A WOMAN with Asperger's has launched her own business in defiance of critics who told her she would never hold down a job.

After eight years of unemployment Jessica Muckelt, of Dalton-in-Furness, is completely financially independent after starting a firm selling detailed drawings online.

The 27-year-old is an animal lover and has sold more than 1,000 of her pet portraits and prints, since Animal Sketches was set up last December.

She said coming off state benefits had marked the end of a very difficult period of her life.

The artist suffered bullying at school because of her social awkwardness, later attributed to Asperger’s Syndrome.

However, it was not until she had a breakdown at university that the quiet student was diagnosed with Asperger’s – a condition characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction, as well as restrictive and repetitive patterns of behaviour.

Her situation worsened and she suffered from anorexia, episodes of self harming and attempts to take her own life.

A psychiatrist said she would never be able to hold down a full-time job and it was unlikely she would be able to cope with even part-time employment.

She said: “I couldn’t look after myself, I was really depressed.”

It was only after she got her first dog Shadow, a retriever-spaniel cross, that her condition became manageable.

“Initially I couldn’t face going out and I wouldn’t talk to anyone,” Miss Muckelt said. “I gradually started to take Shadow for walks.

“He would stop at every person we met and I gradually got more used to talking to people again.”

Buoyed up by her newfound companion Miss Muckelt passed two degrees, in humanities and psychology, through the Open University.

She said that her business-breakthrough came after family friends saw her portraits of the pets that had helped her recover.

With advice from the Job Centre, InBiz, and Furness Enterprise, and a £1,500 start-up grant, she set up a website and began completing commissions for other animal lovers.

Miss Muckelt said: “I had lots of positive feedback from pet owners who said I’d captured the look of their pets perfectly.

“My business has let me get a great work and life balance doing something I love – not many people can say that.”

InBiz adviser Kath Dalton said: “Jessica is an inspirational individual. She was determined to be more than just a statistic.”

For more details, visit www.animal-sketches.co.uk