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Robert Moran - Cara Outreach Service

Robert Moran sat his Leaving Cert exams twice and failed both times. He dropped out of school and spent three years at home doing nothing. His Aspergers Syndrome was dominating his life and he was depressed. Thanks to National Learning Network’s Cara Outreach Service he is now studying journalism in college and recently gave a keynote speech to 800 delegates at a conference. This is Robert’s story.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn things, in fact in my time at homeI taught myself Hungarian so that I could meet and speak with my idol, Hungarian football legend Ferenc Puskás. It was the social interaction that caused problems for me. In June 2011 I met John, an instructor with National Learning Network who run the Cara Outreach Service. John worked with me on how to act in social situations with Neurotypicals (people without autism), how the world around me worked and how I could navigate my way through it.
I was in a bad place when I started with John. I was bad around strangers, I had poor non-verbal skills and I found it hard to communicate with others. At the start he used to come to my house twice a week and he’d teach me through exercises like card games where people have different emotions or actions and I’d have to say how I would act around that. He helped me to understand facial expressions and body language and how to overcome my sensory issues. He also helped me with my self-awareness and my mental health. I spoke to John about my desire to go to college. This was a real ambition of mine but after two failed attempts at my Leaving Cert and having dropped out of a FÁS (now known as SOLAS) course because of the pressure I felt and the atmosphere there, I really didn’t hold out much hope of going to third level. John supported me through the whole process and as I was 23 I was able to apply as a mature student. I’m now studying journalism in Waterford College of Further Education.
Looking back, I had difficulties with poor motor co-ordination and I had difficulty with some textures and lighting. I also had problems wearing different types of clothing including jeans, I felt they irritated my skin and felt extremely uncomfortable but with John's help he advised me to wear them twenty minutes a day to sit down and walk around in them and adjust to them, and now I can wear them no problem. I used to have intense emotions which would mean negative thoughts, but now I think more positively because I feel like a different person from two years ago. I had a very bad temper because I used to get frustrated and overwhelmed over little things very easily and have meltdowns. Even thought I still have a temper and have meltdowns occasionally at times I am able to control it now in a healthier way thanks to John’s help. He also advised me to smell certain smells like fragrances or aftershaves as it would bring down my anger, aggression and anxiety and it does and it helps me tremendously.
I am extremely good at public speaking and presentations, I know that is nerve wrecking for most people but for me it is simple and straight forward, although I did have to overcome a huge fear. Last year in college I had to do a presentation on a subject of my choosing. Most of the marks were going for facial expression, eye contact, body language, hand gestures etc. I was getting extremely nervous and got bad anxiety attacks because I did not know how to look at people especially making eye contact. It is a trait of Aspergers Syndrome not to be able to understand facial expressions, body language, hand gestures or even sarcasm. John taught me fake presentations where he would bring me into a big room with a podium and he helped me for hours on end until I was able to look up and make eye contact, use hand gestures, and try to make a funny sarcastic joke at the end. It was very draining and exhausting for me but I felt it was a huge step, not just for my presentation but in my life in general.
I choose to do something unique for my presentation in front of my classmates: The Haka - a Maori war dance from New Zealand and traditionally performed by the All Blacks Rugby Team. I even wore my All Black jersey and pants. I performed two Haka's called ‘Ka Mate’ and ‘Kapa O Pango’, described its history and influence and I also translated the words into English so that everybody would have a better understanding of what it means. Everything went perfect for me and at the end I got a standing ovation. I got an A for my presentation and my tutor said it was the best presentation she has ever seen in the college. Doing the presentation has given me huge confidence and belief in myself and it has helped me immensely with my self-belief and confidence in talking to people.
With this confidence, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the National Learning Network awards ceremony in Waterford. I spoke about my life story on what it was like having Aspergers Syndrome and explaining the good and bad things about it. I didn’t stop there! At the start of November I was the keynote speaker for ASPIRE’s (Asperger SyndromeAssociation of Ireland) conference in Trinity College Dublin. I told my story in front of 800 delegates and I hope that I reassured anyone with Aspergers Syndrome that doesn’t have hope, that there is hope and they like me can live a normal life in this scary but challenging world!  My next ambition is to go on a radio sports programme because I love talking about and analysing sport, especially rugby.
I feel like a new person now. I feel prepared for things because of all the training John had done with me. I still meet John once a week and he helps me with self-advocacy and doing things for myself. He helps me to understand empathy and emotion because having Aspergers, I lack that. Sometimes I have problems in college with assignments and John helps me. For instance group work challenges me as I’m not great around my peers. I wanted to opt out of group work but John helped me overcome that. I met it head on. I have to face fears. John is now helping me to understand the difference between seriousness and sarcasm in different situations as I still have great difficulty with that but that is the only area I need help in.
Two years ago I would have said there is no way I’d be in college. I couldn’t even talk to a stranger on the phone then, but now I can! Thanks to National Learning Network, and John’s confidence and belief in me, my life has changed.