincidentally, while he was doing the crossword in a newspaper, he saw an advert for Moving On Tyne & Wear – a scheme that helps unemployed people with health barriers to move into employment. The organisation has a Pathways team that specialises in working with autistic people.

 

One of the people, employed by the North East Autism Society, who was working with Ben, was leaving, and she said to him: “You know what, Ben, I think you could do this job.”

Ben was surprised. He says: “I’d never thought of doing anything along those lines, but the key thing for me at that point was that I just wanted to do something where I helped people and made a positive difference to their lives.”

Ben applied for the job with NEAS, and was successful. For the last two years he has worked with the Moving On Tyne & Wear programme, and loves it.

I used to think that it was normal waking up in the morning and not wanting to go to work. But now I’m happy to do it, and I just love being able to make a difference to people’s lives in a positive way.

The fact that Ben has been on the other side of the desk is a bonus.

“I know what it’s like to have an employer not take things into account, and not to understand - just toss you aside,” he admits. “I’d rather other people don’t have to go through that. I do like helping people into rewarding, sustainable employment.

“I do use my own experience when I’m working with people. I can say: ‘I was sat where you’re sat, in your position, and I thought I was good for nothing, couldn’t do anything else. But other people helped me to see what skills I had to make a new path.’ Now I want to do that as well.

“It helps that I have first-hand experience of living with autism, and I’m much happier than I was.”

Ben gets his satisfaction from knowing that he is making a difference. He talks about the first time he helped someone to find work.

“I can remember it really clearly. It was a young lad who was very negative and talked about how rubbish he was. We helped him to get his qualifications to be a steward, and then he got a job working in hospitality at St James’s Park football club.

“On his last appointment with us, he said: ‘ No-one’s ever believed in me before. Thank you.’

That was quite a moment for me, when I think how I’d gone from a mindless, paper-pushing job to actually having a positive impact on someone’s life.

Accepting his diagnosis has not changed Ben as a person. He says: “It’s not so much about making changes in my personal life - it’s about understanding things a bit better and being more aware of things, like sensory issues, that I’ve experienced.

 “I’ve also learned to be a bit easier on myself, because I used to be very down on myself about not being able to cope with things. Now I give myself a bit more slack.”

For those who receive their diagnosis later in life, Ben says: “It doesn’t change who you are – it helps you to understand who you are.”

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