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ASPartOfMe
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15 May 2024, 7:30 am

I was diagnosed as autistic at 67 and it explained everything

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Coronation Street actress Shelley King never understood why she found last-minute script changes and unexplained plot twists difficult to adapt to when she was at work. While her fellow cast members seemed to accept them without batting an eyelid, Shelley often found them upsetting and frustrating. But after she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 67 last year, things fell into place and she spoke to the show's producers who offered to find ways to help.

I need a plan,” explains Shelley, who plays restaurant owner Yasmeen Nazir. “In theatre you have a set text and you say the same things every performance, but at Coronation Street the lines might change suddenly. Scripts might be altered at the last minute and if I couldn’t see the logic of those changes, it would upset me.”

Feeling frustrated and confused, Shelley would often seek out the show’s script editors to clarify her character’s motives.

It took up a lot of time and I was aware that I needed a very strong back story for Yasmeen, so that the writers could refer to this when coming up with storylines.

“What the producer encouraged me to do was write my character’s history and I said to them, ‘Please try to stay within that.’ Because of that history, if I can identify the specific reason for something that Yasmeen is doing or saying, it helps me”

It was at this point that Shelley, now 68, sought a diagnosis for autism.

She was tested last year. And, speaking for the first time since her diagnosis, she pays tribute to the show for its support after she spoke to producer Iain MacLeod and cast mates including Bill Fellows (screen partner Stu Carpenter) and Sair Khan (screen granddaughter Alya).

She says: “I used to get very upset and agitated about changes. Everybody understands why now and understands why I used to go to the script editors. Now I’ve been diagnosed, they know I need a plan, so they help me with that.”

While Shelley’s diagnosis came at a relatively late age, the Anglo-Indian actress, who moved to Britain as a girl, says it helps her make sense of her difficult childhood.

She recalls: “As a kid I’d be confused by what my parents were telling me and I remember once pulling a brick storage heater down off the wall in frustration – it smashed everywhere.”

Feeling isolated at school she began to gain weight. She recalls: “I was verbally abused because of the colour of my skin and I put on a lot of weight. I was terrified of rejection, so for comfort I would eat and eat.

“People find it hard to believe of me, but aged 12 I weighed over 12 stone and I’m under 5ft 3in. I now weigh 8st 4lbs.”

Shelley also struggled with the chaos and noise of her childhood birthday parties. “They were always horrible,” she says. “Every birthday my dad would become annoyed at me and say I was a difficult child, because every time I would want something that somebody else had, or there were too many children, or I wasn’t enjoying myself.

“He thought I was misbehaving by being ungrateful and wilful. At school the teachers would tell me that I was anarchic; they just assumed I didn’t want to follow rules.”

A lifelong developmental condition, that affects how people communicate and interact with the world, autism is believed to affect around one in 100 people.

Autistic people may find it hard to understand how others think or feel, often get anxious about unfamiliar situations and typically find it difficult to socialise. They can also experience “meltdowns” from sensory overload, caused by loud noises, crowds and confusing situations and generally take comfort in familiar routines.

In 1975, aged 20, Shelley made her television debut in the BBC drama series Angels. She stayed for two and a half years, later appeared in the 1980s sitcom Tandoori Nights and also had a long and successful theatre career, but behind the scenes she was struggling.

At the age of 41 she met her partner, actor and director Trilby James, but despite their happiness together, Shelley’s frustrations at life would often spill over. With an autistic brother, Trilby recognised some of Shelley’s behaviours and suggested she too could be neuro-divergent.

But it wasn’t until 2019 – five years after joining Coronation Street – that Shelley decided to be tested. She phoned her GP who referred her for an NHS diagnosis, but the pandemic held things up. She was finally tested last year.

Shelley continues: “It explains a lot – my impatience, my frustrations and my occasional meltdowns. Sometimes I become absolutely irrational about silly things, such as when to put the washing on, or how tidy the house is.

“If I go into a room and dishes haven’t been put in the dishwasher, I can’t think. Other people would ignore it, but I can’t. If I see things piled up on the kitchen table for example, it overwhelms me. I get confused and need order.

“Thanks to my diagnosis, I now know why that is happening, but before that I didn’t understand why I was different and why people sometimes found me difficult to deal with.”

Shelley, who divides her time between London and Manchester, had tried therapy many years before her diagnosis, but found it confusing. Now that she has more awareness about herself and why she thinks and feels the way she does, she has looked at some of the books about autism that Trilby has bought her, and although they have been helpful, they have not proved easy reading.

“At first they upset me, because I began to see things about myself and I recognised the same things in my mother,” she recalls.

“My mother was a loner and quite obsessive. I remember visiting once and she’d just cleaned the bathroom. I wanted to have a bath and she was literally shaking because I was going into the bathroom.

“I thought she was mad, but since my diagnosis I’ve begun to look back at all these things and understand. I now have real compassion for her and ultimately for myself.”

Many autistic people have intense and highly-focused interests and the diagnosis has helped Shelley understand her own passions. As a child she fanatically collected comics. “And I was also obsessed with the moon landing,” she recalls. “I had magazines and every single newspaper cutting I could find about it.”

Today, tennis, cars and Formula 1 are obsessions. As a kid I used to queue overnight for a standing room place at the main courts at Wimbledon. I’m also fascinated by historical figures, so I’ll watch documentaries about that, or tennis or F1. It calms me down and takes me away from everything that’s going on in my head.”

As life-changing as the diagnosis has been, Shelley says she is glad she has finally found out.

“It helps me not hate myself so much,” she explains. “Before the diagnosis I’d think: ‘Why does everything go wrong for me?’

“But that’s not true and I’m now allowing myself to believe that actually I have achieved something in my life. It just shows it’s never too late.

“Other people understand me better now too. My niece is in a band and she has a gig coming up. I’m going, because I love her, but she understands that if I can’t take the level of noise I’ll have to leave.”

Meanwhile, she has no regrets that she waited until she was 67 to find out. “I don’t know how helpful it would have been in the past, because I don’t think that there was an understanding of autism back then,” she reasons. “There still isn’t a complete understanding now.”

Nice story. Glad for her.


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KenG
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24 May 2024, 8:40 am

Amazing! Thank you for sharing!


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jimmy m
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30 May 2024, 8:18 am

Who is Shelley King? I had to look it up. She is a singer.






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Double Retired
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30 May 2024, 3:26 pm

Coronation Street actress Shelley King might not be the Shelley King doing that singing.


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KenG
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03 Jun 2024, 8:07 am

Double Retired wrote:

She is indeed not the same Shelley King. This is Shelley King from "Coronation Street":
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shelley_King


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AUsome Conference -- Autistic-run conference in Ireland
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AUTSCAPE -- Autistic-run conference and retreat in the UK
http://www.autscape.org/