IT would be a boring world if everyone was the same.
But for the bullies that tormented David Punch, in school and online, being different was just not acceptable. The very fact that he had Asperger Syndrome was reason enough to make his life hell.
Now aged 25, David is frank about the impacts that bullying had on him in his childhood and worsening into his teens.
“I started getting bullied in primary school, with things like name-calling,” David says.
“I’d be crying and they’d be calling me four-eyes and things. Then, in secondary school, I started putting some videos of songs online, on YouTube. And then I started getting online bullied: people would write nasty things in the comments, things like ‘you should go and kill yourself’. Other nasty stuff.”
Already prone to anxiety stemming from his Asperger’s, the impacts on David were profound.
“I got very bad, and I had to get counselling in the end,” he says.
“I knew one guy from my school was doing it. He was a keyboard warrior: he wouldn’t say anything to my face, and then he’d say all this stuff online. Sometimes I regret that I didn’t really do anything about it.”
David smiles shyly into his laptop camera: “But here I am, and I’m still not giving up on my dreams.”
The Ballyvolane singer-songwriter has just released a single, Different, which he hopes captures a very important message: that we’re really not so different as the bullies would like to believe.
We’re not different/ We’re the same/ We’re all under the stars, the chorus of the soulful song goes.
Some verses capture David’s torment at the hands of bullies, and not all is psychological: there’s a reference to “blood on my face”.
“Yeah, I was getting physically bullied too,” David says with an almost apologetic shrug.
“I can remember coming home and running straight upstairs to my room and hiding under the covers so my parents wouldn’t see.”
David was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when he was just four. Asperger’s is considered a form of high-functioning autism. It’s an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but doesn’t impact speech and has no impact on intelligence.
His mother remembers him as a clumsy child who had difficulty with his social skills.
“In primary school, I had a special needs assistant,” he says.
“I didn’t do Irish after about fourth class, so when the class did Irish, I was doing communication and social skills and other stuff I was having trouble with.”
David has frequently encountered problems simply because most people don’t know about his condition and the challenges he faces.
“I don’t think people really understand me at all, because I’m definitely awkward around people, but I think people need to start being aware of what Asperger’s is,” David says.
“The first time I told a friend, a couple of years ago, I had to trust him first to talk to him about it and when I told him he said, ‘what’s Aspergers?’ I had to explain the whole thing to him and tell him about my anxiety, because my anxiety was pretty bad at the time.
“I get worried over small things and upset over small things. I hate change. There has to be a set of plans for my day because I hate uncertainty.”
In secondary in Deerpark CBS, David was in the ASD unit and also had access to an SNA. At third level, he chose to go to CIT, graduating with a Fetac Level 7 in Computer Science.
But David had always been musical, had come from a musical family and took piano and recorder from primary school.
Following his graduation, he decided to follow his dreams and return to education, taking Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa’s Music, Management and Sound course.
Now, he works as a call centre operative and devotes the bulk of the remainder of his time to his music.
“The thing about being high-functioning is that you can be obsessive, but that’s actually great for working on music,” he says with a grin.
The positive responses to Different, which he recorded in summer 2020 with the help of producer Dave Skelton, have come as a huge boost to him.
“The feedback on the video has been incredible,” he says.
“I got a message from a parent whose son has Asperger’s, and he texted saying, ‘you’re an inspiration to me’. I told my mom about it and she started crying. It was very sweet.”
Now, David is inspired to combine his musical aspirations with a new-found drive to serve as ambassador and role model for young people with ASD diagnoses.
Different’s message needs to be heard, not only through song, but through motivational speaking and online advocacy.
“There needs to be an advocate for people like me with Asperger’s, or people who feel different and who don’t have anyone to rely on,” he says.
“I want to be that person.”
Most of all, David himself has learned that the perceived differences in him so hated and feared by his bullies are actually his strengths too, that his own differences are to be celebrated.
“I’m proud now,” he says. “It’s part of who I am, part of my personality.”
Listen to Different at: https://open.spotify.com/artist/5s3FX or here: