When people talk about autism, they tend to view it from one of two perspectives. Either they know little about it apart from the stereotypes presented by the media, or they are involved with it in some way as family or professionals. Those in the larger former group often espouse certain misconceptions (autistic people are loners; they all have Rainman-esque super-brains; they are incapable of empathy). Those in the latter group – the minority – have a variety of views depending on their experience. As the father of a severely autistic son, I fall into the second group.
In my books, I try to depict Autistic Spectrum Disorder in a balanced way. My lead protagonist, Paul has Asperger’s Syndrome. His condition has benefits (intelligence, ingenuity, superior memory) but also some disadvantages (rigidity, trouble with social interaction, susceptibility to stress). Ally, Paul’s nephew, is at the opposite end of the spectrum and is more profoundly affected. He is non-verbal, developmentally delayed and hypersensitive to stimuli, though the last of these symptoms proves to be invaluable to his carers at times as he detects danger before it’s too late.
So where did I get my inspiration? Partly from my own personality – my wife sometimes cites my behaviour as “spectrum-y” – but also from my son. If it weren’t for his autism, I would never have written the SUBNORMAL series.
Therefore, I’m going to tell you a bit about him. Like Paul and Ally, his ASD manifests itself in a number of ways. Some are negative, but some are positive, too. He can be infuriating one minute, then hilarious the next, and because it’ll make for better reading, I’m going to focus on the things that entertain us, the little things that make him a cool kid.
Max cannot read. Though he understands some words, he sees them more as an image with meaning, and he doesn’t know place names. Yet he recognises landmarks, buildings and streets, and knows the whereabouts of every fast food outlet in a twenty mile radius (and in the north-west of England, that’s a lot).
Once he’s been to a locale, it is remembered forever, his brain like a salty-food sat-nav, a database of cholesterol.
Max is very large for his nine (soon to be ten) years. At about 4’10 in height and 9st/125lbs in weight, he dwarfs his peers. The sharpest among you will link this to his proclivity for junk food, which is something for which we must take the blame. In our defence, at the age of two, Max, like many people with autism, was a very fussy eater, and we introduced him to cheeseburgers and chips out of desperation.
Anyway, despite his exuberance and bulk, when running around a play area or a playground, he never crashes into another child. It’s as if he has inbuilt proximity sensor. Also, he is exceptionally strong. When he was three, he could do chin-ups; nowadays, he can overpower many adults. Of course, this has its drawbacks – he has headbutted a hole in the wall and smashed a window in the past – but it’s still pretty impressive.
Max is non-verbal, but he can tell us what he wants via PECS (picture cards) and Sign-Along, a more basic version of standard sign language. His favourite signal, which he was taught by school, is cake.
However, he has developed his own gestures which, I believe, are unique to him. Two hands together, creating an m-shape, represent the golden arches of McDonald’s. A pushing motion means he wants to go to the park and play on the swings.
Plus, he has adapted signals he’s learnt for his own purposes. “Sorry” – signified by a twirling forefinger pointed to the heart – also means “are we friends?” When he’s lost his temper, he insists that both he and his mother, father, sister et cetera make the “sorry” sign to show that all is well again. “Wait” is a sign we often use, and it involves rolling one’s hands over each other in an anticlockwise direction. He counters this with his own version – the same motion but clockwise – meaning “no, hurry up.”
Though he can’t write his own name, Max can use an iPad as well as you or me. He navigates YouTube, shares the videos he watches on Facebook and even overrides the TV with the “cast” button. On several occasions, I’ve been watching my beloved Manchester United when the screen has changed to a clip of SpongeBob or the Jungle Book.
Most impressively, he taught himself how to use his device, and quickly learns how to use any mobile phone or tablet he can get his hands on.
Max’s favourite person is his seven year-old sister, Poppy. She is an angel with him, very patient and selfless, but his attentions can be overbearing. If she is out, he sometimes grabs a photo of her and carries it around like a lost puppy. When she was born, despite the fact that we’d not been able to explain her impending arrival to him, or even that she was his new sibling, he instinctively loved her. There was no jealousy, just an innate understanding that she was his to cherish.
The autistic characters in my SUBNORMAL series are similar to Max, in that they have their own talents as well as weaknesses. There’s no card-counting or deciphering of top-secret Government codes, but they make the most of their skills. The lead antagonist, Prime Minister Latham, believes their disability makes them worthless, but they prove her wrong, repeatedly.
And that is my message: every person is of value and has the potential to change the world in some way.
As always, I welcome your views and comments, and thank you for reading! If you’re interested in my books, you can get free sample chapters here.