Story written by Tony Duke, Journalism student at Wintec
In the modern suburb of Rototuna with its generic brick homes all in neat rows, sitting in the warm lounge of their family home are Helen and Peter Nixon. Their accent gives their English roots away as they laugh and play with Cahira, their pure bred English mastiff dog.
Helen and Peter have three children - David, 27, Joanne, 26, and Sally, 23. They all cope with the everyday trials and tribulations that are part of life. However for David, who faces each day with a handsome smile and an abundance of energy, life can be frustrating at times as he lives with the condition known as Aspergers.
David has done more in his first 27 years than a lot of people, including travelling overseas several times, finishing an apprenticeship in horticulture, passing his driving test first time, tandem skydiving, bungee jumping, winning a ten pin bowling gold medal at national level, as well as surviving the Christchurch earthquake last year.
It's at times like the Christchurch earthquake, with its emotionally devastating effect on its victims, that David realises how Aspergers can set him apart from other people. For even though he knew what had happened was terrible, he couldn't relate to how his friends were feeling when he saw them upset and distressed. A seeming lack of empathy is a common characteristic for people with Aspergers. David's mother says, "He struggles with what the implications are as well as where to now and what to do next," but for David, ”It’s a part of who I am.”
When David was a child in England, his parents knew that he was different from other children and sought medical opinion. "We went to every doctor, every specialist, you name it, including language specialists and nobody in England came up with the diagnosis of Aspergers,” Helen says.
When David's family emigrated he became a lot worse and Helen referred him to a Hamilton East specialist, where an intern psychologist was convinced that David was autistic and asked to have him assessed. That was the first time that anybody had said that they thought it was something specific, much to the relief of David's parents.
For David and other people with Aspergers, there are different areas of support. This may come in the form of family or organisations like Community Living. The support team at Community Living work to give individuals with intellectual disabilities a real life, a real home and real friends. They train and support people so they can control their own lives and shape their own destinies. David has been helped at crucial times by Community Living, for instance when he wanted Sarah Nash, the Employment Options Service Lead, to come as his support person for his interview for a greenkeeper’s job at the Hamilton St Andrews golf club.
He got the job. David works at the St Andrews club, where he has extended his horticulture skills to include green keeping. He can operate most of the equipment, including the ride-on mowers they need to keep the greens looking good. He has impressed so much at the golf course that he is now working on weekends, which is a huge step as he is the only one there and has the responsibility of opening up the clubhouse.
Photo by Martina Duncan, Photography student at Wintec
Well before being employed at the golf course, David's love of horticulture combined with seeking employment, led to him working for Task Force Green, a subsidised work scheme run by Work and Income that employs workers for non-profit projects within the local community. Through this work David’s confidence grew, culminating in him applying for and getting an apprenticeship with the Hamilton City Council. He impressed the interviewers, beating two other applicants for the job. “The council were surprised by how much David knew about horticulture,” Peter says.
While pursuing a horticultural career, David realised the importance of being able to drive a manual vehicle. St Andrews required a full licence to use its equipment. So David, armed with his can-do attitude, studied and practiced for his full licence and passed first time in April last year. When asked what it was like learning to drive David says “That was actually hard.”
Society has a dark side when it comes to those with Aspergers, David’s worst experience was at high school, both in England and New Zealand. "I hated high school," he says. In England he would come home in tears, as he didn't have any friends at school. Helen says "He used to stand in the corner of the playground every day and watch everybody, it used to break my heart." In New Zealand students would tease and annoy him with taunts of "Go back to Pommieland" or "Go back to your own country". Another problem was his stutter, which comes on during extended conversations. This is where being at school got very frustrating for him as people, through impatience, would not let him finish talking. “The worst thing is, people always try and finish my sentences,” David says.
The silver lining for David at school was meeting his trusted friend Daniel Vonk, who now resides in Holland. David has travelled overseas on his own twice to see Daniel, who moved from New Zealand to Holland.
David’s advice for others that have Aspergers and want to achieve more in life, is to use the help that is available. “There are lots of support people out there, not just mums and dads and aunties and uncles,” he says “I've had some good support from Community Living, it's all about just getting out there and going for it.”
Peter says, “Whenever a crucial moment in life has come up and David has had to put himself forward, he has always done it."
Through self-belief and the help he has received from his family and support staff, David has developed a wonderful philosophy. “There is no point sitting on your ass and thinking I should have done this or I should have done that. You have to say I want to do this and I want to do that. When I went for the job at the golf course, I said I want to get that job and I got it. Don’t let things walk past you.”