If Every Person with Autism was the Same…

…the world would be a pretty boring place. As I was gearing up to tackle the next hurdle on the road to publication, it occurred to me: my story could actually get out there. OUT THERE. IN PUBLIC. It’s both an exciting and scary prospect.

The aspect of the story dearest to my heart (and therefore also the most terrifying) is that one of the dual-narrative MCs is on the autism spectrum. It was so important for me to write from Cam’s perspective and make this his story. But I also realise that putting his character out there opens me up to a lot of questions: such as ‘What makes you qualified to write a character with autism?’, ‘Is he really autistic? He doesn’t sound like the other characters I’ve seen in movies or read in books’, ‘Why don’t you focus more on his struggle to be normal?’

In the interests of ripping off the band-aid and getting it all out there, I decided to pre-empt the questions (hopefully they will come because that means my beloved book will be published), and address them right here and now.

Why Write a Main Character with Autism?

The short answer: because most of the stories I’ve read or movies I’ve seen with characters on the autism spectrum, don’t accurately represent the version of autism I know, and that of many others. Are the existing stories falsely representing autism? No, not at all. A lot of those stories align with experiences of my friends, and many people out there. Those stories are important too. The issue lies with the perception that the kind of autism represented in pop culture is the ‘only’ kind of autism. It’s a spectrum, and it presents in a variety of ways.

For many, it’s a hidden condition. Some are diagnosed, some are not. A lot of the obvious signs are on the inside, swaddled in anxiety, or comforting routines. Some might have learned to wear a mask that helps them appear less ‘out-there’, helps them blend in with the crowd.

There are lots of people with autism who are successful, have meaningful relationships, a wide circle of friends, and a rich, colourful life. I’m not saying that’s everyone’s experience – clearly it’s not. But it’s the experience I know, and that’s the character I wanted to portray in my story.

I could bang on for another 10,000 words about preconceptions etc, but instead, I’m just going to link to these guys, who say it better than I ever could (some bad language!):

What makes me qualified to write a character with autism?

Am I on the autism spectrum? The short answer: I don’t know. I’ve never been diagnosed, but there are several members of my family who are clearly on the spectrum and haven’t been diagnosed either. My thought is it’s a borderline call, and probably a bit late in the day to worry about making it official.

I’ve been affectionately described by friends as: ‘a bit different’, ‘quirky’, ‘having no filter’, and ‘a little OCD’. This doesn’t offend me. I’ve always felt like an outlier, and although it was confusing growing up, I feel as though the friends I’ve made over time are the kind of people worth spending a lifetime with. Many of them are outliers too, and I love them for being themselves and accepting me for me.

What I do know: there are several members in my family, diagnosed and undiagnosed, on the autism spectrum, and I know and love them very well. My life is richer for having them as companions on my journey and I wanted to write the character of Cam as a celebration of that.

I’ve drawn upon elements of myself and family members in order to portray Cam. The White Noise of Doom (the term Cam uses to describe the signs of an imminent anxiety attack), is mine, as are some of Cam’s rote-learned social skills. Like Cam, The White Noise of Doom was a huge thing when I was younger, but as I’ve grown, I’ve learned to manage it to the point where it rarely leads to a full-blown anxiety meltdown. Other things, such as Cam’s tendency to love big and go all-in, and his aversion to scratchy or wet fabric, have been borrowed from other family members.

Why don’t you focus more on his struggle to be normal?

Cam is normal – he’s HIS normal. The family dynamic that has evolved as a result of Cam (and possibly dad…) being on the spectrum has created the Cricks family normal. This is something I know very well. People from the outside looking in might think it’s all a bit chaotic and fast-paced, but this is how it is. This is our day to day. I’m not saying it’s always perfect, but whose life is? There’s one story I like to tell friends (I can laugh about it now) of a five minute car journey to school with our three kids. One kid thought it would be fun to throw a golf ball at the windscreen. It came out of nowhere, ricocheting off the screen and straight at my face. Luckily, my fight or flight tendencies are always on standby. With my left hand on the steering wheel, I caught the ball in my right and pocketed in the side tray. My eldest decided they wanted to bring the ball back into play and lunged across me. With heavy traffic on both sides of the road, and one hand still on the steering wheel, I managed to push them back into their seat and shout, ‘No!’ Amazingly, we made it to school without being killed by oncoming traffic, but my hands were trembling for about three hours afterwards*.

Would I change anything? No, I wouldn’t. Other family members have sent us clippings from newspapers, talking about ‘future cures’ for autism. They’ve sounded surprised when my husband and I have politely explained that even if such a cure were available, we wouldn’t go there. Our family would be unrecognisable if we did.

In my story, Cam’s actions and decision-making inevitably inform the overall family dynamic, his own character development, and particularly that of his closest sister. However, I wanted to steer clear of a book that makes Cam’s characteristics into an existential issue. Other than moments where he’s battling to meet his (wrong-for-him) girlfriend’s expectations, Cam doesn’t question himself, and as his mouthpiece, I don’t believe I should either.

The last word

Thanks for listening. As a person who has tried (and regularly failed) to blend in with the crowd all their lives, this post was not an easy one to write. Last night I went to bed with an inkling of what I wanted to say. My subconscious responded with a dream where I rocked up to a pool-party without any swimmers. Worse still, I wasn’t wearing anything at all. I convinced a friend to drive me home so I could quickly get changed. She hesitated a moment – the party was cranking – but then reluctantly agreed. I woke up with a feeling that ‘yep, that was a cringey moment’ but everything was going to be okay…

*My main request when we moved here to the UK, was that we found a place within walking distance to the school. We do live within five minutes’ walk. There are still some hairy moments at the traffic lights, and the kids often have to go through the office due to being late, but it’s a massive improvement on the drive.

 

 

 

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Alison Whipp

Lawyer. Writes Middle Grade and YA. Known to cackle raucously at 13 y.o. boy-humour. Partial to baked goods of the sweet variety.
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