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Belfast actor Anna Kyle: Acting saved my life

Belfast woman Anna Kyle stars in a play next week about a young woman's struggles with Asperger syndrome. And, as Anna (36) tells Leona O'Neill, she has special insight into the role, as she too has the condition and through the play wants to raise awareness of how those affected can cope

East Belfast woman Anna Kyle has lived with Asperger syndrome her entire life. The 36-year-old always knew she was "a little different" and struggled through her school years and into adulthood being petrified of social situations. She says she had difficulty forming friendships, was bullied and would be most at ease in her own company.

Mounting challenges in life brought on by her condition caused her to develop an eating disorder and her weight plummeted to under four stone.

Anna says getting involved in acting "saved her life" and now she has written a touching one-woman show exploring love, disability and existence, entitled It Only Takes A Minute, to raise awareness of the condition.

Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests.

In the punchy and fast-paced play, Anna takes on the role of Michelle, a 26-year-old woman with the condition. Following her diagnosis, the performance takes you on Michelle's roller coaster journey through life, presenting a series of flashbacks as she relives a number of key moments in her teenage years, growing up in the Nineties. It could be a mirror for Anna's own childhood.

"What made me suspect that I had Asperger syndrome was that I find social situations very difficult and complicated," she says. "I find relating to people very difficult. It's when your social communication is harder. I find groups of people hard to understand. Anxiety is a big part of it. It's needing to know routine and what is happening.

"I've had this since birth. One of the things about girls and why it is not being diagnosed as much in them is because we are more likely to copy and do what is called masking. So we learn to copy what's appropriate. As a child I always felt on the outside looking in. And I found it hard to develop friendships. I was very much happy in my own company, living in my own imaginary world.

"When I became a teenager and people my age started socialising more, and groups of girls hung out and went shopping and the cinema together and seeing boys, I found that all very confusing. Shopping and cinemas are very over-sensory and filled me with panic. I was never a normal teenager."

Anna says she found it very difficult to make friends and would often go home and break down after a day trying to hold it together. All her frustrations eventually manifested themselves into an eating disorder.

"It might sound strange but if people have reasons behind them, if friendships have reasons, it is a lot easier to form them rather than meeting up for a coffee and just hanging out," she says.

"I would say all my friendships have a reason behind them. They are quite structured. For example my work colleagues, I love them. I love my Tom, who is the co-writer of the play, and the people I do drama with. But get me out there on a Friday night or just to socialise and just be buddies with some, that just fills me with dread.

"I have never had a boyfriend - either no one has ever fancied me or I have missed cues, because I just don't do well in social situations.

"Growing up as a teenager I was bullied because I was just odd. I said things that I shouldn't have said, or I spoke louder than I should have done, or I said the wrong thing. I wasn't your typical teenager. There was a lot of name calling and whispering.

"I think I kept myself quite safe. I was so much of a loner. Bar school, I didn't get myself into situations where people could pick on me.

"These days when I'm with work I can communicate with people and socialise with them because we are in that structured environment. But bring that to a night out and it fills me with panic and dread. I worry about what I'm going to say, about how I'm going to act.

"And that is what we wanted to look at in the play with Michelle. All that misunderstanding about what is going on. And very often with girls, they mask it when they are out in public and pretend and copy, without really understanding what is going on.

"And it's when you get home and you get back to your own environment that you break down. You get panicky and anxious and it all comes out. That comes out in lots of different ways. Unfortunately for me it came out in an eating disorder.

"I had anorexia. It started when I was at school. I started to lose weight and become obsessed. At my lowest weight I was three-and-a-half stone. I had it bad and was hospitalised a few times. I was self-harming.

"I got therapy after therapy but I couldn't really get out of the cycle. Nothing was really working and it was suggested that maybe I was on the spectrum. I started to use the eating disorder as my obsession and my coping strategy to gain control and routine in my life.

"I found food difficult because it could be over-sensory. There was an absolute need for control and understanding, plus the low self-esteem that comes with it.

"I would worry that I don't have any friends, and I don't like going out and I don't have a boyfriend, and I don't like what other people do, and I'm weird and no one likes me, everyone hates me and I hate myself. It all manifested itself in that."

Anna says she began to educate herself on what Asperger syndrome was, and that in turn made her begin to understand herself a little better.

"I learned more about myself and that I had Asperger syndrome, which is high functioning autism without the learning disability," she says.

"I taught myself about what Asperger's was and how it made me, me. And that gave me the freedom to think of myself not as a bad person, but someone who just had Asperger's.

"Yes, I find relationships confusing but I'm very good at my job, and I'm good with routine.

"I am very determined and stubborn. It helped me see the plus points and learn what other things I liked other than being totally obsessed with food.

"I was able to give myself a little bit of grace and freedom to experiment, which gave me more time to be outside, out in nature as well as acting and pretending to be other people. It released me from the eating disorder in a funny kind of way."

Anna says she still works hard to keep anorexia under control.

"Now I manage the anorexia," she adds. "I'm very routined in what I eat. I eat the same thing at the same time every day. If I go to a restaurant I need to know what's on the menu before I go and exactly what I'm having.

"I still battle with it every day. I haven't been in hospital since 2006. I know that it is not who I am, who I am is someone with Asperger's who likes routine and likes to know what's she's doing, and likes time on her own and doesn't like shopping, cinemas or groups of people. And if I can be kind to myself and let myself be who I am, I am stronger against the anorexia and I don't get into that vicious circle."

Anna says acting saved her life and allowed her to be someone she wasn't for a time, which she found was a great form of release.

"Acting was my saviour," she says. "Because I could be someone who wasn't me. It was a release. It was wonderful. I could be out there and be someone else. I loved it. That escapism was wonderful.

"I think having Asperger's makes me very sensitive and I think that helps me see and read situations differently, which gives me a different insight, which is kind of attractive in acting. I see things and I portray things from a slightly different perspective.

"And then, as opposed to getting into a vicious circle, you get into a good circle. Because you are on stage and you're getting a buzz and feeling good about yourself. Your self-esteem goes up a little bit more. So it works in the opposite way of an eating disorder. And that is good."

Anna says she hopes her play sends out a positive message about Asperger syndrome and those who live with it.

"I hope that this play will raise awareness that there are people like me and Michelle out there," she says. "I hope that people will realise that there is difference and that is okay.

"And that could be for people who are yet to get diagnosed, who are struggling with severe anxiety or why they find things so complicated and confusing, or why are they self-harming. But also to give an insight into the life of someone with Asperger's, because it's not widely known.

"Michelle in the play is a lovely person, she is hysterically funny. It is a right roller coaster of a play. It's a one-woman show. It's crazy. Don't ask me why I did it! I can be quite an all-or-nothing person and that is exactly what the play is."

It Only Takes A Minute is at the MAC, Belfast, from November 7-10. For more details visit www.themaclive.com

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