World Autism Awareness Week 2016: Storyteller Colin Williamson

Storyteller Colin Williamson has a passion for Scotland’s history, folklore and customs. The grandson of a great storyteller, he has been listening to stories his whole life, and much of his learning comes from an ancient oral tradition. For many years, Colin has worked as a tour guide in central Scotland. He has also worked with children with learning difficulties and with adults with mental and physical challenges.

Colin was only very recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). He has recently launched a show on SAM radio – a new station that has been set up to support those on the autistic spectrum. We asked him to share his story with us for World Autism Awareness Week 2016.

Photo of Colin Williamson

I love storytelling. I have been a talker and a visual thinker all my life, so storytelling is like breathing to me…I see the story unfolding in the mind’s eye.

I have previously written about my struggle with dyslexia. This has forged much of who I have become and probably explains why storytelling suits me so well – my dyslexia and oral storytelling go hand in hand in so many ways. Two years ago, at the age of 48, I was also diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In the main, my diagnosis and journey since has been a positive experience for me, because it has enabled me to find the support I needed. It was also quite cathartic because it gave me a way of making sense of my life’s experiences.

Following my diagnosis, I discovered Number 6. This is a drop-in centre for adults with High Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger Syndrome (AS) who live in the Lothians and the Borders. The service is provided by Autism Initiatives UK and was officially launched in June 2005, with the opening of the Number 6 One-Stop Shop. And what an amazing place it is! I have never had support like it. Here, my diagnosis was seen as a difference, not a problem. The staff at Number 6 support you with everything life can throw at you, whether it be financial, personal, social, employment, education – they can help.

My own autism diagnosis actually came about after I had attended the 2014 Annual Commemoration at Culloden Battlefield. I was with a dear friend, who happened to be a Learning Support teacher. On returning from Culloden, she told me she could not get any meaningful dialogue out of me all day. This triggered in me the need to find out why, throughout my life, I have always felt odd, or different. I had always put this down to being bullied at school, and then to the lack of confidence that followed me throughout my life. For example, I find change very difficult to deal with. Weddings and funerals scare me, as do dinner parties! I find that multiple chatter throws my concentration. I tend to over-talk as well. l find reading non-verbal social cues very difficult, so I avoid dating as it can be very stressful. Once we find something we love, it can become all-consuming.

My mum and I had a chat and we began to wonder about the possibility of autism. I visited my GP, expecting to be politely dismissed, but instead, I nearly fell off my chair! My GP happened to specialise in research in austism spectrum disorders. He had spotted this in me, and he was intrigued about me being a storyteller. He referred me to St John’s Hospital, where I was diagnosed with Asbergers syndrome (AS) – a form of high functioning autism. This was a relief and quite cathartic because now many of the most painful and embarrassing experiences I had faced in social settings, or in relationships, could be explained and understood.

As a young lad growing up in the seventies, I was dubbed lazy and stupid. I was bullied by my peers and teachers, and my self-esteem was left shattered. I left school in 1982 with very few qualifications. I had no confidence, and I started on the familiar cycle of job creation schemes and unemployment.  In 1987, after a year in a community house, I entered West Lothian College on a full time social care programme. This was a turning point in my life: it was my first positive experience of education. I even won a cross-college award for determination and endeavour. It was there I dreamt of University. Sadly I couldn’t secure a full time post, so I threw myself into part time work as a play worker and I built up my experience by volunteering. I worked as a General Advice worker with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau; I was a Community Councillor; I worked in disability rights and on the steering group of Livingston Credit Union.

As the years rolled by, my confidence was still a huge issue for me. Securing my independence was also a real battle and everything took so long to achieve, but at least I was moving forward. Finally, in 2000, I became a full time student on the diploma programme at Newbattle Abbey College. This was the most challenging and rewarding year of my life, but I gained a diploma in Scottish Studies and a place at Edinburgh University in 2001. In 2005 I graduated with a MA Hons in Scottish Ethnology, but after years of essays, dissertations, reading, and exams, I knew that the written word was not for me.

So I tried something different. I’ll never forget my first day as a tour guide with Rabbie’s Highland Tours: I had found storytelling and I was free for the first time in my life! Telling Scotland’s stories was a joy. I then moved to the Real Mary King’s Close, and worked as a character guide. It was there, in my spare time, that I started developing as a storyteller. After taking part in a workshop at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Joanna Bremner Smith set me on the road to developing as a professional storyteller. It took me three years to succeed, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Harrysmuir primary School in Livingston as they gave me a platform to grow and develop. I discovered that storytelling is not only an ancient art form, but also a great medium for children and adults who struggle with conventional learning. I find it really rewarding to use storytelling to enhance the lives of those children who are dyslexic or have learning differences, and to work with adults who live with Parkinson’s, dementia and other physical and mental challenges.

I have very recently started volunteering with S A M Radio, ‘surfing the spectrum of sound’ – a new station that has been set up to support those on the autistic spectrum. The station is managed by Paul Ross, and his family members Sheilah and Phillip. Paul holds a degree in sound engineering has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome himself. The station, which took eighteen months to set up, airs a variety of music and provide listeners with a platform where they can represent themselves. We have only been on air for a few weeks, and as far as we know it is the first of its kind in Scotland and the only station outside of America that supports autistic adults.  It offers volunteers the opportunity to learn how to produce shows and operate broadcast/recording equipment, helped by support workers. I had previously volunteered in hospital radio for many years where I was a co-presenter and a producer. Thanks to S A M Radio I have now started presenting my very own show with a mix of storytelling and song, which really is a dream come true for me!

I’d like to thank all the staff at Number 6, my friends at S A M radio, the Livingston Speakers, a special thank you to my family, and to the Scottish Storytelling Centre for giving me the chance to become a professional storyteller.

Colin presents his show on S A M Radio between 2pm and 3pm on Tuesday afternoons.

Listen to S A M Radio here

Find them on Facebook:

Read Colin’s Storytelling Directory Profile here

Visit Colin’s website:

Autism Parenting Magazine has published an interesting step by step guide on social stories for children with Autism, read the article here.