Everyone has a passion – and for Lia Payne, that passion is writing.
Whether it is thinking up short stories for her creative writing A Level course or updating her blog, the 17-year-old’s writing is always personal. But for Lia, who has high-functioning autism, it also helps her to understand herself.
In a poem that she put online in November last year, the West Sussex teenager wrote about coming to terms with being what she describes as ‘neuro-diverse’ – a turning point in her life.
“I have actually felt like being different is a really bad thing,” she said. “It depends on my emotions at the time. Throughout my entire life I have felt different, so when I wrote that poem I finally accepted that fact. I write exactly what I’m feeling at that moment. I put it into metaphors and it helps me see what’s going on in my mind.”
In many ways, Lia is like any other 17-year-old: she has an Instagram account, @bamboochewer, which she uses to publish her poetry and enjoys going to the cinema with her friends.
But her condition means that she finds it hard to talk to strangers and suffers from anxiety in social situations.
If she gets on a bus, or goes to a restaurant, she relies on her friends to buy her ticket or her meal. In one scenario involving her mum’s friend, Lia ignored her when she said ‘hello’ in the street – not because she was being rude or stuck-up, she said, but because the situation made her feel awkward.
Her social difficulties mean that she does not think she could hold down a part-time job, and has had to drop one of her A levels at Chichester College and study from home.
She added: “I feel really lonely sometimes because I don’t have many friends. I guess that is because I don’t go up to people and make myself known.
“I feel very grateful that I have friends like my mum who will order for me and stuff like that, because it can be quite awkward.”
But Lia has made friends through Instagram, and also attends a weekly social group at Worthing College, organised by Autism Sussex, which has organised social trips to go ice skating and bowling.
Lia’s mother Sally said she knew her daughter was different from a young age.
But it was only after a family member was diagnosed with autism that the pieces began to fall into place.
Sally’s thoughts were confirmed after Lia moved to Chatsmore High School, when the special educational needs co-ordinator also noticed the signs of autism.
After fighting for a referral from her doctor, Sally got Lia an appointment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Worthing Hospital, and she was diagnosed with high functioning autism at 15.
“All of us had such a sense of relief,” Sally said. “The difficulties and all the struggles made sense.”
Both Sally and Lia called for teachers and classroom assistants to be better trained to spot the signs of autism. Lia said at one of her previous schools, she regularly received detentions for not submitting homework – not because she did not do it, but because she would not hand in work if she thought it was not good enough.
She added: “What I found really bad was when teachers pick on you to answer a question even if you are really quiet. You shouldn’t have to if you don’t feel confident to. It can make people feel really anxious.”
Looking to the future, Lia hopes to do an Open University degree and become a published author.
But Sally said she worries about her daughter’s independence.
“Any parent of an autistic person worries about if they can leave home. Me and her dad won’t be here forever, and we have talked about how Lia might have to live in assisted living, or live with her brother.
“It doesn’t mean she won’t have a happy life, but it might not be the life that we thought she would live in terms of friendships and relationships.”
But Lia, from Worthing, is not ruling anything out.
“I have never had a proper boyfriend. There have been boys that have liked me – but they weren’t my type,” she said.