Ara Asperger student follows Churchill's example

News News & events

09 May 2016

Sam Goddard with award Sam Goddard came second at the Rotary Best Speaker Awards.

The symptoms might be familiar to you. Sweaty hands, dry mouth and a tightness around the vocal chords as you look around a crowd of unknown faces and prepare to make a speech or give a presentation.

Public speaking is scary at the best of times. According to Psychology Today, fear of public speaking is often greater than most people's fear of death.

Now imagine making a public speech when you have Asperger syndrome, a condition that affects your ability to communicate with others.

This was exactly the position that Ara Workskills student Sam Goddard put himself in recently when he participated in the Rotary Best Speaker Awards. Goddard, who has a love of history and Johnny Cash, was awarded second prize for an outstanding speech on the topic "Looking towards my future".

In his speech Goddard took inspiration from Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela who both overcame personal and political challenges to become inspiring leaders during difficult times.

"Churchill shows that with hard work and perseverance you can overcome a disability," Goddard says, referring to Winston Churchill overcoming his lisp and stutter to become an inspiring leader and orator.

"He went to speech therapists. He would spend weeks writing his speeches. He would practise his speeches in front of the mirror until they were perfect," Goddard says.

"These great men only achieved great things because they were prepared to work hard, they persevered through hard times and they stood up for what they believed in. If I can show some of these qualities, I can achieve independence."

People with Asperger syndrome have impaired communication skills. Often very intelligent, they have difficulty picking up social cues and emotions. Their behaviour can appear abrupt and a little eccentric, while they might have difficulty finding common topics of conversation and become introverted or otherwise will talk extensively about their own particular interests. Their inability to pick up non-verbal communication cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice and body language, makes communication challenging and causes high levels of anxiety.

When interviewing Goddard, for example, it feels like he is simultaneously trying to do complicated mathematics while holding a conversation.

"This impression is pretty accurate," says Workskills tutor Lesley Ryan. "As well as thinking of an answer to your question he will also be consciously working out what question he needs to ask in response and what your facial expressions and body language are saying."

The focus and attention come at a price – sensory overload. People with Asperger's often have so much information they are consciously trying to track, they lose information and forget details.

"I have difficulty remembering instructions," Goddard says.

For this reason things we take for granted are often difficult. Taking a bus into town requires talking to the driver, asking instructions for when to get off and remembering the instructions. It also raises the possibility of having to hold a conversation with fellow passengers. These tasks all become intimidating and require a constant level of courage and attention. As with anything that is intimidating, they cause anxiety. In these circumstances, independence becomes a challenge.

This anxiety leads many people with Asperger syndrome to withdraw from society which makes socialisation even more challenging.

"These are skills which can be learnt but it takes a long time for them to become natural, as anyone who has seen an awkward looking teenager can appreciate," Workskills tutor Barbara Ross-Davis says.

Despite these challenges Goddard, is optimistic. He is currently gaining work experience at the Cashmere Club as a kitchen hand and hopes to be able to travel in the future.

"I want to visit the United States. I find American politics and the history really interesting. I also want to visit Singapore."

In the meantime, Goddard is focusing on overcoming his own challenges. In addition to working at the Cashmere club he enjoys spending time with friends and family, exercising in the Ara gym and attending his Workskills classes.

"I know I will have many more issues to overcome in life but by focusing on what is important and with lots of hard work, perseverance and self-belief, just like Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, I will achieve my goal."

Click here to view Goddard's speech.