ALEX Lowery from Holywell has come a long way.
So far in fact that he can now call himself a professional public speaker and his next oration in his home town later this month is almost fully booked.
He spoke to me about his first nervous forays into public speaking last year but since then his rise has been meteoric and his myth-busting message is reaching an ever-wider audience.
It’s a major achievement for Alex, who said the world was a terrifying place for him as a youngster. He was once to scared to enter a church because of the echoes.
He said: “Since I last spoke to the Leader, there’s been lots going on. I’ve been getting lots of opportunities to do speeches, which has been good.
“Recently I even went down to Guernsey where I got to speak on the radio.
“I’ve been speaking to a variety of people, from child minders to social workers, parents, teachers and more.”
He has spoken to the Welsh Government and most recently he went on stage after winning an Autism Heroes Award, attending a prestigious ball last month to receive the honour.
Alex was diagnosed with autism aged four.
His mother Sylvia realised his behaviour was not typical for a young child; she had to stop taking him to toddler group because he found socialising stressful and he became afraid of public places like shops and churches.
Alex said: “The world was confusing to me.
“Even when I was four, I was aware I was in a terrifying world – but also that I was finding it more terrifying than other people.
“I hated going into shops. The lights scared me, and the dummies looked like horrifying headless people. Even the music scared me.
“I spoke in a secret language and it took me quite a long time to learn to speak English. Sometimes I was afraid to go outside.”
As a young child, Alex exhibited self-harming behaviours, attacking himself and other people.
He sometimes screamed “I want my head off!” while suffering sensory overload.
After years of intense therapy, Alex has learned to conquer his fears, although he still struggles with day-to-day activities that most people would find straightforward.
He said: “I wasn’t told I had autism until I was 11 so I didn’t properly know if I had a condition. But before that some things didn’t make much sense.
“I knew I was finding some things a lot harder than other children did.
“A mixture of therapy, both behavioural therapy, language class and support from my mum, as well as getting older, helped me come to terms with it. I still have a lot of challenges.”
As well as affecting the way people experience the world, autism affects people’s ability to understand speech, read facial expressions and body language.
Alex said: “If someone showed me a card with cartoon smiley faces on it, I’d probably get most of them right. But in real life, it’s a lot different.
“I’d say I’m worse at reading body language. I concentrate most on people’s voices and the words they’re saying – but I can be very literal.
“For instance, two social workers visited recently and they asked: ‘Do you have any health worries?’
“I said ‘no’ until my mum pointed out that actually I have asthma and some other issues.
“If they’d asked me if I’d had health problems, I’d have explained them. But because they specifically asked if I had worries – and I wasn't worrying – I said ‘no’.
“I also don’t understand people very well unless it’s a subject I know about. I had something done to my carpet recently and I didn’t know what the man was telling me.”
Alex also does something called ‘stimming’, short for self-stimulatory behaviour, which is a repeated action.
It is a way of addressing his fear and anxiety and can also help him absorb what’s happening around him in his own time by blocking some outside stimulation.
He said: “I used to rock back and forth and I still do that a bit. Sometimes I jump up and down and I do walk around in circles, pacing.”
Although Alex believes public awareness of autism has grown, he does still see adverse reactions.
Some of them are well-meaning, such as when he stepped out of a caravan on holiday to ‘stim’ without disturbing his family, and a passing woman alerted his mother, thinking that Alex was having a fit.
Others are not so charitable.
Alex said: “Because I struggle to understand, people sometimes think I’m being rude when that’s not the case at all – but they get angry.”
Although many people have a horror of public speaking, Alex finds the situation easier to cope with than a free-wheeling chat about a subject he knows nothing about.
This was not always the case.
He said: “The first time I spoke I was 17 and I was with a lady from the St John Ambulance who was doing a speech about communicating with people with autism.
“She was supposed to talk but she decided I’d be better at it because I am autistic.
“I hated the idea. I didn’t want people to know I had autism. I wanted to hide it. But I decided to give speaking a go and it went down very well.”
Part of Alex’s speeches are given over to myth-busting.
Despite a better awareness of the condition, the belief people with autism have ‘Rain Man’ type abilities with numbers persists – as does the assumption they lack imagination or intelligence.
An aspiring photographer and film maker, Alex is a living testament to such bunkum.
He advises anyone speaking to an autistic person to bear a number of things in mind.
He said: “It’s important not to patronise them. They still deserve respect. Talk normally but have a bit of patience and try to use clear language which can’t be taken another way.
“And if an autistic person does something socially inappropriate, then tell them – but in a reasonable way.
“I don’t always know if I’ve said or done something wrong – so I want to learn.”
In return, through his speeches, Alex is educating still more people.
He will speak at Capel Penbryn in Whitford Street, Holywell, on Tuesday, July 29.
Entry is free but places are filling fast. Email info@ alexlowery.co.uk for details.
See full story in the Leader