SEN Magazine talks to Jo Redman about living with ADHD and Asperger’s and how sport helped her turn her life around
A World Champion kickboxer with a career in public speaking, Jo Redman has come a long way from the girl who couldn’t even utter her name to answer the register at school. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD as an adult, Jo now uses her success in sport to promote awareness of her conditions. Here, she answers questions about her struggles at school, the empowering quality of sport and her hopes for the future.
What sort of issues did you face growing up?
I was very sheltered growing up. I had a lot of structure, which helped, but there were a lot of misunderstandings. I felt lonely, I didn’t always know how to join in with other children. Things got harder from the age of around nine or ten as I became more aware of how difficult I found it to join in. There was an expectation on me to socialise with girls my own age but I was happier running around playing football with boys.
On reflection, I understood a lot less than anyone realised and this meant I was very withdrawn. I went along with things even when I didn’t understand, as I couldn’t communicate my lack of understanding and I didn’t know how to cope with expressing how I felt. As a teenager, I couldn’t even ask my nan for milk to go on my cereal. When she forgot to give me some, I just went along with the situation and ate it without. I had bad anxiety and depressed moods from adolescence which worsened during the transition to adulthood; the older I got, the harder life was and the more I realised I just didn’t “get it”.
What was school like for you?
I would go days at school not speaking, not even answering the class register. Teachers would skip me when going round the class asking questions because I didn’t engage and appeared vacant. I just didn’t cope with being there in those years and nobody could work out why as I couldn’t communicate and didn’t understand any of it.
Academically, I didn’t do too badly at school but I did underachieve. With undiagnosed Asperger’s and ADHD, I had a lot of challenges and also the challenge of making sure nobody noticed. Those challenges probably mean that my achievements since are greater than they seem, but that can actually be really hard to accept – that you could have achieved more or could have had more support.
I had big problems organising my homework and revision, so much so that I could not do homework until the last minute and I did little revision. My concentration was so bad I had to have music on to do homework but it had to be the right music or I’d be distracted. I would have no interest in timed essay questions in English, so I’d write nothing or I’d make up my own question to answer. I thought in English it was perfectly fine to read my own book rather than listen to the teacher because books were written in English and that’s what we were studying. I hated maths and I couldn’t do even simple mental arithmetic; I had to write it out. I fell asleep in maths a few times.
How did other pupils respond to you?
At a young age I was laughed at because I interpreted things differently; then I learnt to keep it in and follow. I was always on the periphery but usually had one girl mothering me and making sure I was “looked after”. I was lucky that there were quite a few people who did this; they would make sure I was concentrating on work in class and eating my lunch. They even communicated for me to teachers. But I also had a lot of people make fun of me, taunt me and call me names. However, because I wouldn’t respond or even show how I felt, it unnerved these kids which I think made them back off. The fact that reacting and expressing emotion was so difficult for me served me well in these scenarios as the kids just got bored, but that doesn’t mean that those experiences didn’t sit deeply with me.
How did getting a diagnosis of Asperger’s as an adult help you?
My Asperger’s diagnosis was a relief. I didn’t expect it but it made sense. I often wish I had known at a younger age but that’s no guarantee it would have been any better or I would have got the support I needed. I think maybe getting the diagnosis at the age of 23 enabled me to accept it better and learn about how it presented within me. I think that because I hadn’t understood what I was going through and because of the constant struggles I’d faced, it actually made my diagnosis seem as positive as it could be, although it was difficult to process and I went through an analytical phase where I went back over my entire life. This was tough but I learnt so much and it brought a lot of resolution and closure to some of my experiences. At this stage I thought I had it all figured out and enthusiastically went into putting strategies in place, but none of these seemed to work for long and nearly five years later I was diagnosed with ADHD.
Has your ADHD diagnosis helped you to understand yourself?
The ADHD has been a tougher diagnosis to come to terms with. I’m not sure if it is because I thought I had all the answers before and felt there had been a wasted few years where I still hadn’t worked it all out, or if it is due to the poor follow up times making it more difficult for me to process. Perhaps it’s the fact that with the right ADHD medication I might have found work and school easier. Even so, I’m glad to have the answers now. I never imagined ADHD would apply to me but it does make sense and it does explain why I continued to struggle and why the Asperger’s strategies never seemed to stick. Understanding why I can’t follow the structure I need has relieved a lot of self-pressure; I just need to know how to make a structure work. It has been very upsetting getting passed from service to service, being told you are too complex and they can’t help you, and it has really dented my self-confidence and the belief that I can reach my potential.
How did you get into kickboxing?
My dad took me kickboxing when I was 13 and I loved it straight away. He thought it would help my confidence and would be a nice activity for us to do together. I didn’t speak there for two years and I certainly wouldn’t have gone without him. A lot of people laughed at me for doing kickboxing, either because I was so quiet they couldn’t see how this sport would be suited to me or because I was so interested in the sport it became an obsession and the only thing I would talk about. I didn’t compete until I was 17 and this came about after I was invited to train with the England squad. I surprised my instructors a little and was asked to join the team for the Irish Open. I had always been reluctant to compete because of my anxiety and lack of confidence but it was such a big thing to be considered for the England squad.
Has sport helped you to develop as a person?
Sport has been life changing for me. It has been so important in my development into the person I am today. My coach Alex Barrowman has been very influential in my life and I’ve found the ethos of his teachings to be highly transferable into my life as a whole. He taught me to set goals, work hard toward them, never give up and believe I could reach them, but also to act with humility and respect.
My team, the BCKA, are like family to me. I have grown up with most of them and I’ve watched the younger members develop and tried to help guide them. It has taught me what it feels like to belong and be valued for who you are and what you can do, rather than just what you give to others and what they want from you. To be respected, appreciated and accepted as you are is so powerful after struggling to fit in for so long. I can just be who I am and nobody judges. Sport has also taught me that I can be successful and my conditions have actually helped in my sport in some ways.
Have you been able to use your experiences to help others?
After winning world titles in my sport I wanted to use what I had learned to encourage and inspire other young people who might feel they could achieve nothing. So I started public speaking and did school assemblies. I was asked by Anna Kennedy to speak at Autism’s Got Talent and then asked to be a patron of her charity.
I love words and writing. I wrote to compensate for struggling to talk to people and became quite articulate. Once I learned and became confident to speak what I wrote, I fell in love with public speaking, which is bizarre for someone who struggled to answer the school register. I try to give my time to people just to offer encouragement and listen, because I think these things are important. Words are so powerful and I want to use mine to build belief in others and inspire confidence, because I remember my bad experiences only too well; I want to do whatever I can to help people follow their dreams and have some positive experiences.
What should we do to improve awareness of conditions like Asperger’s and ADHD?
There is a lot that needs to be done for awareness and ultimately acceptance but I think the most important thing is that we need to hear more of the perspectives of individuals with these conditions. We need to hear from parents and families too and give their views more importance in determining how young people with these conditions are treated and educated. I often feel as though people would actually prefer to read the views of somebody who doesn’t have my conditions about what it is like to have my conditions; this effectively means that my voice is not being heard, which is just as bad as not having a voice. It’s kind of ironic when the point is to help people understand what it is actually like to have these conditions.
I think the involvement of people with conditions such as Asperger’s and ADHD is important in developing services that can better meet their needs. Fundamentally, we are people not a subgroup and we all have differing thoughts, views and opinions which deserve to be heard, especially in determining our futures. There also needs to be more cohesion and collaboration between interested groups and charities; more can be achieved if everyone works together.
What are your plans for the future and how do you see your life developing?
I’m at a big turning point in my life now. The last year has been very rough for me with my diagnosis of ADHD. I want to become as independent as possible because despite my intelligence and successes with public speaking and in sport, I actually really struggle. I have always aimed really high but I think I need to take a look at day-to-day life first now. There are so many things I’ve never learnt or been taught and I’ve never been independent as an adult. I struggle hugely with conversation and travelling and I can’t cook or budget. I need to look at the basics now – the things that might help me to get some independence in these areas.
I want to do more public speaking and continue with my sport competitively and as a coach. I would like to thank SEN Magazine for its support and sponsorship for the World Championships. Due to the costs involved, it simply wouldn’t be possible to compete without support like this.
Looking forward, I also want to help others and do what I can to establish more acceptance and understanding of Asperger’s and ADHD so that services improve and individuals are valued as people – for what they can do and bring to society, big or small.
Three times World Kickboxing Champion Jo Redman is a patron of autism charity Anna Kennedy Online and an Ambassador for Fighting for Autism. Jo also presents motivational talks about her life with autism and ADHD and how she became successful in sport: