“My mind is a monster - as big as a planet, trapped inside a small box - wanting to be free from its cramped space,” one man’s story of life with autism
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
They are a labour of love, a meticulously-kept record of wildlife in Norfolk complete with handwritten entries and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations.
Sean Locke, 27, who lives in Norwich, has been keeping detailed diaries of the county's wildlife for three years and has also written equally thorough and lovingly-crafted books about Mousehold Heath, the birds of Afghanistan (written for his brother who was posted there with the Royal Anglians) and about living with autism.
Diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum when was aged around nine, Sean finds that nature is the perfect antidote to a world that he often finds frustrating and difficult – in the midst of wildlife, he feels completely at peace.
'When I'm in a bird hide or out on the fen I feel totally relaxed. I forget any problems and just enjoy myself,' he said.
It hasn't always been so easy for Sean to relax. When he transferred from middle school to Heartsease High School (now Open Academy) the change in culture was hard for him to adjust to.
'At high school it was very difficult for me. I was having fits and all sorts. I got stressed out and just couldn't get used to it,' he said.
Mum Kim explains: 'He kind of just shut down – he couldn't cope with so much new information and used to try and avoid situations by sitting in the corner of a room rocking. Teachers would call and ask me to pick him up. He wasn't attention seeking, he just didn't know how to deal with it all.'
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Additional support was given to Sean and the situation improved for him with support from teachers such as Mrs Kemp, Mrs Easton, Mrs Cameron and Mr Boddington ('they were his saviours,' said Kim).
A naturally talented artist, Sean was awarded a grade A in GCSE Art.
'I just love drawing. When I was at school I really liked using pastels but I grew out of that and now I just love drawing more than anything,' he said.
After leaving school, Sean went to Linkage Community Trust, a national charity based in Lincolnshire which delivers high-quality specialist education, care and employment support services to people with learning difficulties.
The longest-established specialist college in the country, it accommodates both residential and day students aged between 16 and 25 and helps students towards an independent future, helping them learn life skills while continuing their education.
'I was a bit homesick,' admitted Sean, 'that's when I started really getting into Norwich City (football club) because it reminded me of home. It was the 2003/4 promotion season and we were really good then!'
While studying at the Grimsby-based campus, Sean also went to the town's college and studied art. He later studied fine art and creative writing at Norwich City College, where he was encouraged to publish his own book about the experience of living with autism.
'My Autistic World', in Sean's words, 'gives you a glimpse into a world that's the same as yours but different'.
Published in 2009, it contains a selection of Sean's poems and original artwork which explore the difficulties of living with a condition that few people understand.
'It's like chaos in your head, I suppose,' he said, 'I think I write it better than I say it. In one of my poems I say: 'my mind monster is as big as a planet trapped inside a small box, wanting to be free from its cramped space'.
Kim, who lives with husband Alan and youngest son Jake, 16, said that when she read Sean's book, she cried.
'It was the first time that he'd told anyone how he felt. He never talked to us about what was happening inside his head and it was difficult to read because you just want things to be easy for your kids, for them not to worry about anything,' she said.
'But I was also very proud, because the writing was so good and the illustrations were fantastic. He has an incredible talent.'
Increasingly, Sean's artwork has centred on nature, particularly at his favourite Norfolk locations, Strumpshaw Fen, Mousehold Heath and Cley. His love of the wild world began in childhood and has grown over recent years.
'He loved The Animals of Farthing Woods and The Really Wild Show and would watch them for hours and then go into his bedroom and draw everything had been on the programmes – I think that's where it started,' said Kim, who often accompanies Sean on his nature adventures along with Alan and other family members.
Sean joined the Young Ornithologists' Club with brother Frazer, now 26, and his fascination with birds grew. At City College, as part of his coursework, he created a fantastically-detailed book about Mousehold Heath called Wildside of Norwich: Mousehold Heath, a collection of writing, poetry, facts and drawings about the heathland on the edge of the city.
His book won him a college prize in 2010 for outstanding work in creative writing. After a month-long trip to Austin in Texas to stay with his aunt in 2011, Sean began documenting the wildlife he witnessed in a series of beautiful diaries, each crammed with handwritten entries and accompanying coloured drawings.
Next to tiny, wonderfully-neat written entries, Sean draws what he has seen, coming home from days spent outdoors and immediately committing his memories to paper. One diary boasts a dedication from wildlife guru Simon King.
'I think that wildlife helps to ease the frustration I feel. It chills me out a lot. I sometimes find it difficult to talk to people, but I can talk to them if we're talking about wildlife,' he said.
Sean is now an RSPB volunteer at Strumpshaw Fen, helping to carry out surveys for the charity – including recent surveys to count numbers of Marsh Harriers and Bitterns - and also helps Mousehold Heath warden Will Stewart, sometimes taking visitors on tours of the heath.
His love of birds and art also prompted him to make a very special gift for brother Frazer, who is a Lance Corporal in the Army and who was posted to Afghanistan for a tour in 2012. Perturbed there were no books documenting Afghan birds that he could find, Sean created his own.
Inside the book, it reads:
To Frazer. Hope this will help you know what birds you are seeing, from Sean. PS This is the first book of its kind for Afghanistan birds so look after it cos if it's good enough I could get it published, in other words, you're the tester for this book. Good luck.
The book duly travelled to Afghanistan and came back safe, albeit with a fine coating of Afghan sand. Sean wrote a second book with an accompanying note for Frazer: Here is the other half of my Afghan book for you. Also, there are some spare pages you can use them if you wish perhaps you can write some notes or little sketches of what you see over there. Be safe, Sean.
Each book is filled with information and beautiful hand-drawn pictures of birds. 'Frazer doesn't like birds as much as I do but I wanted him to know I was thinking about him,' said Sean, 'and I also wanted to find out more about birds in Afghanistan…'
This year, Sean has a wildlife wish-list he hopes to tick off - he wants to see a badger ('I've never seen one and I think they're magical creatures') and a Crossbill – and would love to find a publisher for his books or work as a nature writer and illustrator.
'There's still so much to learn about nature and wildlife – you never stop learning. There are still mysteries out there in the world that we have no answers for and that means you can never stop looking. I've just started my 2014 diary. I don't know what will happen yet. I just hope it's good.'