I have been involved with Rugby League from a very young age. Played the sport as a kid, attended my first Leeds Rhinos match on Boxing Day in 1998, wrote an offbeat blog for a few years, plus went to home and away games as a season ticket holder during my teenage years.

Rugby League was my autistic obsession until cyberbullying became too much to handle. I withdrew from contributing online and resorted into a comfort zone away from relentless criticism about my long-term unemployment situation at the time. Sometimes I would regretfully fight back against critics which wasn’t pretty as bullying the bullies is not great and two wrongs do not make a right.

A person would call me a scrounger (popular term to mock someone on welfare) one day and a week later would boast about getting half-priced tickets, which gave me an opportunity to point out their scrounging behaviour. This person had a good job but would scrounge for cheap tickets instead of paying full whack if it saved them a few quid. The hypocrite removed me as a Facebook ‘friend’ but for a while continued to impersonate me in his own weird way for attention on a forum.

It was irresponsible behaviour from me to fight back the way that I did but I didn’t know any better at the time. I was wrong and if anyone was ever at the bad end of an outburst then here is my apology. The world was cruel enough without me contributing more cruelty just so I could get some misguided point across and watch someone trip over their words.

Depression really kicked in for me when I started to isolate myself from people and spent many years obsessing over the cruel things written about me online that I was lazy along with all the rest.

In July 2013 I got to meet Darryl Morris at Key 103 in Manchester and work with an incredible broadcasting charity but told very few people about it. I never really shared the finished product because I thought I’d get an onslaught of criticism for being unemployed and at a radio station instead of looking for a job. It was probably the most illogical state of mind I have ever been in.

Eventually I did get a job in a warehouse but had to leave once it became too painful to walk all day long due to debilitating gout flare ups. Then I found employment sitting down in a call centre but couldn’t walk to work so had to leave that job too. If only staff at Jobcentre Plus had told me about the Back To Work scheme, then I might still be in a job getting help with mobility instead of dreading decades of wasted potential at the hands of employment advisors who are out of their depth at guiding autistic adults into employment.

It was revealed in a 2016 survey that six in 10 (61%) adults on the autistic spectrum rated their experience of Jobcentre Plus as “poor” or “very poor” which leaves many of us condemned to a lifetime of misunderstanding and inadequate services because only 32% of us are in paid work, compared with 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people. Luckily, I’m on Employment and Support Allowance for now but the clock is ticking. Before long, an assessor will soon be declaring me fit for work which means having to access Jobcentre Plus again because I’m from an underprivileged background and need some money to make life bearable.

Unfortunately, I am not fit enough to face Jobcentre Plus for another prolonged period in my life having suffered too much already. There needs to be an understanding of the big difference between being fit for work and being fit to endure Jobcentre Plus. Statistically I am very likely to spend large swathes of my life unemployed because I’m autistic and therefore, I am reaching out.

First, you need to sign the National Autistic Society’s petition calling on the government to help double the number of autistic adults in work. If we can get nearly 3000 rugby fans to sign this petition, then we’d reach 35,000 signatures demanding improvement from the government which appears to be oblivious to how bad Jobcentre Plus services are for people on the autistic spectrum.

Sign Here: act.autism.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=10&ea.campaign.id=56776

You can read up more about The National Autistic Society’s campaign to get more autistic adults into work here: http://www.autism.org.uk/tmi

This blog post wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the inspiration of those who encourage me to speak out about certain things. Stevie Ward and the Mantality Magazine team are doing a great job within sport to highlight mental health. Beccie Ions and her incredible campaigning on mental health issues through the trade unions. Fixers and the countless individuals in this media industry who have given me an education on how to promote in this landscape. The National Autistic Society for always having an open door and fighting on the behalf of everyone with autism. And last but not least Glenn and Rugby League Hub for giving me a fresh voice.

Damon Cooper

An adept grumbler hoping to rebuild many bridges burnt after my previous stint as a Rugby League blogger on SouthStander. Also, a seasoned gastronomer whose written for Independent Leeds, Culture Vultures and Leeds Welcome about various topics. Incredibly passionate about sport and the great impact it can have on people’s lives.