The lack of ASD inclusive characters in books is notable. Children’s books very rarely address our existence and neither do adult fictions.
I love reading and often devour books. I am always on the lookout for stories where I am represented. The first book I read with an Autistic character as the lead was The State of Grace by Rachel Lucas – I found it emotional being able to read about a character I could relate to, out of the hundreds of books I have read this was the first time I felt understood and noticed. Another book was Odd Girl Out by Laura James; this is a non-fiction account on Laura’s life with a diagnosis of ASD. I found this book very useful to pass onto my family and friends so that they could further understand how I was different to them and some of the struggles I face. It helped to give me a voice.
Recently I have read A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll. It was like I was reading about my own life. Almost every part of this book I could relate to and the deeper message of the story really struck a cord.
The very first chapter focuses on, the Autistic main character, know as Adeline, being told off by her teacher for her handwriting. Straight away I was taken back to Primary school where teachers were constantly telling me my handwriting was, ‘lazy’. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t make it any neater. My school had a system where once your handwriting was, ‘adequate’ you stopped writing with a pencil and began using a pen. I was the only child in my class to never progress to using a pen by the time we left Primary school to attend Secondary school. I never thought of this being a product of my Autism before I read this book.
A Kind of Spark book makes a point of addressing Autism as something you are, not something you have. This is important to me. I like to refer to myself as, ‘I am Autistic’ instead of the alternative, ‘I have Autism’. It is how I was born and what makes me who I am, it is not something I developed or ‘caught’. I appreciate Elle McNicoll including this as part of the story.
A few chapters into the book when Adeline’s sisters Nina and Keedie are arguing, Nina says the following to Keedie:
“She’s functioning… she has it mild, Keedie. Like you.”
Keedie, who is also Autistic, responds with the following:
“It’s mild to you! …Nina, it’s not mild to me. It’s not mild to Addie! It’s mild to you because we make it so, at great personal cost!”
Through Keedie’s response, Elle McNicoll was able to verbalise that which I have never found the words to say. I find it hard to describe what makes me Autistic to others. Especially when they respond along the lines of, ‘but, you only have it a little bit’ or, ‘John Smith is more Autistic than you’. This isn’t how Autism works. I am guilty of making my Autistic traits, ‘mild’ for others. I mask and I hide them until eventually I burnout. At school I was constantly exhausted and this was because all my energy was being directed into masking my Autism, trying to act a certain way so that those around me weren’t made to feel uncomfortable. It didn’t matter that I was exahusting myself, I’d rather that than come across different. I now realise this is a fault within society and not a fault within me. If society were more accomodating and accepting of those who are different then I wouldn’t feel the need to constantly mask my Autism.
This leads me onto the deeper message of this book. The story revolves around Addie’s new special interest in the witch trials which took place in her home town of Juniper, Scotland. Adeline campaigns for a memorial to be comissioned in the town to commemorate the lives lost in the trials. The town council says no, preferring to sweep the town’s ugly past under the rug than admit to their errors. As the story progresses you realise why Addie is so taken by the need for a memorial.
The women accused of being witches were murdered because they were different. Adeline believes, and rightly so, that if she were alive 400 years ago she too would have been trialed for being different. We learn that one of her sisters Autistic friends had recently been sectioned when she turned 18 and was sent to an adult facility due to her meltdowns. Adeline is terrified that this will happen to her too. That society will be unable to cope with her differences once she is no longer classed as a child and so she will be taken and hid away. The story shows that not much has changed since 400 years ago. The sad truth remains that if you are different rather than try and understand you more often that not, people would rather not have you in their life, it’s easier for them if you disappeared.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, the norms are being challenged every day and there are so many people who are very caring and eager to learn how to help those that are different. But, it doesn’t take away from the fact that there are still those who would rather remain ignorant. I am 24 years of age now and I still feel the need to mask my Autism most days through fear of not being accepted and I know from converstaion that many on the spectrum feel the same way. We must remain hopeful that through campaigning and educating one day this will change.
I could go on and on about every chapter in this book but I don’t want to include too many spoilers for those who may read it so for now I will leave it here and say that I would recmomend this book to anyone on the spectrum who wants to feel heard or for any neurotypicals who wish to learn more about life with Autism.
I also want to say a huge personal thank you to Elle McNicoll for writing such an incredible account on living with Autism; for me this book is perfect and is exactly how I experience Autistic life! If you know of any other books with Autistic characters or that address ASD please suggest them to me in the comments below as I’d love to give more a read.