Reviews, Uncategorized

Non-fiction book review: Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A few weeks ago, my nan told me about a book written by an autistic teenager that recently won the Wainwright Prize (which is a UK award focusing on books about nature) and offered to buy me a copy. Naturally, having a great love of nature myself and also wanting to read more autistic voices, I said I’d love to read it. (Though, amusingly, the book is yellow, which is the one colour that is absolute sensory hell for me – an easy fix though, as I simply turned the dust cover inside out.)

The book is written in journal format and is compiled into sections based on the four seasons. It’s difficult to fully articulate my feelings on it, but I’ll try. (A warning, though: this is likely to be a long and rambling post detailing some of my own life experiences rather than just focusing on the book. I promise it will be relevant, though!)

Firstly, Dara’s writing is very evocative and poetic – I had serious writer envy on this one. He seems to have the ability to place you exactly in the situation he’s describing; every detail fed to you as if your own senses were picking it up. At least, that’s how it was for me – maybe it’s because the way my senses work are very similar to his, but judging by the amount of praise this book has had, I doubt it’s just that. This did, however, present something of a problem in that it was sometimes too much for me to handle. My head would be reeling after reading a section just like it does when I’m experiencing sensory overload. I was also a little intimidated at the beginning by the sheer knowledge he has; every species and sub-species mentioned is identified, which meant a lot of names to get my head around. I did get used to it once I got past the first quarter, but it took some time. But nature has been central to his entire life, so it makes sense that his knowledge is so vast.

Secondly, his passion leaks from every word, and while noting the intricacies and completely fascinating things, he also goes into detail about the very real threats to the world (I would say the natural world, but we are part of nature rather than separate from it): climate change, deforestation, hunting, pollution, just to name a few. Now, as mentioned above, nature is one of my loves too, and I’m very passionate about protecting it. But over the years, the apathy and unkindness of others has beaten down my willingness to express why it’s important to me. I used to share all the petitions I sign on my social media pages, but now only share a handful, and in 2013, I tried fundraising for a charity (Cool Earth – check them out if you can) by getting tattooed in the armpit, only to have very little response. Realising that I’d pretty much silenced myself without even knowing came as quite a shock. And I felt like I’d let myself and the environment down, that I wasn’t doing enough.

But I kept reading, and as Dara also documents his mental health, having experienced intense bullying at school because of his interests, I came to understand that the key to why I stopped was because my own mental health wasn’t good enough to handle such negativity. That, and I get so overwhelmed about how much of a crisis the world is in that I feel like I might be crushed by it.

However, I also came to realise that though I haven’t been as vocal as I would like, I’ve still continued doing things to try and bring about the changes I’d love to see. I still sign petitions, and when my finances allow, I donate to relevant charities. I also sneak bits into my books to generate awareness, like including several stories focusing on endangered animals and deforestation in my short story collection, When the Bard Came Visiting, and having characters interact with nature in quite profound ways. So, while I might have too much anxiety to go to a climate march (not that that would be a good idea during the current pandemic), or experience too much overwhelm to constantly share facts about how much the rainforests have been cut down or the oceans have been polluted by plastic and oil spills, I can continue to do the little things within my area of expertise. And if I spark even one person’s passion for the environment, then it’ll be worth it.

Now, back to the actual book.

Dara’s ability to reflect on his experiences is really what makes this book come together, and though at first it seems quite simple, it covers an awful lot of ground. As I mentioned above, he talks about mental health and bullying, and how it’s often quite hard for autistic people to express themselves. I know from my own experiences how difficult it is – the ideas are there in my head but refuse to come out in any intelligible way. He also splashes in bits of Irish and world mythology here and there, which creates yet another layer to what he’s reflecting on. I really loved reading those parts.

In short (after taking far, far too much space going over the ‘long’), this book is a beautiful exploration of our world and being part of a minority within it, and despite the mental turmoil it caused within me, left me with an awful lot of hope, too.

If, as I would urge, you decide to pick up a copy, you can get it here. I would also encourage you to check out his blog and Youtube channel too.

Reviews

Book review: A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

 

KoSpark

I heard about A Kind of Spark a few weeks ago, as I’ve followed its publisher, Knights Of, since they first formed some years ago. Knights Of are an independent UK publisher looking to boost the voices of marginalised writers and artists, so it came as no surprise to me that they took on this book, which is an own voices by a neurodivergent author.

The story is about 11 year old Addie, who is autistic, and her campaign to get a memorial made for all the ‘witches’ trialled in her small village in Scotland in the 1600s. She can’t help but see the parallels between those who were accused of being a witch and herself – both she and they are seen as other by everyone around them, and she longs to right that.

Before I started this book, I thought it might feature Addie going around different sites and compiling facts about the witches to use for her case, but it’s actually more about how everyone in the village treats her, and her older sister who is also autistic, Keedie.

This made it a very difficult read for me, because the teacher Addie has is truly horrible to her – tearing up her work, humiliating her in front of the class, accusing her of copying, trying to tell her parents that she’s a problem and shouldn’t be in that school – and when I was in Primary School, in the infants class, I had a teacher who bullied me just like that and scared me so much that I got ill and couldn’t physically go in. So for a lot of those scenes, I was in tears trying to squash down my own memories. Added to that were much newer memories that came up in the scenes where Addie would talk to Keedie (who is also the twin of Nina, a neurotypical girl who clearly loves her sisters but doesn’t understand them the way they do each other).

Keedie is about 18, and in the first few months of university. She’s able to commute, so she comes home every night, but it’s clear that it’s taking a toll on her, especially when she tells Addie that she hasn’t told anyone there that she’s autistic and is constantly masking. I connected just as much with Keedie as with Addie because of this, as I masked so much while I was at college and then when I tried working. There’s a scene where Keedie can’t take it anymore and gets thrown into burnout, and it really resonated with me. Well, the whole book did, but these parts were the most intense.

I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that reading from Addie’s perspective (it’s written in first person present tense, so it’s a very close narrative style) completely echoed the sensory and social experiences and difficulties I have, along with what it’s like to get wrapped up in a special interest and the strong urge to right things that are clearly wrong. So, if you want to know what it’s like to be autistic, this is the book you should pick up. In fact, I encourage everyone to, as it contains many of the things I want others to be aware of while saying them in a more coherent way than I think I ever could.

I will say, though, that if you’re a neurodivergent person with similar traumatic experiences to mine, then to be gentle with yourself reading this. It’s hard. Things bubbled up in me that I thought I’d buried long ago. However, I spoke with the author, Elle, about it (she’s very active on Twitter and open to DM’s) and she said that she used a lot of her own experience for this, and it shows.

Also, on a side note, a lot of the people who worked on this book are neurodivergent too. I’m very hopeful that A Kind of Spark will be the start of a big change in the publishing industry, where opening doors to neurodiverse creators is the norm, not the exception.

Once again, please take a look at this book!

Poetry

Splinters

The splinters of the branch slid into my fingers

as it snapped at the force of my hand as I tumbled into the tree.

Blood beaded down the bark and caught on the tip of a serrated leaf.

The red mirror showed

how little I’d changed

despite being shoved out of line, convinced my place was over here, not there.

My hair was ruffled, but still mine.

My clothes were covered in cobwebs and lichen, but still mine.

My eyes were wet and open, but still mine.

The blood dripped from the leaf and was instantly swallowed by the soil.

I stood up.

Poetry

Flashbacks

It smelt like school this morning.

The first light of the first day of a new school year,

walking down the paved path, satchel in hand, wondering what the day would bring,

what misunderstandings would happen,

what scolding I’d earn for fidgeting or not doing my work

because I didn’t understand yet again.

The other kids, all so at ease, until I try to join in.

They lie to each other, say I’ve stolen this, hogged that,

and not let me play.

Not that I understood how to play, anyway.

But that’s not the point.

When the seasons turn

and give off their scent, that crisp to September air,

it fills my head with these visions

and all the textures, sounds and emotions

that go with them, and even after all these years

I can’t turn them off.

Uncategorized

Processing my autism diagnosis – watching home videos

So, as I mentioned in previous posts, I was diagnosed as autistic in January this year. So far I feel I’ve done a pretty good job of processing it and letting myself recover from all the strains of masking throughout my teenage years and well into adulthood. (For those who don’t know, masking is a way for neurodiverse people to act so as to fit in with society, but it’s intensely draining and goes against all our natural instincts, causing anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Think pretending to be a movie character for your whole life without ever getting chance to be yourself for fear that you won’t be accepted/judged/bullied etc – I’ve pretty much made a vow that I’ll only mask if it’s absolutely necessary to preserve my future mental health.)

However, one of the things I wanted to do was to watch old videos my family took of me as I was growing up to see if I could see any autistic traits, mainly because I’ve seen lots of vlogs by families with autistic kids and wondered if I acted the same as they did. I knew my nan said I flapped my hands and made other stimming/self soothing gestures when I was less than a year old and that she suspected I was autistic (sadly, not much was known about girls on the spectrum in the 90s, so I was dismissed by the doctor, a story I know is only too familiar for women my age who are only now being diagnosed), and I remember feeling on the outside of a lot of social stuff like birthday parties and playgroups.

After speaking with my awesome mother, she dug around and found some tapes of past Christmases, birthdays and holidays for me to watch. When I put the first one on, within minutes of watching myself and noting my body language, where my focus was, how I spoke and interacted with people around me, I knew that the signs I’m autistic have always been painfully obvious, the only problem back then was that no-one knew what they were looking for.

And it hurts that something so obvious was missed. But seeing myself so natural was also liberating, because I’ve spent all these months post-diagnosis trying to relax myself and not worry about being judged enough to drop my mask, especially regarding stimming – knowing that how I stim now is the same as back then makes me feel that I’ve found myself again. I didn’t lose myself in the masks I’ve had to wear.

I cried because of this, and rocked and flapped and did all the things that help me express my emotions.

Of course there will still be times when I don’t feel my difficulties are valid, because there’s always going to be people who don’t understand, don’t have patience and some who just don’t care, not to mention my own thoughts of feeling completely fine until I have to be social, but this has definitely helped me to realise that though I might have hidden things well as a teen and adult, I have always had these difficulties.

And if I need more time to think when I’m asked a ‘simple’ question, need help doing everyday tasks, or if I need my ear defenders just to walk down the street because the world is so loud, it’s perfectly okay.

(Side note: along with my difficulties, there are many cool things about being autistic, and I’d never want to change how my brain comes up with all the crazy ideas I have.)

Anyway, that’s my ramble for today. Time for dinner.

Poetry, Short Stories, Uncategorized

A letter about autism to my childhood self

Hey. Try not to panic. It’s you from the future, and

I’m writing to say don’t worry. Everything

that’s getting to you at the moment will make sense in the end.

 

Like the times you wait by the fence watching the other kids play

wondering when they’ll ask you to join in, and what you’ll do if it happens.

How you’re confused at the ease they interact, talking freely,

while you stand their silently, their shouts and screams of joy

overloading your ears – until the whistle blows and hits you like ice up your spine,

locking you into rigid limbs and wriggling insides. The hold authority has.

And those times you’re unsure what Miss is asking of you, fretting about if you’re doing your work right

because she didn’t go through it fully first. So you wait

and watch the other kids, trying to guess their thinking as they set straight to it

and hoping you can catch a glimpse of their work so you can copy.

Then there’s the time you have to go to the dentist during rehearsals for the school play. Should you put your hand up? Should you just stand?

You ask around in whispers, and everyone says put your hand up. You do, but the teachers don’t see, so then you do stand.

And get told off for not telling them to put you on the end of the row, even though your form tutor read the note at registration.

How about all those times the kids take advantage of your attempts to join in? Sharing

your cat’s cradle only for them to run off with it and claim to the others that it’s theirs,

or when a girl steals your toy and tells the dinner lady you stole it from her

and you can’t speak up properly so give in and let them keep it?

When they’re supposed to share textbooks

and drag them away so you can’t see?

Let’s not forget how you can’t co-ordinate your body in P.E,

or have so much trouble learning in class that you take your work home.

When you have your nose in a book at the doctor’s because you can’t deal with what is going on, and get called rude for not paying attention.

Then there’s your many attempts to get the timing right on Mario’s jump and fail at every try.

When you tell a stranger about how bad mum’s morning breath is

and don’t understand why she’s embarrassed. It’s fact, isn’t it?

Why you can’t understand why people play with dolls when you can just make up characters in your head.

 

Like I said. It’s all fine. There’s a reason for it, a simple explanation:

Autism.

A condition meaning

your brain is wired slightly differently to most people. You notice

things they never will while missing the unspoken signs

they give each other all the time.

It doesn’t mean you’re strange, weird, stupid or a freak.

It means you’re you,

and though you haven’t met them yet, there are others out there

who are wired in the same way

and know just how this feels.

 

So remember, you’re not alone. If you explain

your difficulties (and your strengths)

then eventually the world will start to understand.

 

P.S. In the meantime, try sunglasses and earmuffs — all year round.

Poetry

Skeleton

‘Hold out your hands,’ she says

and places the silver key on my palms,

it fits across both perfectly. ‘It can

open any door you choose, anywhere.

Keep it close, always.’

 

So I swallow the key. Safe in my belly

it stays, and safe from my memory

until every door I face

declares it’s locked.

 

It can’t be. It can’t be.

 

The memory stirs and I try to regurgitate.

It doesn’t work, and the doors laugh.

 

From inside me, the key calls out.

Unlock.

 

The doors are silenced by my voice.

I swallowed the key

and became it.

 

Poetry

Miss! Please don’t bully me anymore!

Each tick of a box feels like a piece of me is being chipped away

exposed down to my innards and what do they see

there but a child curled up unable to face their questions, their gaze

 

It all links to that, how I thought I’d overcome the past

by striding forwards without looking back

until I slipped and realised the road I was on was a moving walkway

going backwards to that time

 

How acutely the pain still shoots through me

the fear striking my voice in two

 

I have to accept it should never have happened

should never have been and I was powerless

powerless

 

It’s not a word I want to hold over myself

even my child self

but it’s true

 

I’m not anymore, but I was

then

 

And because I could not speak up then

I should at least give myself enough respect

to speak up now.

Poetry

Trauma

it’s a shadow in my brain

a lurking, creeping, whispering thing

that doesn’t shy from light

but swallows it

if I do nothing

if I do nothing

if I do nothing

it will block me in. block, block, block

if I step into it, let it feed off me

and find my blood is its poison

my pulse is its poison

my heart is its poison. beat, beat, beat

it will shrivel up

and become nothing more than a stamp-sized portrait

reminding me that it rules

no longer

a memo note

it happened, it happened

but still I can stride

 

Poetry

Tightrope walking

I take a cup of water and shake it up like dice on a gambling table,

throwing it out to watch it splash down on the invisible webs

plucking as my eyes, at my hands, at my will.

The droplets reveal them, more than I knew there were

(though I had suspicions), stretching far back into the past

where I thought it didn’t matter anymore.

But it seems that though the spiders have long since died,

their silk is as strong as it ever was, and has bound me

more tight than I can bear.

I have nothing that can cut them, so I must work to unravel them instead.

I don’t know how much time it will take. It doesn’t matter,

as long as I make sure to live along the way.