‘My autism made me feel like I had no hope, but now I help to save lives’

James with his son Owen and wife Victoria  (London Ambulance Service)
James with his son Owen and wife Victoria (London Ambulance Service)

A London ambulance medic who was placed in 27 different foster homes as a child only received his diagnosis for autism as an adult because he never lived in one place long enough to be assessed when he was growing up.

James Sweeney, 37, moved around 25 different foster families and two children homes across the Midlands during his childhood.

He had to start and stop his autism assessment several times as a result of the upheaval – and was only diagnosed with the condition six years ago, when he settled down in Maidenhead with his wife.

He said: “I grew up being very frustrated. I remember feeling misunderstood by all my foster parents but one – a woman I now call ‘mum’.

“Back then people simply used to say that I had ‘naughty boy syndrome’.

“I had so many foster placements in so many different areas of the region and every time I started an assessment for autism I was re-housed, so it would have to start all over again.

“When I got my diagnosis, I could finally understand why I am the way I am.”

Mr Sweeney, who has worked as an Emergency Medical Technician at the London Ambulance Service for seven years, said the upheaval made him feel like he had “no hope of leading a normal life”.

He went on train as an advisor with a charity that helps care leavers to take their next steps in life, before embarking on an apprenticeship with the LAS.

“While I enjoyed the unpredictability of the call-outs, I used to really struggle with being paired up with a different crewmate each day, and always having different shift patterns.

“My management team have been excellent and they made the adjustments I needed.”

Speaking on World Autism Awareness Day, Mr Sweeney said he is incredibly proud of where he is today.

“I work in the busiest ambulance service of the world – despite leaving school at 14 with no qualifications.

“I think I've worked ten times harder than I would if I wasn’t autistic or didn’t grow up in care. But if it weren’t for my past, who knows where I'd be now.

“If I could speak to my younger self, I’d tell him: ‘explore your passions and don’t feel like you have to fit in with everyone else for the sake of it!’”

Darren Farmer, London Ambulance Service’s Director of Ambulance Operations, said: “I’m in awe of what James has achieved – not only as an ambulance crew member who has cared for countless patients over the years, but also for the inspiration he provides to people going through similar challenges.

“I’m glad he was able to turn his life around and it’s great to see that he is proud of that too.”