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Thomas Henley wants to change the aesthetic of autism
By Pauline Mackenzie

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Thomas Henley is an autistic 26-year-old with a deeply captivating and intricate life journey. He calls the picturesque North Yorkshire, England home and from this location, his experiences come to life. He is part of a close-knit family and the bonds they share offer him unwavering emotional support and provide many cherished moments. We got a poignant glimpse into the challenges he faces and the coping mechanisms that keep him moving forward.

For Thomas, meticulous preparation before a significant event or journey is important. The gravity of the occasion determines the depth of his mental groundwork. When navigating social gatherings, he often requires a day both before and after—the first to prepare and the other, post-event, to decompress. During these intervals, he immerses himself in mindless activities to alleviate stress. Transitioning from solitude to social engagement is a delicate process, necessitating time to ease into the rhythm of socializing. Once in this social mode, however, he becomes an extrovert, relishing the connections he forges. Outside these social situations, he prefers a more passive role, content with listening and observing.

Spontaneity can induce anxiety in Thomas, but occasionally, he pushes himself beyond his comfort zone. Even these seemingly impromptu decisions are meticulously considered, forming a plan to not have a plan. Without adequate preparation, Thomas finds it considerably more challenging to navigate the complexities of life, and it can lead to disarray and turmoil.

When discussing international travel, Thomas underscores his difficulties with transitions, not just during journeys but also in his daily life. He describes himself as moving at a more deliberate pace, requiring extra time for tasks and yes, the transition. Thomas acknowledges his need for organization and planning, particularly when it comes to significant events or travel.

Regardless of the bouts of anxiety, Thomas loves to travel and has done so extensively. “I’ve travelled all over the place. I’ve been backpacking around Southeast Asia with a friend. I’ve been to Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and spent a year in Thailand as part of my University of Manchester’s Biomedical Science university degree,” he enthused. He’s had many adventures in Asia, some nail-biting, some discomfiting and others immensely traumatizing like a bike accident, which still produces a shudder when it comes to mind. He’s had many inspiring experiences too, such as interacting with monks and locals, learning from them, hearing about their trials and gaining insights into their unique, resilient life experiences. He thrives when there is no time pressure, enabling him to fully savour the experience. Back at home, one of the places he speaks of fondly is Center Parcs, where he relishes spending pressure-free time with his family.

Travel is great, but the issue of sensory overload, especially at airports, is always concerning. To drown this out, Thomas finds solace in music. While he doesn’t mind spontaneous conversations with strangers, he concedes that breaking out of his hyper-focused state when deeply engrossed in a task can be a formidable challenge.

The thread of autism weaves through the tapestry of Thomas’ life, guiding him along an extraordinary and multifaceted career path. As an autism consultant, public speaker, podcaster, workplace trainer and model, he wears many hats, each of them resonating with his unwavering passion for raising awareness about autism and advocating for disability rights.

Looking back on his childhood, Thomas acknowledges that his parents noticed the signs of autism early on yet hesitated to put a label on him too soon. It wasn’t until he turned 10 that he underwent an assessment, providing his autism diagnosis. Throughout his formative years, he grappled with a sense of detachment from his peers, finding it easier to connect with adults while struggling to navigate the intricate web of social dynamics.

Thomas’ childhood was a beautiful cornucopia of warmth at home but his trusting and straightforward personality often made him vulnerable to those who took advantage of his genuine nature, especially at school. Describing this feeling of disconnect, Thomas poetically likens it to feeling like an alien at times. His social awareness lagged behind his peers, leaving him on the fringes of social norms and interactions. While he cherished a few close friendships, he never truly integrated into larger social circles.

As he transitioned into secondary school, Thomas’ struggles with social interaction and sensory overload intensified, leading to crippling anxiety and frequent school absences. Remarkably, his academic prowess remained undiminished, earning him top grades in various subjects. But as his anxiety deepened, Thomas encountered bullying and social challenges that ultimately culminated in bouts of depression and self-harm during his teenage years. Despite these hardships, he excelled in Taekwondo and sought solace in Japanese anime, which served as a lifeline in coping with his tribulations.

Thomas’ dedication to Taekwondo bore fruit, as he ascended to become not only a British champion, but he proudly won a gold medal and Best Male Fighter trophy at the Commonwealth Championships. However, his dream of becoming a professional athlete was cut short by the lack of understanding and support for autism within the sport’s governing body.

This autism journey has moved him into the world of ardent advocacy for autism awareness and support. He embarked on a podcasting venture, Thoughty Auti, inviting influential figures like Temple Grandin and Professor Baron Cohen to engage in conversations that dissect autism from various angles.

Thomas’ fascination with people persists, propelling him to seek a profound understanding of both himself and those who don’t fall on the autism spectrum. He views himself as a reverse autism researcher, finding neurotypical individuals just as captivating as they might find those with autism. His insatiable appetite for comprehending autism from diverse perspectives led him to work as a special needs teaching assistant and for a charity devoted to social inclusion. But through all of this, there is the ongoing battle he wages against his own mental health. His life is marked by fluctuating levels of anxiety and depression, occasionally giving way to severe meltdowns and periods of low functionality.

Even amid the external support he receives from family and friends, the internal struggle persists. But Thomas does not shy away from pushing his boundaries, as evidenced by his backpacking adventures through Southeast Asia, forcing him to adapt to new environments. “Everything I’ve done in my life has mostly been to prove that autistic people can do certain things,” he says. “People say autism affects your communication, right? So, I decided I’m going to be good at public speaking. Autistic people aren’t very good with emotions or relationships—so, I’m going to be exceptional at both of those. They think an autistic person won’t be good at Taekwondo, be great at sports, be jacked or a model, but I’m all of those.”

Thomas is sustained by his unwavering dedication to helping others and finding meaning in his work. These  offer him a guiding light on the darkest days. As someone who candidly shares his experiences with autism, Thomas imparts invaluable advice to individuals on the spectrum and their loved ones. He encourages self-reflection to identify both challenges and strengths. He recommends sidestepping the negative aspects of life whenever possible and implementing support systems when needed. Thomas underscores the significance of infusing one’s life with activities and pursuits that nurture confidence and happiness. He highlights the necessity for greater representation across various fields and emphasizes the importance of understanding autism from a neurodiversity perspective.

Thomas aspires to reshape the perception of autism, rendering it more relatable and acceptable in society’s eyes.

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