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A-levels with Asperger’s syndrome: ‘My time to shine’

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Media captionOvercoming Asperger’s to win a place in medical school

A phobia of sickness and bullying are some of the challenges Zoe Bannister has had to overcome to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

The 18-year-old, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is one of thousands waiting for their A-level results on Thursday.

She has been offered a place to study medicine at Cardiff University.

But there was a “dark” period when Zoe, from Beddau, Rhondda Cynon Taff, was a child, and her mother feared she would never reach adulthood.

Zoe – who already has an A* in IT and now needs the Welsh Baccalaureate and As in A-level Chemistry and PE – said her condition had not been a disadvantage.

“I feel like I’m kind of a little bit better at revision than other people because I’m able to just sit for hours on end and just read and read and read,” said Zoe.

“All of it goes in straight away and I can just recall a lot of information quite quickly.

“Because I enjoy being in a quiet, secluded environment in which I can get all of my work done and then being in the exam, I feel like it’s my time to shine.”

Zoe was diagnosed with Asperger’s – an autism spectrum disorder that can lead to difficulties understanding and relating to other people and taking part in everyday activities – when she was seven.

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Bannister family

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Zoe and her family moved to Cornwall for six years after she was bullied

Her family moved to Cornwall because they were concerned when Zoe, then eight, started to get bullied at school.

Returning to south Wales towards the end of Year 10, Zoe did science GCSEs at Y Pant School near Llantrisant, despite not having covered the course, as well as GCSEs from a different exam board linked to her Cornish school.

She got As and A*s and stunned her teachers.

But there was an even bigger challenge as she began studying for A-levels – some doubted whether her ambition to study medicine at university was realistic.

“Originally, at the start of year 12, I chose biology and chemistry because I wanted to do medicine,” said Zoe.

“But throughout the year there were quite a few people that said to me ‘with Asperger’s you’re never going to become a doctor, you don’t have the social skills’ so I kind of listened to them really and I got rid of the biology.”

There was another big hurdle which first emerged when she was a young child: “I’ve always had a phobia of vomiting and being sick so a lot of people were saying that’s probably the worst phobia to have if you want to work in a hospital.”

It is something she has learned to live with and manage.

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Taking part in a summer school programme helped Zoe pursue her dream of being a doctor

A turning point came when she took part in a Cardiff University summer school at the end of Year 12 as part of the Step Up programme.

“I thought ‘I really do fit in here’,” she said.

“Other than my family, this was probably the first time that people believed in me properly and told me.

“It gave me the confidence to say ‘you know what, I am going to pursue what I wanted to since I was a little girl’,” she said.

That childhood interest came in part from spending time around medical professionals.

“At GP appointments, he’d be typing on the computer and I’d be reading all the notes he was writing about me and I’d end up just kind of correcting his grammar at five or six.”

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Zoe Bannister’s parents are delighted with her progress and development

Zoe is drawn to the “meticulous thought processes” and mentality of being a doctor.

“I’m so particular about everything – I won’t leave something until it’s completed almost to perfection which is what surgeons strive for,” she said.

“So I feel like the way that I am and the way that I follow things I feel like is exactly what doctors do.”

Reciting whole TV adverts at two years old and memorising everyone’s lines in nativity plays were some of the early signs picked up by Zoe’s parents.

It was when she stopped eating and drinking properly that she was diagnosed and got referred for mental health support.

But the voices in her head were getting worse, telling her not to eat and worse.

“Zoe turned quite dark for a while,” her mother Vicky said.

“I remember one day it all came to a head. Martyn was in work and I rang him. I had one hand on her and she was trying to throw herself out of the bedroom window.”

The move to Cornwall was a big decision but over the next six years she improved and her parents began to think she could have a fulfilling life and even pursue medicine.

“I knew she was quite a clever girl and I knew she had a photographic memory and she always did well in exams,” said Vicky.

“But because of the difficulties we had moving back up here she’d walked in blind to some of her GCSEs and we were absolutely gobsmacked when she walked out the door with As having never seen the syllabus.”

And there was progress socially too: “We started to see these little glimpses of another person within Zoe that has got that ability, I think, to engage with people, to help them in some way.

“Deep down inside, she’s really caring, really caring about people – she wants to help.”

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Zoe with her parents Vicky and Martyn

“Seeing how she’s developed over the years and I suppose the stigma attached to having a condition, I thought that Zoe would just about get through schooling and I thought that would be a struggle,” her father Martyn said.

“I thought there’d be a lot of absences, there’d be a lot of times when she just wouldn’t want to face people or go into school. To see her overcome her demons is fantastic.”

Vicky added: “I did think at one point Zoe would never reach the age of 18”.

“I thought she would have a life of severe mental health issues and that she would probably take her own life – and I know that’s a terrible thing to say but I did think I wasn’t going to see her grow up.

“It’s great to see her developing into a lovely young adult, it really is.”

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Zoe Bannister has been praised by teachers for her “tenacity and resilience”

Now Zoe is waiting for results in the Welsh Baccalaureate and A-levels in Chemistry and PE, which she took in a year in order to boost her qualifications to be able to study medicine.

Alongside a vocational IT qualification it is an unconventional mix of subjects which has not stopped her being offered a place at Cardiff University’s medical school, with a preliminary year to get up to speed with biology.

Lucy Bunce, her IT teacher at Y Pant in Llantrisant, said: “Very few students have gone through what Zoe’s gone through in order to succeed by this age.

“Medicine is going to be tough for her but I’ve got no doubt that she’s got the tenacity and the resilience within her to make a huge success of it.”

For Zoe, the summer has given her a chance to relax – although she admits results day will be nerve-racking.

“Everything’s done and dusted – I can’t change anything that’s happened so it’s not really worth stressing about that much. I am nervous for results day obviously, but it’s an exciting time now.”

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