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Stuart neilson academic

Wednesday, 20th November, 2013 7:21pm

Stuart Neilson always knew he was different; he just didn't know why.

Growing up in Ethiopia, Egypt and Pakistan as the son of English teacher parents, he was decidedly unsporty, had difficulties accepting authority, and always felt like an outsider.

A turbulent adolescence saw him fight with teachers - one told him "I know you'll do well, not despite my teaching, but to spite my teaching" - and begin a degree at Bristol University. However, it wasn't to last. A fight with his closest friend on the quad, during which he lost the rag so much that the quad emptied of people within minutes, ended his time there.  

"It was a big turning point. He was South American, a very touchy-feely guy, he would touch you to emphasise his words. The touching bothered me so much that I just started shouting, and by the time I finished, everyone had run away. I had to leave.

"It was such a physical reaction and I didn't know why I felt so bad. He was a really nice person."

He left Bristol and joined his then girlfriend, now wife, Chryssa, at Sussex University, which had a "much more tolerant atmosphere". They had met at Sevenoaks school in Kent, where he was a student and Chryssa, who is Greek, had been on a scholarship.  

"We were very young to get married, but it seemed like it would work. And it has - we have been married 30 years," he says.

After qualifying in Engineering and Applied Sciences, Stuart worked in Charing Cross Hospital as a medical technician, assisting with communications aids for people without speech.

Although he enjoyed the job, "it wasn't going anywhere" and he returned to college at Brunel University in 1990, to do a PhD in the mathematical modelling of neurological disease at the school of health, sickness and disablement. He had always been interested in health, with public health and sewage having been his entry point into engineering, after his experience growing up in countries with poor sewage systems had shown him the health impact of such basic infrastructure.  

He also believes academia is a tolerant environment in which to work - something he feels may have had a 'masking' effect on his condition.

After his wife got a job at Motorola in 1998, the family (they have two daughters, Thalia and Melina) moved to Cork, where Stuart's mental health problems came to a head.

"I just found people hard to deal with. I had social anxiety and episodes of depression."

It wasn't until after he had been hospitalised for depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts five times between 2002 and 2008 that Stuart was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome by the multi-disciplinary health team in the South Lee service. It was like a lightbulb went on in his life.

Suddenly the issues he had with loud noises, crowds, tying his shoelaces and physical contact - not to mention his lack of sporting ability, which can now be put down to dyspraxia - began to make sense.

"Not understanding the sensory issues was a huge thing. It's like not knowing why you feel anxiety. You feel like an outcast," he explains.

The medication he'd been on for depression had dulled his ability to think. For an academic with a wide range of interests, that was the worst cruelty of all.

"Six years where you can't read a newspaper is a huge loss."

Although there are no state supports for adults diagnosed with autism - 70% of whom suffer from another psychiatric problem as a result of their condition and what Stuart calls "the stress of trying to work people out" - he was put on the list for the Cork Association for Autism. He was assigned a key worker, and has made steady progress.

He completed a Diploma in Disability Studies at UCC, and now lectures on the new Certificate in Autism Spectrum Studies being offered at UCC in association with Shine, Cork Association for Autism, and the Cope Foundation.

Another goal of Stuart's recovery was to write another book, and the result will be launched at Cork City Library next Monday 21 November in the presence of Minister Kathleen Lynch. It draws on his own personal experience of Asperger's and on his academic work  - he has previously written books on coping with Motor Neuron disease and Multiple Sclerosis.  

Living with autism and Asperger's in Ireland is available on and retails at around €14.95. It is co-authored by Diarmuid Heffernan of the Cork Association for Autism.

As for a cure for Aspergers? He has it.

"Go into a room on your own. You no longer have Asperger's. The problem is other people."

Name: Stuart D Neilson

Location: Summerhill North

Occupation: Academic

Favourite thing about Cork: The English Market.

Least favourite thing about Cork: It used to be litter; now, I think it's rowdy drunken crowds, smoking outside.  

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