In World Autism Week, an autistic man's inspirational story - from the despair of homelessness, to finding a sense of belonging, and guiding others into employment. PETER BARRON reports

AS a troubled teenager, Ashley Jones found himself on the streets. He was homeless, and his daily objectives were 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He’d look for gardens with trees big enough to keep the rain off the ground, and rummage for ‘out-of-date’ food that supermarket staff had thrown into the big green bins at the back of the Co-op in the County Durham village where he’d grown up.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 has faced in his life. 

That diagnosis has led to an important role with the North East Autism Society (NEAS). He’s also earned a degree in Applied Business Management at Sunderland University and gone on to study for a Master’s degree in psychology.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given to help raise awareness of the importance of autism acceptance,” he says.

And yet, pride and self-esteem were hard to find for Ashley. Born in Middlesbrough, he spent his early years in care and various foster homes. At six, he was adopted and went to live in Ferryhill, but was plunged into homelessness after the relationship with his adoptive family broke down when he was 16.

But, despite his childhood turmoil, 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 Bryant, 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 runs a local roofing company, employed him as a labourer.

“It put money in my pocket, gave me a purpose, and a renewed sense of hope,” he explains. “There's no doubt 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 for a couple of years before giving up the roofing trade to spend more time to be with his sons. He started working for the Fin Machine Company, at Seaham, while studying for his degree at night and weekends.

His next step was to become a bus driver but that proved to be a mistake: “It 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 and ended up having a mental breakdown. The NHS referred him to a specialist autism team and, after a six-month assessment, he was 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 really took to me,” he says.

His first experience with the North East Autism Society came when he was placed on a programme run by the charity to help autistic 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, pictured bottom left, saw potential in Ashley and suggested he should apply for a role as an Employment Specialist.

He then used his wealth of personal experience to take on a Quality Officer’s role, overseeing the quality of the charity’s services within the Employment Futures department, and spending a year writing a quality framework. Two months ago, he was promoted again to the position of Quality Manager, joining a think tank on the charity’s wider practices.

“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,” says Ashley.

And he certainly cherishes the opportunity to be part of helping to 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 they can be overcome with a bit of understanding,” he says.

“Throughout my life, I’ve been helped by acts of kindness, 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 there to help us move forward.”

AS a young reporter for The Northern Echo in the 1980s, I found myself covering a particularly acrimonious period in the history of Darlington Borough Council.

There was a toxic mix of councillors, who all wanted the final say, and didn’t flinch at personal attacks.

It became very tedious, with council meetings droning on until the early hours. One lasted until 3am and a particularly provocative councillor turned up in his pyjamas, along with a bowl of breakfast cereal.

In the end, reporters representing The Northern Echo, Evening Despatch, and Darlington & Stockton Times agreed enough was enough.

We drew the line at midnight, and made a pact to down our pens and pack up our notebooks. Funnily enough, once we did that, the gobby councillors saw little point in dragging out debates.

Alas, those memories came flooding back when I read The Northern Echo’s report  at the weekend of a council meeting stretching into its seventh hour, and exploding into personal attacks, during a debate over the return of a firework display in South Park.

I found myself sighing with despair, that nearly 40 years on, we were still embroiled in nasty, self-indulgent local government.

Don’t they realise this is what turns local people off politics? It’s what leads to disillusioned voters electing Mayors in monkey suits on a local level, and false-tanned megalomaniacs on the international stage?

We remain in the midst of a pandemic, with people fearful about the future, and looking for trusted, dignified leadership.

Politicians need to remember that – and behave like grown-ups. Otherwise, they deserve a rocket up their backsides.

The Northern Echo:

MY young star of the week is Theo Lloyd, of Croft-on-Tees, near Darlington, for his amazing cycling achievements during lockdown.

Theo, 18, goes to the Dales School, in Morton-on-Swale, has Fragile X Syndrome, is autistic, and has learning difficulties. He’s also one of the happiest boys I know.

During the pandemic, he’s covered 3,278 miles on bike rides with his dad – a chap called Chris Lloyd, who regularly delights readers of The Northern Echo with his writing.

That’s more or less the equivalent of Darlington to Paris and back three times over.

Well done, Theo. Keep those wheels turning and don’t go too fast for your Dad!

The Northern Echo: