Tom Stoltman is the current worlds strongest man after winning the competition in May 2022. He is also the:
2021 Worlds Strongest man
World record holder for the heaviest Atlas stone ever lifted (286kg!),
A two-time back-to-back winner of Britain’s strongest man,
A two-time winner of Scotland’s strongest man along with many other incredible podiums such as 3rd in worlds ultimate strongman and 2nd in the 2021 giants live finals.
Tom was diagnosed with autism when he was 8 years old and has spoken about his own struggles inside and outside of school. He has mentioned being bullied and worrying about what people would think if they found out he was autistic.
Tom’s Autism – in his own words.
However, he mentions that after telling his friends and others about his autism he felt a tremendous amount of relief after being accepted and supported by them. His friends made sure that he knew they accepted him for who he was and that it didn’t change a thing about their friendship which is truly phenomenal.
Luke Stoltman (Tom’s brother) has also talked about Tom’s experiences and growing up with him when he was younger. Referencing times that Tom would really struggle, he says,
Tom has said that he found it difficult when something didn’t go as planned, as he would become fearful and potentially breakdown. This also wasn’t helped when others would say that it didn’t matter, as this just made him feel very different to his friends and others.
Tom saw a great change in his life when he was first invited to go the gym by his older brother Luke as this was the start of an incredible ongoing career in the internationally competitive arena of ‘strongman’ for both. Tom found comfort in pushing himself in the gym as he mentioned he didn’t get along with the more traditional side of school such as maths and English, but he truly thrived when it came to Physical education and many other sports.
What he has done for the awareness of autism–
Tom Stoltman has gone on many podcasts, interviews and has personally made videos on him and his brothers YouTube channel. Some of these are linked below. He has been quoted saying phenomenal things such as:
“Autism is my secret weapon” and that it should be
“Used as a superpower”, he has also talked about how that just because he is labelled that it doesn’t make him different. He strives to be an example to other autistic children and show them that they too will achieve incredible things.
This personal account was written by a young person and they have shared it with the User Voice and Participation Team. This young person wishes to remain anonymous.
“Mainstream education was difficult for me because of the bullying I received from other students. Before other students found out my mum had a disability I was like any other person in the school, I had lots of friends in and out of school, but this all changed overnight. There was a boy in my class who was known for bullying students, I really don’t know how he found out about my mum’s disability but he started to walk past me and pretend he was on crutches, other people then started to do the same.
I would go into school, have form time and then walk to lesson, every time there would be a group of young people pretending to walk on crutches and laughing to each other. This then progressed to them finding out my father had died, they then started to make fun of this. I tried to deal with it by taking it as a joke, hoping they would stop, but I could not take anymore by Christmas. I spoke to my head of house about it and I felt it was not taken seriously. This response had a detrimental effect on my mental health, and I started to make up excuses not to go to school, the school would send work home for me to complete, which I was doing (Year 8).
At the beginning of Year 9 my mum and myself were asked to go to a meeting at school, we were told the main instigator of the bullying had moved to the other side of the year and the rest of his group had been expelled. I agreed to go back to school however because of my trauma, I now found it hard to be around lots of people, so I was put in isolation. This was the worst thing that could have happened because the bully then ended up in the same classroom as me.
My anxiety then went through the roof and I then refused to return to school. I felt the school were not very understanding of my issues and threatened to arrest my mum for letting me stay home.
The school did not send any work back home to me as I was not de-rolled and my mum was still being threatened. This added a lot of anxiety to what I was already feeling, in Year 9 I still managed to get out over the weekend, but this stopped quickly by Christmas as I was beaten up by the bully and his group of friends in town.
I then stopped going out for a year and a half. I was struggling with my mental health and I was referred to CAMHS.
At the beginning of Year 11 the school contacted my mum and suggested that I went to Access to Education (A2E), I was anxious about this as I had not seen anyone for a number of months.
A2E came over to my house to meet me, I was nervous, but they started a conversation about football and that put me at ease. They explained I would only be with one other person and this gave me the courage to give it a go. They eased me by letting me do the first week’s lessons online. The following week I was picked up by one of the workers and taken to the centre, she kept me calm by talking about football.
A2E supported me in that when I was having a bad day, I could do my lessons online at home and this helped a lot. A2E was more informal than school, I was allowed to call the teachers by their first name which made a difference. They mixed the day up with lessons and then we had a fun activity. There was no PE which I feel could have benefitted me but in general I felt safe and was able to learn without feeling anxious.
A positive experience was when I attended A2E another young person from my school came to the centre and he had the same experience with the same people. We supported one another through our time there and it confirmed my experience at school was unmanageable, it also began to help with my recovery.
If I could add anything to A2E I would want to include physical activities where possible. What made A2E the ideal alternative provision was the attitude of the workers involved. Their approach made A2E the best provision for me at the time, I cannot think of anything else other than to include PE, that could have made my experience better. Overall, I think there should be more alternative learning provisions like A2E for young people as there are a lot of young people struggling with mainstream education.”
Please note that this post has since been edited to update the blog the group’s new name: ATLAS (previously SYAS).
Recently I have been facilitating some of the virtual group meetings with the ATLAS members. As this week is anti-bullying week, the young people have been sharing their experiences with stigma and bullying as well as discussing ableist language and how they self-describe.
Overall, it is felt and experienced that stigma and bullying are still prevalent. ATLAS are telling us that we all need to be doing more to increase the visibility of additional needs and disabilities, as well as mental health (find out more on comorbid mental health with additional needs and disabilities), throughout society.
One of the repeating themes of discussion has been the importance of language in their experience as young people with additional needs and disabilities; how the language used to define and describe them has a direct impact on their lives.
What is stigma?
In this context, stigma is used to refer to the negative stereotypes and associations that society or individuals hold against a group of people. This results in prejudice and discrimination against the stigmatised group at social and/or structural levels.
In some cases, individuals from the stigmatised group can internalise this stigma, which affects how they view themselves and the expectations they have of themselves. This is known as self-stigma. An example of this which I have heard frequently and struggled with myself can be seen with dyslexia.
Due to the stigma around dyslexia, unfortunately you often hear people with dyslexia calling themselves words like stupid, or setting low expectations for themselves. They may be used to similar treatment from the people around them since diagnosis or had heard of the stigma before realising they were dyslexic themselves. Our member Ryan touches on this in his blog on dyslexia.
Stigma can lead to people being stereotyped, isolated and discriminated against. Ultimately this can have a variety of impacts on the targeted individuals, including avoiding diagnosis or treatment, and becoming the target of bullying.
There are many different types of bullying and many reasons why someone may be bullied. When it comes to young people being bullied for their additional needs and disabilities, ATLAS felt like this was predominantly because of two factors: being different and the stigma surrounding their additional needs and disabilities.
Stigma-based bullying is especially complex because it not only requires localised anti-bullying action but also a society-level approach to reduce stereotypes and prejudice on a larger scale.
An important part of tackling bullying aimed at people with additional needs and disabilities will be to address the widespread ableism and lack of disability awareness in our society.
Our role in ableism
An ableist society is defined by its assumption that people without additional needs or disabilities are the norm. The way that society, physical structures and policies are designed is inherently exclusionary and inaccessible. This results in the limitation and undervaluing of people with additional needs and/or disabilities.
The way ableism presents is complex and can impact people on a variety of fronts. This ranges from the texture of a pavement surface or the lack of braille on building signs, all the way up to public attitudes and the very language used to define us.
People who do not experience and/or are not knowledgeable about additional needs and disabilities may find it hard to see how others can be disadvantaged by design or realise the existence or extent of stigma.
I would like to recommend that if you are ever in doubt about the language you are or will be using, please ask the people described or impacted by that language.
The way in which words are used to describe people shows how society sees them and acts as a perceived measure of both their worth and overall contribution to that society. How we define ourselves reveals our internal existence and true lived experience.
When public speaker and anti-bullying activist Lizzie Velasquez was 17 years old, she discovered that she had been titled “The World’s Ugliest Women” due to her disability: a rare congenital disease called Marfanoid–progeroid–lipodystrophy syndrome that prevents her from developing body fat.
In this powerful TED Talk she talks about the importance of self-description for everyone and asks: “what defines you?” (closed captions are available for this video).
The User Voice and Participation (UVP) Team believe that the voice of the service user should inform our practice. Our aim is not only to make sure that the voices of young people are heard but also to facilitate participation groups that embody the meaning of participation, as defined by the young people that we work alongside.
This process is ongoing and always will be. Through this process we hope to help young people grow as individuals. We should not just take feedback from young people, but also give back in ways defined by the young people themselves. Examples of this include helping them develop confidence, providing Makaton training or interview skills advice.
Previously, ATLAS was called SYAS (SEND Youth Advisors Surrey). Members worked to rename and rebrand the participation group so that it aligns more closely with how they self-describe.
As a group, not only will ATLAS be redefining itself, but the young people will also be creating a report of preferred terminology, due in the summer.
Due to recognition of the fact that people identify with different words in different ways, ATLAS have decided to use a traffic light system to indicate whether words should never be used (red), that some people may be okay with some words (amber) and words that are more widely accepted (green).
Watch this space for more news about ATLAS and how their participation will be changing to be more accessible! In the meantime I will leave you with one last thought from our young people about the language around additional needs and disabilities:
In a recent Instagram poll on @OurVoiceSurrey 76% of young people had been affected by online bullying. 69% of young people who answered our Instagram poll on @OurVoiceSurrey knew how to report online bullying, but if you are unsure how to, read more to find out how! Stay safe!
Cyber-bullying is fast becoming one of the biggest issues for young people. In a recent online Instagram poll on @OurVoiceSurrey, young people told us that 76% had been affected by a type of online bullying, with the majority being victims of bullying on group chats or on social media platforms. Read more to find out inclusive experiences from young people and much more!
Bullying has a huge effect on young people’s mental health which can result in school refusal, high anxiety, depression, low mood and can also have a detrimental impact on young people’s education. Check out what CYA would like Surrey and schools to do to stop bullying! Remember be kind always!