At the start of World Autism Awareness Week, Peter Barron meets a North-East man who was not diagnosed with autism until he was in his thirties but now runs a business helping to increase understanding of a condition affecting 700,000 in the UK

PROUDLY wearing a bright pink hoodie, Richie Smith is about to tell a room full of strangers the most personal and harrowing details of his life with autism.

For most of that life, Richie, now 34, was made to feel “a freak” because the system failed him, and his autism wasn’t diagnosed until last year. Now, he is a man on a mission: to use his experiences to spread the word that autism is not something to be hidden away, but embraced and celebrated.

Last year, after his autism diagnosis was finally confirmed, Richie responded by launching his own business, called Awesometistic. The company name is emblazoned on his hoodie, along with the message “Autism can be awesome” on the front and “It’s OK to be me” on the back.

Awesometistic is a one-man show, with Richie going into schools, colleges, businesses, and public sector organisations – anywhere that will have him – to talk about his life and the needs of those with autism and other neurodiverse conditions.

Today, we are at Evergreen Primary School, in Bishop Auckland. Purpose-built, the autism-accredited school caters for 186 pupils aged from two to 11, with a range of learning difficulties. It is the fourth in a series of sessions Richie has delivered to more than 100 staff at Evergreen – the 76th school he has visited since Awesometistic was launched last October.

“I want to raise awareness, so no child needs to go through what I went through growing up,” Richie tells his audience.

What he went through is pretty shocking. Born in South Shields, he was cruelly neglected as a baby and taken into care, but his undiagnosed autism led to behavior that his foster parents found hard to cope with and resulted in a deeply troubled childhood.

To cope with his condition, Richie needed to “stim” – a term short for self-stimulatory behavior. Richie recognises that all autistic people have different needs but, for him, stimming included hand-flapping, slapping his legs repeatedly, rocking, banging his head, rubbing himself with glossy magazines, and feeling plastic bags. But because his behavior was misunderstood, Richie felt the need to hide away in order to stim.

“No child should feel like that,” says Richie. “We need to create a world in which autistic kids are free to stim and aren’t made to feel uncomfortable. That means providing the best advice and support for parents, carers and teachers so they understand why autistic children behave the way they do.”

The audience is spellbound as Richie tells his life story and gives a fascinating insight into a day in his life. “What you probably don’t realise is how much I’m having to cope with right now,” he says. “I can hear that clock on the wall ticking, I can hear children in the next classroom, there are spotlights above me, and sunlight coming in from the window – it’s coming at me from all directions, and I have to cope with the pressure of that all the time.”

He goes on to show his audience the contents of two boxes he carries with him. One contains a host of household objects that he used when he stimmed in secret: cassette tapes, plastic bags, magazines, Sellotape, till-rolls, ribbons, and tissue paper. The other box overflows with sensory gadgets he can use now he is officially autistic: chewy bracelets and necklaces, fidget spinners, rattles, crinkle toys, spinning lights, magnets.

It is, in many ways, a depressing story of ignorance, bullying, self-harming and attempted suicide. And yet Richie also has his audience laughing because there’s humour in his honesty and engaging personality.

“Autistic people can take things very literally,” he explains. “So, when I heard someone say milk was good for your bones and teeth, I started keeping milk in my mouth for as long as possible – how crazy is that?”

He’s like an autistic Lee Evans, non-stop in his delivery, and utterly mesmerising. He hardly takes a breath but unconsciously uses the phrase “Happy days” to punctuate the end of each part of his compelling story. 

The irony is that there weren’t many happy days when he was a child, though that’s changing now, with the support of the North East Autism Society, and his partner, Kirsty.

He credits Kirsty with saving his life. They met when he was working as a waiter in Frankie & Benny’s in Boldon, South Tyneside, and he was serving her chocolate cookie crumble. They fell in love, went on to have two “beautiful” children, and are building a stable family life together.

At the end of Richie’s talk, a teacher comes up and says: “That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I could have listened to you all day. Thank you so much.”

Judith Benson, Head of School at Evergreen, has no doubt about the value of bringing Richie in to talk to staff: “We can do all the training in the world but hearing it from someone experiencing autism every day makes it much more real and the feedback has been amazing.”

Deputy Head Faye James adds: “The staff have been so moved by Richie – everyone should hear his story.”

The good news is that more and more people – children and adults – are hearing his story. The Awesometistic workshops are in growing demand and a book of his life-story will be published later this year.

Richie Smith has an Awesometistic dream: for autistic children to be able to look in the mirror and say: “It’s OK to be me.”
Happy days.

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