It’s June! Hooray! What a relief. For some reason, May really got on my nerves, after a while. I suspect it’s because of all the bad press/news around Theresa May. Now I have a really bad association with “May” as a threat to all human decency and an affront to the things that make us most capable as responsible, caring members of society. I think of “May”, and I have an experience of existential threat.
Bummer. I used to really like the month.
Anyway, many weeks ago, Bluebird Books (an imprint of Pan Macmillan) sent me a review copy of Laura James’ Odd Girl Out – An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World. And I’ve been intermittently devouring it, alternating between frenzied highlighting sessions, when half the pages end up festooned with neatly lined-up bright yellow markings and occasional stickie notes… and taking a break to let it all sink in.
It rings a bell, so to speak. Lots of bells, actually. And while I’ve been wanting to blog about it, I really needed to get to the end, because (knowing me) I would have gone off on limitless tangents, and I’d have gotten so caught up in following a certain line of thought that I’d lose my place in the book and end up exploring other thought-world territory before I got to the end of the book.
That’s happened to me lots of times, and I didn’t want it to happen to me again. Not with something this important — and it is important. To me, as well as the rest of the world, which is frankly clueless about women on the autism spectrum.
I needed to finish the book. And I needed to think it through properly, so I could have something to say about it. Something original. Something that was mine.
So, a few days ago, while winding down from my major meltdown, I finished the book. (What better way to recover, than spending a few hours with a like-minded compadre, even if it’s just her words on a page?) Reading really calms me. It’s amazing, how much good it does my frazzled nerves. It’s always been that way – the rhythmic movement of my eyes back and forth on the page, the shapes of the letters, the feel of the words as they dance around in my conception, teasing out sensations of concepts, blending and mixing together those sensations… And of course, being able to block out the rest of the world. That’s a plus, too.
And yes, I actually finished the book, which happens a lot less than I’d like. When I came to the last page, which was finished very well, I have to say, I was left with a lot of different feelings, sensations, impressions. I’ll summarize a select few here, then dig in, in subsequent posts, about the actual content of the book. There’s a lot there I can relate to, and which is so important to discuss in a public arena.
First, it amazed me how public the author Laura James was about being autistic, seemingly from the first time she got official confirmation. I believe she was one of the first women to step forward in the UK, to show up in press and media talking about how autism affected her, and one of the first to really embrace the media. I could be wrong about this — I’m not in the UK (although my Twitter feed is populated mostly by folks from there), so I don’t know about other women coming forward and talking openly and candidly about being autistic. I mean, there have been a number of women in the states and Australia — Temple Grandin (of course), Liane Holiday Willey, Donna Williams (may she rest in peace), Rudy Simone, Sarah Hendrickx, and many others I’m either forgetting to mention or haven’t heard of (sorry if I missed you! please add names in the comments below to rectify my oversight, thanks!). But I haven’t really seen women jump into the mainstream media to talk openly and frankly about being autistic.
As a journalist, herself, Ms. James is very well positioned to do so. She’s got connections, she’s got contacts, and she’s comfortable with the public interview format. So, she’s in a great position to really stand out — for sure.
Second, I was struck by how “Aspie-fied” the book felt to me. At places, it did seem to meander off topic, following tangents that led from a personal narrative to discussing related conversations she’s had with various experts and professionals, as well as listing facts and figures about women and autism. I was a little disoriented in some places, because I was settling into a “groove” with the narrative, then we veered off in a different direction. But then it occurred to me that this is about as autistic a pattern as you could ask for, and it illustrates brilliantly how the autistic mind can work at times. We love our tangents. We love our facts and figures. We love to reference things that matter to us, even if others aren’t following. There’s nothing at all wrong with the way this book flows, when you look at it that way. And someone could likely do a pretty rich study of autistic thought process, using this as a starting point / reference..
Third, I couldn’t get over how much of the book related to me. I mean, seriously, at every turn of the page, there was something else I recognized, something else I had to highlight and wonder at. It was pretty amazing, considering that the author and I have very different lives, very different sensibilities, very different perspectives on, well, just about everything. She’s a heterosexual mother of four, working in mainstream media, traveling around regularly, with a husband and a public persona. I’m a gender-queer lesbian, working in the innards of high tech, with a partner/spouse, a home-based life with as little travel as I can arrange… and a horror of being in the public eye. She’s gone public with her diagnosis, and she’s talking it up, while I hold back from telling even my own family, because of the potential interpersonal ramifications.
For all the discrepancies between us, there was a rich, rich vein of commonality that ran through the whole book. I want to write more about those commonalities, because it’s so important — especially in light of the mindset “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” That outlook can leave you feeling alone and isolated and incapable of being understood by a world that’s much more interested in separating out, than drawing together. It can make you feel like a proverbial misplaced puzzle piece, and many of us know how wretched that feeling is.
We don’t have to separate ourselves out, actually. In some ways, it’s true that we’re very different. But autistic folks have so much in common, so much to share, so much that binds us to others like us (even in the face of superficial differences), that it’s critical to highlight those commonalities. To do less, would be an injustice.
And I don’t want to perpetuate that.
I’m probably going to violate the publishers’ terms (printed on the back of the book) that the uncorrected proof copy they sent me can’t be quoted… because I’ll be posting images of my highlighting, and I’ll be quoting the book in this blog. My pockets are very shallow, in terms of recouping any legal settlement, so I’m guessing suing me is going to be more trouble than it’s worth. But also, it’s critical for word to get out, even if the quotes aren’t exact (I’ll just footnote them as subject to change). It’s important that this book gets visibility, that people from all walks read it. I believe it’s every bit as pertinent to atypical autistic folks (those of all genders who don’t fit the profile of an 8-year-old white boy), as it is to straight women with a husband and kids and a professional career.
And it’s my hope that non-autistic folks will read this book and learn a little bit about how the autistic life “works”. The challenges we face, the ways we face — and overcome — those challenges. For all the suffering and difficulty we experience, there are a whole lot of ways we can use our strengths to rise above it all and make the most of the lives we’ve been given.
Odd Girl Out is an important addition to the discussion about what it means to be an autistic person in a neurotypical world.
And I only found one typo, which is pretty good, for 219 pages. 🙂