Ollie was mock and ridiculed and had a low self-esteem until he joined the dance group Street Factory. Ollie’s message is never give up.
By Helen Wallace-Iles
My latest ‘spotlight’ post focuses on fourteen-year old Ollie Venning, better known as hip hop dancer Ollie V. The struggles he’s faced will be very familiar to autistic people, their families and friends, but with patience, dedication and a lot of bravery on his part, he’s transformed himself into a real force for good, using his talent for street dancing to spread a message of hope, acceptance and determination against the odds.
How it all began…
Ollie is the only member of his family who’s on the spectrum. He lives in Devon, UK with his five year old brother Alfie and two year old sister Izzy.
Ollie’s mum Emma described how he started showing a strong interest in street dance at around the age of four, when he began watching videos of Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity performing their incredible routines, and doing his very best to copy their moves.
She went on to explain that he was diagnosed with autism at the age of five, and later with ADHD when he was twelve.
Ollie was always a happy, optimistic and fun-loving boy who enjoyed lots of different activities, but after transferring to secondary school, things sadly began to change.
The power of words…
Like so many young people on the spectrum, Ollie didn’t get the support he needed at upper school, and was dreadfully bullied because he didn’t fit in.
Day after day he would be laughed at and called a failure and a freak, and eventually he started to refer to himself in the same way, which was heart-breaking for his family to hear. He was desperate to make friends – to be accepted and understood just as he was – but instead he was mocked and ridiculed, and would come home from school covered in awful negative comments he’d written on his body that described how much he hated life and just wanted to make it stop.
Emma was devastated as she watched him withdraw further and further inside himself, to the point where he stopped his out-of-school activities and even refused to interact with his family, choosing instead to spend time alone in his bedroom.
Naturally his family were desperately worried, but try as they might, they couldn’t find anything to bring back Ollie’s enthusiasm for life. They started to feel more and more helpless and feared they were losing him as they watched the bullying continue to drain what was left of his shattered confidence. Everything seemed hopeless, but fortunately Ollie still had his passion for dance, and after meeting a remarkable couple called Jo and Toby Gorniak he started to take it more seriously, and slowly things began to improve.
The power of dance…
Toby Gorniak (known as Toby G) and his wife Jo run an organisation called Street Factory in Plymouth which works with children and young people whose self-image, for a whole variety of different reasons, is very low.
Their mission is to help individuals look past the labels society has put on them and ‘find their genius’, which naturally intrigued me and made me want to know more. I’ve done a lot of research into their work, and what really impressed me is that not only do they run their dance company by the five principals of ‘respect, peace, love, unity and having fun’ but they also live their lives in exactly the same way.
As a result, Street Factory provides a safe, non-judgemental environment where young people are accepted and nurtured, allowing them to work on the most important thing of all: self-acceptance.
Something I found particularly inspiring is the way everyone who attends Street Factory is encouraged to take what they’ve learned from the group and give it back to their community. Whatever they choose to do with their lives, the skills they’ve learned – patience, friendship, support, empathy and so on – can be carried forward to help make their lives, and the lives of those around them, just that little bit better. It’s no surprise to me that Toby (seen here dancing with Ollie) was awarded an MBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for his incredible work with young people.
So, it’s no exaggeration to say that when Ollie met Toby it completely transformed his life. Toby was extremely patient and understanding of Ollie’s needs, and slowly gained his trust using one-to-one sessions until he felt strong enough to move forward and dance as part of the group. He’s now a fully-fledged crew member and his confidence continues to grow every day.
The power of hope…
The support and acceptance Ollie has found at Street Factory has given him hope for the future and allowed him to achieve some quite remarkable things. He’s grown from a boy who was afraid to dance in front of anyone for fear of being laughed at, to someone who dances in small groups and even solos, and actually enjoys the buzz he gets from having an audience.
Like many autistic people, Ollie struggled to control his anger and would have outbursts when things got too much, but since he started dancing he’s learned to channel those feelings into something more positive and has created some intensely moving performances like this one, called ‘Me, Myself & I’,
highlighting his journey from being a victim of bullying to a confident, resilient young man who can write his own story.
His mum describes this as a major turning point for Ollie, when he took things to a whole new level and performed it for the Arts Council England.
Both Ollie and Toby were recently honoured at the Autism Hero Awards 2018, where they met Anna Kennedy and Antony Costa from Blue. Toby won the Business Award and Ollie was given an Outstanding Achievement Award in the Creative Arts and Media category. As you can see from their smiles, they were delighted.
Ollie has recently taken part in a twelve week programme called Hip Hop Hope with Street Factory, which aims to work with whatever difficulties both able bodied and disabled people are facing and empower them to live their best possible lives. You can see a short video about it here: HIP HOP HOPE
The power of Ollie V…
Now that Ollie’s discovered a sense of his own power, he has an important message to share with other people who might be struggling in the same way he did.
He wants to help inspire people to believe in themselves, and to understand that they have the ability to make things happen and to achieve their dreams, regardless of whether society sees them as disabled or not. His advice is to never give up, and to know that it’s okay to have bad days as long as you pick yourself up and carry on, because with dedication and perseverance your own unique talent will eventually shine through.
I’m certainly inspired by his story, as I’m sure you are too, and I’ve saved the last word for someone else whose love and hard work has allowed Ollie to become the amazing person he is today: Emma.
She says it all when she states, quite simply, “Ollie is my hero and I’m so proud to be his mum.”
Find out more…
Helen Wallace-Iles has lived with autism all her life and is now the very proud mother of four remarkable children on the spectrum. She is a fully qualified hypnotherapist and psychotherapist who has supported hundreds of families through the difficulties of living with this complex and intriguing condition.
Helen now works full time running the charity she founded in 2010, Autism All Stars Foundation UK, where she promotes a positive, proactive approach to life and particularly to living with autism, something which shines through in her hugely popular book ‘The Ringmaster’s Tale: Autism, Asperger’s, Anarchy!’ – available here: www.tinyurl.com/TheRingmaster
You can catch up with Helen’s thoughts on ‘Autism, the Universe and Everything’ on her blog here: www.autism-all-stars.org/ringmaster