In July 2019, I started what was supposed to be a regular series to review books written about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), a topic close to my heart. That July post also included useful information I put together about different categories of autism books (you can check it out here).
Since then, life kinda got in the way (well that’s my excuse so I’m sticking to it no matter what!). Now, 13 months later, I am resuscitating this series in hopes that the next review needn’t wait another 13 months! (*Fingers crossed and placed firmly behind my back*)
Published in January this year, the book’s an autobiographical account of how a young woman from Suffolk, England (31-year-old author Charlotte Amelia Poe), grew up as an autistic woman in a predominantly neurotypical world.
Right away when I laid eyes on the book cover, I was sold simply on its title “How To Be Autistic“. It sounded like a promise for how to become autistic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could get into the head of my Caleb and understand how his mind works!
And if that title alone wasn’t enough, the fact that it was written from a first-person perspective made my decision to get my hands on it a no-brainer. Especially since books on autism are mostly written by therapists, parents or caregivers of autistic people.
Unlike most autobiographies though, this book isn’t chronologically-structured. Its 34 chapters* fleet from one period of Charlotte’s life to another, then back again. So it helped that the year or years described in each chapter is clearly mentioned at the chapter’s start so readers have a reference point.
[*Don’t worry, each chapter is easily digestible and can be read in under five minutes – some in as little as a minute! Still put off? Fine. Then try Charlotte’s 5.45 min award-winning video of the same title instead. But trust me, the book’s way better!]
“How To Be Autistic” covers various stages of Charlotte’s life, especially her years in school. Those accounts will likely come in very handy for me as my Caleb transitions into his teen hood in a couple of years from now.
The bullying Charlotte endured from teachers and schoolmates alike are a reminder for parents like me that we are ultimately our autistic children’s greatest advocate in pushing hard for equal rights and recognition for people with autism.
One notable quote I found came from the final chapter where Charlotte aptly said,
“We are our brains and our brains are autistic. And it’s time people accept that. We need to be heard. We need to create. We need to do what we’re best at. We need to use our talents and change the world. I know rallying autistic people is like herding cats. We’re all so unique, but that’s what makes us amazing. We have an entire spectrum to draw from, and each of us has a different voice.”
Just because it’s an invisible disability doesn’t make autism any less deserving of society’s attention, care, patience and respect, as compared to say those who are visibly handicapped or visually impaired.
Beyond the school years, Charlotte also shared about her road to writing the book, and winning a prestigious award along the way.
Her style of writing is direct and very conversational, making the book an easy read. It is well worth your time, especially if there is an autistic person in your life you’re struggling to understand and relate.
For me, three takeaways after reading this book stood out:
1) Executive Dysfunction (ED) – In Chapter 5 (Procrastination Nation) I learnt about this idea of ED.
In the autistic mind, there’s always a simultaneous tussle between doing what needs doing right now versus “it can wait”. Doesn’t seem like such a big revelation that warrants a highfalutin-sounding label. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I just can’t understand Caleb and why he can’t seem to comprehend our explicit instructions.
Instructions like “complete your task/homework in the next five minutes or you can’t play your favourite ________ (insert name of game, TV show, whatever!)”, will often leave him rooted to the spot in a state of anguish and dilemma, unable it seems to choose which option to take.
So now I know. It’s called ED. And therefore I have to be more patient and give him more time to decide.
2) Picky Eating – In Chapter 12 (Speaking of Food), Charlotte shares one reality I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember: autistics are often picky eaters.
Don’t need to tell me twice.
Nearly every meal time with Caleb feels like a root canal operation. He…
…must know ahead of time what he’ll be eating.
…prefers if there’s something crunchy and he doesn’t like to drink soup.
…will chew and keep the food in his mouth as long as possible.
…doesn’t like food that’s red in colour (don’t ask!).
And the list goes on.
According to Charlotte, autistics are very sensitive to taste and textures. And if her life now as an adult is anything to go by, this is something about Caleb I may have to live with for a long time more.
3) Autism-in-Progress – This last takeaway isn’t really from any one particular chapter, but rather from the book as a whole.
I’m learning anew the reality that I’ve longed feared. Autism is manifested uniquely in every autistic. So Charlotte’s version of autism isn’t exactly like Caleb’s. And Caleb’s isn’t exactly like his classmate’s.
So the mystery that is our kids’ unique special needs is one that parents like me will spend their whole lives trying to decipher. And there’s no guarantee we’ll ever fully comprehend. Nor is there any guarantee Caleb will comprehend either!
But it’s okay.
What Charlotte accomplished with her book and video tells me that even though I’ll never understand why Caleb is autistic nor how to help him ‘figure things out’, those really aren’t the important questions.
The more important questions are:
Am I prepared to accept Caleb and…
…step aside to let him mature in his own time, and in his own way?
…have him (like Charlotte did with her award-winning accomplishments) wow me away one day?