Louis McKinlay, 26, was diagnosed at the age of eight after he suffered through his childhood feeling like “the odd one out”.
"I always knew there was something different about me but I didn’t quite know what,” he said. “It was hard growing up in school. I felt like the black sheep.”
Growing up, Louis struggled with social interactions, particularly in a classroom environment. Both his school and parents noticed his inability to openly communicate with his classmates and identify emotions as well as his fixation on doing certain hobbies.
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Louis was evaluated by various autism specialists – which saw him have to take numerous learning assessments and attend therapy sessions.
Bullying was constant torment for Louis in school and for many years he suffered in silence, normalising his bullies’ behaviour.
"I knew I was different, but I didn’t know what it was that made me different, so it made it very difficult to understand what the other kids were picking on me for,” he said.
"I just put it off to kids being kids. I didn’t react because I didn’t know how to react.”
As a child, Louis wasn’t phased by his diagnosis as he couldn’t fully understand the condition until he reached adolescence.
He said: “I never understood the severity of my condition, which meant I didn’t realise that the way I would react in some situations was inappropriate.”
But he now understands it and embraces the traits that are coupled with his autism, such as his passion for making people laugh with his ‘wild imagination’ and his talent in the creative arts.
“I began to take pride in it and now I don’t hide it at all,” he said.
While Louis has learned to honour his autism, he continues to toil with day-to-day social interactions as he has to constantly tailor his life depending on his surroundings.
He said: “My biggest weakness is when people that I trust, or friends turn against me. That is when my autism does really come out”.
When Louis is experiencing difficulties with his autism, he enters a state referred to as a ‘phase’. Louis described this to be ‘a moment of frustration and anger, with no filter controlling what he says’. He said: “I have a bark, but no bite. I’m physically harmless, but being autistic causes these phases that could last minutes or hours, but I soon forget it ever happened.”
He added: “I do feel disadvantaged sometimes, as I really wanted to join the armed forces, but I couldn’t because of my autism. That definitely did put me down for many years, but I do give myself credit as I have achieved so much with my autism. I have never been a coward.”
Through much determination, and pushing himself out of his comfort zone, Louis has learned to love activities he never felt he ‘could or would’.
Now he is keen to help show others with autism that ‘there is a life worth living with autism’, and he is living proof.
He said: “Even though I am autistic and have got a learning disability, I am a big thrill seeker.
He continued: “I am proud of myself, as ten years ago I would have been scared of my own shadow.
“Us people with learning difficulties can still do great things and still live normal lives.”
He added: “The best way I can describe autism is as a blessing and a curse.”