Sophia Grech had no idea why she felt like the odd one out until she was diagnosed with autism late in life.

She tells Joanna Davis why discovering she was autistic has made a positive difference and how she hopes to inspire others When she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at the age of 45 life suddenly made sense for Sophia Grech.

The internationally-renowned opera singer, who lives in Weymouth, spent her school days in Portsmouth struggling with reading and writing.

But her passion for music and a natural ability to sing saw her go on to study at the Royal College for Music and perform for the President of Malta. However, Sophia still found social situations and travel difficult and had no idea why until she was diagnosed with autism three years ago.

Mezzo-soprano Sophia is speaking out, to show that autistic people can still achieve their dreams. She is calling for more understanding and greater support for people who live with autism.

Sophia said: “It’s so important for a child to know why they are who they are, why they feel the way they do, why they think the way they do, why they struggle more with certain things in life and more importantly that someone understands and loves them for all of those things. I was lucky that my family always supported me and showed me so much love.

“I wasn’t so lucky at school and struggled so much. I only started getting answers to my questions after my diagnosis. It has made such a positive difference to me.”

Life was confusing and Sophia was desperately unhappy at school. She was kind and caring but couldn’t seem to make friends. She was fiercely intelligent but struggled to read and write. She had problems that she had no explanation for and was viciously bullied. She recalls that on one occasion her former head teacher said to her; “I’m sorry but I can’t expel everyone that bullies you, perhaps you should move to a smaller school.”

Such lack of empathy and understanding is something that Sophia is now determined to help change.

When Sophia was 13 her family moved to Weymouth and joined a new school where she was told she was four years behind her classmates.

She said: “I begged them to let me take my O-level scripture early like my classmates. They said I’d fail but I thought that if I could learn the whole Bible from memory, how could I fail? So that’s what I did – down to every full stop and got an A grade in the exam. My time at that school was the only time in my childhood I was happy, because the school only had about 25 girls in a year. The other girls were very kind to me but I didn’t really enjoy having friends and I didn’t socialise outside of school.”

Sophia started singing in her bedroom aged seven, she recalls. “I was told at school I had no natural talent for music! But music was always my passion and I started singing lessons at 14 years old. I taught myself to read music at 15 and was eventually accepted at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London.”

It was a chance conversation with a woman whose son had been diagnosed with autism that was the turning point for Sophia. Coming to terms with her own late diagnosis in 2015, she decided that she did not want to hide it but instead use her voice to speak out about the condition.

“I just wanted to cry,” says Sophia. “This mother said that meeting me had given her hope that her son could have a successful life. A lot of people I speak to struggle to believe what I was like as a young person. I could barely read and write. I couldn’t tell the time until I was 12. Since then I have graduated from the Royal College of Music, the top music college in the country, and I now perform regularly at concerts across the world.”

Sophia said she is sharing her story because she wants to inspire young people.

She adds: “Growing up I received so little support. It was my own determination to succeed at life, some way, some how, that helped me get the successful career I have today. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today without autism. Autism in itself is not a negative, it is people’s lack of understanding and a lack of support that makes its impact so potentially damaging. My message to anyone with autism is that if I can achieve my dreams, so can you. Anything is possible.”

Sophia is an ambassador for Christchurch-based autism support charity, Autism Wessex. For more information about the charity visit autismwessex. and follow @autismwessex on Facebook and Twitter.