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'I want people to know it's OK to be different' says BBC documentary star

Photo: Tom Pilston

Mensa member Oli Benjamin tells Ann Clarkson how a search for his biological father sent him on a journey to America - and into a debate about "being different"

Oli Benjamin isn’t a “normal” 21-year-old. He’s a member of Mensa, for a start, which automatically places him in the neurodiverse category. He has a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome – and his godfather is Stephen Fry.

And then there are the 25 siblings.

Oli was thrust into the spotlight this autumn when he was the subject of a BBC documentary 25 Siblings and Me, which charted his journey to America to meet the siblings who were conceived using the same donor from a Californian sperm bank.

As well as the drama of meeting so many relatives that until then he didn’t know he had, the documentary sparked a wider conversation about neurodiversity and “being different”.

Oli always knew that his lesbian parents had conceived him using a donor. Doctors in the UK would not allow the transfer of the egg from one mother to the other, so they travelled to America for the procedure.

Oli was brought up as an only child in London – he now lives in rural Oxfordshire - but was curious about his American donor biological father.

He said: “I was curious as to whether being biologically related to someone gave you a connection you wouldn’t have with other strangers, but I would say genetics is so complicated!

“Some “normal” siblings who have a lifetime to put up with each other still don’t get along. Just because you are genetically connected doesn’t mean you will all get on either.

“I contacted the sperm bank in California as the easiest way to find relatives is to be on the siblings register. From that, one of my sisters, Jordan, reached out to me and I found out who my donor was and that I had these 20-plus siblings – which was a shock.”

Oli discovered that the subject of autism and being different tends to be approached differently in America than in Europe, where autism can be seen more negatively. 

While Oli has had plenty of negative experiences over the years, he appreciates that his neurodiversity also has advantages from which he has benefited and doesn’t see it as an affliction to be cured or hidden.

He said: “I hope the documentary will start a conversation about the general topic of difference. It’s something that should have been discussed for decades, and we’re still not doing it.

“I just have to face the fact that to some people being different is something that’s undesirable – but there are some people that like me because of my being on the spectrum, not in spite of it.

“There are various career avenues I have gone down where I have been successful because I am on the spectrum.

“It’s important to tell the other perspective of neurodiversity because at the moment only one side is being told.”

He hopes the documentary will help shine a light on neurodiversity in all its forms, and help people to realise that their differences are not something to hide away.

The documentary came about at the suggestion of godfather Fry, who also helped to publicise it to his huge social media following. When Oli and his siblings expressed an interest in a documentary, Fry suggested they talk to the BBC, who then commissioned the film.

Oli said: “I am glad that I went on the journey, because it’s resulted in a few close relationships which I am very grateful for.”

Of his famous godfather, Oli said: “When I was young I was very confused because I used to see pictures of him everywhere. I told my mum that there was a man who was pictured everywhere who looked just like my godfather Stephen and she told me it was him – I didn’t believe her!”

Fry is also proud of what Oli has achieved. He said: “I’m as proud of Oli as if he had been the son of my own loins. That he is pin sharp intelligent and insightful and endowed with adventurous intellectual curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it is really the fact that he has borne so well the difficulties that his status on the Asperger’s spectrum have presented him with throughout his life.

“Sometimes he must feel like a traveller in an alien world. The attitudes, approaches and assumptions of us, the neurotypical, are not so obvious and natural as we often think. He navigates what must be an often bewildering social landscape without tantrums or self-pity.

“He has a strong moral sense, something which it is often lazily assumed those on the spectrum don’t really possess. He is tenacious as hell with his beliefs and a hard man to argue against or dissuade from his point of view. It’s wholly admirable and often, of course, damnably maddening too, which well he knows!

“Oli is a prince. Brave, loyal, steadfast and true. I couldn’t have been more proud of how he threw himself into the BBC project. It was exceptionally hard for him at times, lots of wires were crossed in communication with his new-found family. But he came out of it, I think, a wiser soul.

“Just wish he knew the meaning of the word ‘punctuality’. . . !”

Oli joined Mensa just over a year ago, and was delighted to find a community where his differences were accepted, not judged.

He said: “I think I joined because I was always made to feel inadequate and told that I would never be successful, and that there was something about me that was broken or damaged.

“I knew from what doctors had told me that I wasn’t broken or damaged – I was just different. I want other people to know that’s OK.”

Some of Oli’s experiences in schools will be familiar to many other bright people who found the one-size-fits-all model couldn’t accommodate them properly.

He said: “I went to about 10 schools. One example of the problems I had: a friend or another student would tell me to do something, and I would do it. The teacher pulled me aside and asked why I did whatever it was, and I would say “Because they told me to.”

“She asked if, had someone told me to jump off a cliff, I would do it, which of course I wouldn’t. So I got the message that I should challenge what people told me.

“But when the teacher then told me to do something I thought was problematic, I would ask why – and she would say “Because I told you so.”

“Her argument was that I should do what adults told me. So I said “If a man was trying to get me into a van with candy, I should go?” She said of course not. So, which adults should I listen to – teachers, policemen? Which categories of adult were OK – I needed her to be specific!

“She couldn’t accept she was wrong so I was sent to the head teacher’s office.”

He added: “The education system is designed for the industrial revolution and is intolerant of challenge, and is not designed for independent thought.

“You can see the bias when someone struggles socially, but has massive talents in other areas. The tendency is to amplify the struggles and diminish the talents.”

Oli, who has just started an executive role in a production company, has also turned his hand to organising an event for fellow Mensans, with a successful meet-up at the Science Museum Late  in London.

He said: “It went really well, people really enjoyed it, and there were lots of people there who were at a Mensa event for the first time, which was great.”

He is planning more events in the future – Covid allowing!

This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Mensa Magazine