For seven years West End’s Minds and Hearts clinic has been supporting people and families living with autism conditions. Damian Santomauro, now 22, shows what early intervention and determination can achieve.

When Damian Santomauro was born he did not know if his mother’s face was happy or angry. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see her face, he just couldn’t interpret its meaning — to Damian it was blank. Diagnosed early with Asperger syndrome, one of the autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Damian dedicated his time to learning all the facial expressions, emotional cues and acceptable behaviours that most people know without thinking about it.

He attended Brighton Autistic Therapy School, where he studied photographs of faces and role-played responses. He learned about personal space and for more than 10 years he dedicated himself to studying the behaviour of those around him. “During my high school years I was really obsessed with being perceived as a ‘normal person’ so I would try and mimic what the cool kids would do and how they would talk. I would listen to what person one said to person two and then what person one said in response and then I would try it myself and see if it worked well or not,” he says.

Damian also learnt to tame the sensory overload that many people with ASD experience. Fluorescent lights, the hum of people speaking in a room and the feel of certain fabrics, like denim, can cause extreme anxiety resulting in reactions in the brain similar to a sensation of ‘spinning out’. As part of controlling his environment and emotions, Damian forced himself to wear jeans. But when he had checked his behaviour to the point where there was no external evidence of his Asperger syndrome, he realised he had changed who he was and couldn’t go back. Eventually he was hospitalised for  depression.

“I had learned all the social skills I needed but I still felt resentment that I had to learn them. I always had this sense of being unhappy and excluded and I always thought if I learn these skills, I will be happy because ‘normal people’ are happy. But that didn’t end up happening,” he says.

Damian’s harrowing experience with the medical system as a patient served to sharpen his determination to make a positive impact on the world and help others, particularly adolescents. He enrolled to study psychology at the University of Queensland. This year he started a research PhD on emotional regulation in adolescents and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. He has established a strong association with specialist clinic Minds and Hearts in West End and its founder and director Dr Michelle Garnett, who supports Damian’s research goals. This year Damian proposed to his girlfriend, is buying his first home, and is extremely grateful to his mum. “Damian is an  inspiration to others. He has demonstrated what can be achieved as a result of early intervention and a supportive family. Damian’s research will be hugely significant because he has both scientific and personal insight,” Dr Garnett says.

Damian explains more in the book he wrote with his mother, Josie Santomauro, titled Asperger Download: A Guide to Help Teenage Males with Asperger Syndrome Trouble-shoot Life’s Challenges’, published by AACP.

Words by Maria Ceresa  |  Images by Darlia Argyris