What it’s like to be an autistic 14-year-old going into politics
An autistic teenager from Plymouth is fighting stereotypes as a newly-elected member of Youth Parliament.
Alana Jones, from Crownhill, has been hiding her voice since childhood, but at 14 years old she is finally speaking out – about politics, about youth issues, and most importantly of all, about her autism.
In the last few months she has represented her school, Tor Bridge High, as the leader of their debate team in a national competition, worked with local autism support groups, given a speech at the #Vote100 Suffragette flag relay event at the University of Plymouth, and won young hero of the year at the Plymouth Community Awards.
“Quite recently, I was starting to tell people about my Asperger’s/autism,” she said. “I was so scared to tell people. Someone found out through their parents that I was autistic and they reacted badly – partly because they didn’t know what it was and they thought I might change. But since then I’ve told more people and the feedback’s been amazing.
Alana Jones recently won Young Hero at the Community Awards (Image: Penny Cross)
“When people think of Asperger’s or autism they think of the worst of it. There’s a lot of bullying that goes on because people don’t understand.”
Around one person in every hundred is affected by autism – a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others. Asperger’s is a disorder on the autism spectrum.
Alana fought her successful campaign for Youth Parliament election on the back of her Asperger’s – celebrating her ‘quirks’ as she and her family call them, rather than hiding them.
“From what I’ve read online and noticed myself, we [I say that as a collective term for people with autism] are generally a lot smarter because we retain information on a topic we really like,” Alana said.
“We have amazing skills in music, art and creative subjects. Organisation is also a massive thing – everything in my chest of drawers is organised in such a way that I can say something is on the left in that drawer.”
Alana’s mum Dawne said: “They refer to Alana as the ‘mum’ at school because they know if anyone needs a tissue or a hair band Alana can go into her bag and it’s all there in meticulous order.
Alana with mum Dawne Jones (Image: Penny Cross)
“As a teenager it’s a real strength to have. Her achievement levels in all subjects are more than expected because she dedicates more of her evening time to homework and the structure she gives herself.”
Looking at Alana now, a bright and confident teenager, it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago she wasn’t capable of even speaking out in class. “Alana used to have really curly blonde hair and she would get a lot of attention,” Dawne said.
“We’d be in the supermarket and a lady would approach us and remark on it and Alana would stand behind my legs and hide away. Even doing the school plays she would try and blend into the back.
“To see her grown in confidence and have faith in what she believes in – she’s flourishing.
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“I wondered if she was biting off more than she could chew with the Youth Parliament campaign. She had to film a campaign video and talk in front of her school. But it’s not for me to decide if something is too much – that’s for her. She’s blown all my expectations out of the water. I just wanted her to show her personality and feel comfortable in herself, I’m so proud of her.”
Later this year Alana will join other Youth Parliament members at the Houses of Parliament to debate real issues with MPs, where she hopes to raise further awareness.
“My campaign is the biggest movement I think that has recently been happening in my lifetime from a person of such a young age,” she said. “One of the biggest boundaries for me was that I’m not very good at public speaking which is a massive part of what I’m doing with Youth Parliament. I’ve learned slightly to put on a mask and block out the fearfulness of having to speak in front of people.”