Thomas Henley Commonwealth Gold Medallist was Anna Kennedy OBE’s guest this week on ‘All things Autism’
My name is Thomas Henley, I’m 23 and was raised in the town of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. I’m a Commonwealth Gold medalist in Taekwondo and a Biomedical Sciences student, graduating with an honors degree from the University of Manchester.
I have competed abroad many times, representing GB at the U21 European Championships, and the Commonwealth Games where I received the ‘Best Male Athlete’ trophy for my exceptional fight against a much taller and heavier opponent. I graduated nearly 9 months ago and am currently working in SEN schools or on supply for mainstream schools needing 1 to 1 support.
In the near future I’m hoping to start a career in journalism or presenting to follow my dream of being the face of autism, and to further autism awareness and individual empowerment on a wider scale.I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome at the age of 10 and a number of severe mental health conditions in my teenage years, including generalised anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.
Today, I am very active on YouTube, the podcasting website Anchor and I have travelled to many places to teach people about autism. I’ve been a part of independent documentaries, done a video with BBC Radio Manchester, produced and presented my own documentary for a final year project, and I’ve even tried my hand at a couple of public speaking events.
For my downtime I love to write in my local Café Nero and box at my local gym. I am currently on the fourth chapter of my fictional book and the 8th month of my boxing training at Harrogate Amateur Boxing club.
I’ve dedicated my life to doing things nobody expected me to be able to do. Combat sports, backpacking around South East Asia, speaking in front of 350+ people; I have spent my life proving to others that I can go above and beyond their expectations. I have struggled with life ever since a teenager, falling at the mercy of body dysmorphia, constant suicidal thoughts, binge disorders and self harming.At my lowest point I locked myself away for weeks, experiencing constant panic attacks throughout the day and existential misery in the night. Each time I fell down I got back up. In my 2nd year at University I took on a work placement in a Thailand on what is the most impulsive day of my life.
What started as an escape soon turned into a new opportunity to build strong friendships, learn a new language, experience novel things and travel. I travelled around Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand with my Dad in the Easter break, then took a dive into to deepest ocean and went backpacking around the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for 2 months with my best buddy. The amount of fear that all the transitions created, the new places, the new friends, and the new cultures was immense. The only thing that overshadowed the stress it caused me was just how much it enriched my understanding of the world, the freedom that came from the confidence it built within me, and the realisation that I really could do anything I set my mind to.
I’m by no means a naturally strong and talented person, I had to work my butt off day and night to get where I am today. I had to deal with crippling anxiety before each and every fight in my Taekwondo career, manage my training alongside my studies, and even deal with the long, drawn out sensory mess of competition days.
My national titles, trips around the globe, high level competition invites and my Commonwealth trophy, are all the product of my stubbornness and desire to push on no matter the journey ahead. Anyone who knows me within the sport will understand just how little barriers and strong opponents phase me. Each time I envisioned my pain and struggles on my opponent. My depression, my anxiety, the bullies, the backstabbing people and the countless mocking school goers… if I ever chose not to face my fears each time in the ring, I don’t know how I would face everyday life. Thankfully, I didn’t and I carry the confidence it gave me into each new endeavour.
My cheesy motto is ‘Pain into power’ and that’s what fuels my spirit, but nothing has had more of an impact on my life than finding a meaning in these harsh uphill battles I was confronted with so often.
My granddad’s passing and the motivational speeches of Jordan Peterson were the main muses to my self improvement and my development of a meaning. I want to inspire others with my achievements, despite my debilitating mental health conditions and despite all the traits that come with being autistic.
My meaning is that of helping those in pain or misery, lifting them up until they they can support themselves independently and create their own light in the seemingly pitch black abyss many people find themselves in. My future aspiration is be a role model for people both on and off the autistic spectrum. I want to change policies around mainstream education of autism, increase the number of psychologists specialising in post-teen autism, and support measures that alleviate the awful mental health statistics in the autistic community.
A little of bit of neurodiversity in all areas of life goes a long way. Autistic people try to fit in at all ages and adjust to life, but often find it too difficult to overcome the terrifying barriers. We are alienated, isolated, bullied at school and even in workplaces, and that can be incredibly damaging and demoralising for anyone.
There are some terrifying statistics around life quality as well as mental health in relation to autism, and it’s not something that will be changed unless we stop sweeping it under the rug. Being apart of small or wider society was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and we need to make sure children and adults have the loving support and inclusion that all humans desire.
If you want to check out the work I’ve done, the best place to find it is either on my YouTube channel ‘Aspergers Growth’ or on the Anchor podcasting channel ‘Thoughty Auti Podcast’.
The YouTube channel consists of many videos about my own experiences with autism, drawing in from my knowledge of neuroscience, psychology, experience with teaching autistic children and heavy involvement in the autistic community.
The podcast is a more close and personal way of listening to my ideas and opinions, I have many guests on there from charities, companies, organisations and even with other other autistic influences on Instagram.
I hope you can take something valuable from my interview, whether it’s empowerment to charge through your own barriers or even a new found desire to help me change this world. I thoroughly enjoyed speaking to Anna, and I’m so grateful to you for reading this small snippet of my life and listening to me speak on the show.
As my granddad said in his final breath “Stay, learn and help others”. Stay where you are going to grow, always challenge your assumptions or opinions, and help those around you in any way you can.
Thomas interview will be repeated 1pm and 1am over this weekend. www.womensradiostation.com