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Kinross friends Ben and Shelagh prove family is what you make it

Ben Canham, 26, has built a new life in Kinross with support from big-hearted ex-social worker Shelagh Low, 70.

Ben Canham and Shelagh Low. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson
Ben Canham and Shelagh Low. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

When Ben Canham and Shelagh Low bonded over their shared love of Gogglebox on Twitter in 2018, neither of them had any idea how the conversation would change the course of their lives.

It was the beginning of a unique friendship which has since seen Ben move to Kinross from his hometown Melton in Leicestershire to be closer to his ex-social worker friend.

When the pair first connected online, Ben, who has autism and learning difficulties, was living alone after losing both of his parents as a teenager.

Heartbreakingly, his dad died from lung cancer when he was only 16, and his mum passed away from heart failure three years later.

The isolated 26-year-old was also suffering from PTSD following attacks by local bullies, who threw stones at him and threatened him with a knife.

Pair developed online friendship through love of Gogglebox

Shelagh was also going through a difficult time after losing her mum to dementia.

The 70-year-old reached out to Ben after Gogglebox star June Bernicoff – who passed away aged 82 in 2020 – reposted some of his tweets.

They connected over their grief, as well as their shared love for the television series, and subsequently kept in touch.

Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Speaking to me in the Green Hotel in Kinross, Ben says: “I found it really difficult living on my own after I lost my parents. It led me into a bit of depression.

“At the beginning of 2019 I was bullied and attacked. I think it was because of my autism, people probably saw me as being different so I was targeted.

“On one occasion, the leading member of the group threw stones at me. Another time, I was threatened with a knife.”

Lonely and isolated during Covid

He recalled: “It had a big impact on me doing things on my own and going out on my own.

“I was afraid to go out in case I got attacked. It had a big knock on effect on my confidence.

“It was difficult during the pandemic as well. There were a few occasions where I was struggling to get food due to being nervous about going out and catching something and obviously being attacked.

“That is when I turned to social media to start sharing my experiences, sharing what was going on.

“I kind of used it as a lifeline. It was something that helped me to keep pushing through what I was going through at the time.”

Ben with his mum. Image: Ben Canham

Ben, a full-time autism activist, has a large social media following, with more than 42,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter.

It was around this time that Shelagh grew concerned for Ben’s wellbeing, and the pair started talking on the phone every day.

Shelagh says: “The pandemic hit and I knew that Ben was in quite a bad place anyway.

“I used to phone him in the morning and we would talk to each other and watch stuff on Netflix, simultaneously, then talk about it afterwards. It gave us something to do.”

After months of daily phone calls, and an unsuccessful attempt to get Ben help from social services, Shelagh suggested he could escape loneliness by moving in with her.

She made the 700-mile roundtrip to collect Ben and bring him back.

‘It was a fresh start’

He said: “It was exciting to get to meet in person for the first time. I was coming away from a situation that was so negative. It was fresh start”.

Ben ended up staying with Shelagh for a year – before getting the keys to his own property just minutes away.

Why did he decide to stay?

“I felt a lot better in Kinross, it was nice to feel I have a new life,” he explains.

“I didn’t want to go back to Melton, where I had lots of bad memories.

“I’ve made a lot of friends here, I love the community spirit. People are always asking how I am, how I’m getting on.

“I know I have made the right choice. It has been a life-changer”.

Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Although the pair no longer live together, they still like to hang out whenever they can.

One of their hobbies – as well as going for long drives and sightseeing – is watching wrestling on the TV. They even attended the first major stadium event from WWE in 30 years, Clash at The Castle, in Cardiff last year.

Shelagh who left her career in social work in 2018, admits that this is not how she envisioned her retirement.

She says: “Life has turned out very different to what I expected.

“When I retired, wrestling was the farthest thing from my mind. But Ben has an interest in wrestling, and I actually quite like the acting in it.

Ben interjects: “I think that is a superpower of people like myself, they have a particular interest and they can get into really deep conversations about it.”

Shelagh agrees. “People who are autistic generally have a certain passion.

“Recently, I listened to comedian Janey Godley on Radio 4 and she was talking about her husband who is also autistic and how he likes Roman history.

“I was thinking, ‘Thank god it’s wrestling and not that!'”

Ben and Shelagh with wrestler Cody Rhodes at a WWE event in Newcastle. Image: Ben Canham

They also love travelling together, often staying in Airbnbs around Scotland or visiting Ben’s friends in Melton.

Last year, Ben even overcame his fear of flying when they flew to the US.

Ben said: “That was my first time on a plane. And that was a big achievement, because of my anxiety.

“I prepared myself for that by going plane spotting with my support workers at Edinburgh Airport and also watching Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport, on TV.

“That meant I knew what to expect and it has helped me to overcome it.”

He will get to put his new skills to the test once again next year, when the pair visit a friends in Maryland and Tennessee.

Orphaned man who has autism in America after overcoming fear of flying.
Last year Ben overcame his fear of flying. Image: Ben Canham

As the old saying goes, blood is thicker than water. But this pair are proving that isn’t always true.

Shelagh, who doesn’t have any children of her own, says: “Ben says he looks at me like his mum. And I look at Ben like a son.

“But I pay tribute to Ben’s mum. He was diagnosed when he was five, and at that time people didn’t know as much about autism as they do now.

“His mum fought hard for him to attend mainstream school and her ambition was for him was to live an independent life.

“I know that if she was here today she would be very proud of the young man he has become.”

‘I want people to know there is light at the end of the tunnel’

Ben, who is receiving support from a psychologist as well as charity Autism Initiatives, wants others to know that help it out there.

He is now writing a book about his journey and hopes his story will inspire others.

He says: “I want people who are struggling to see that there are good services out there. It definitely helps me, considering where I was before.

“I want people to know there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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