What a treat I have to share with you today. Emily Critchley is the author of Notes on My Family, a young adult novel published in November of last year about an autistic girl Lou and her life with her extremely complicated family. I really loved this family drama, rife with wit and heart. As an autistic author writing a novel about an autistic main character, Emily found the experience illuminating and agreed to share her experiences with me.
When I began writing Notes on My Family, I was unaware of two things. Of course I was unaware that the book would be published and I wondered, almost daily, if I would be able to finish writing it, but the two important things I was unaware of were that Lou was on the autistic spectrum, and so was I.
I had written Notes on My Family before I carried out the bulk of my research into the ways autism specifically affects girls and women, and before I got my referral through the NHS. I then wondered if I had a problem. The novel I’ve written, which is soon to be published, is, in parts, a deliberately funny book, even though Lou is quite clearly on the autistic spectrum. For me, this isn’t a problem, but I find myself wondering about the book’s reception, how readers will react.
I feel that if those who read Notes on My Family find the book offensive they are missing the point. Life can be funny, even when at its darkest. My teenage years were extremely dark and I believe that reading a funny book, or a book that presents, as inseparable, the positive and negative aspects of being human would have been far more beneficial to me than reading a book that accurately reflected my mood and experiences but left me without hope. I think it’s very important when writing for young people to provide an element of hope.
For me, comedy has always been an integral part of life. I grew up in a family that joked around a lot. My dad has, and my grandad had, a very dry and, at times, wicked, sense of humour. I learned early on how to laugh at myself. I was small and skinny. My dad used to joke that I had to run around in the shower in order to get wet. I remember standing in the kitchen with my dad and my older sister, who must have been about twelve. My dad is laughing because my sister is hopping around complaining her mouth is on fire after eating the end of a chilli from the chilli plant. There was always laughter in our house and most of the time we were laughing at each other. You learned to give as good as you got.
Joking around with my friends and family has always made me happy. Humour can shed light on a dark situation and can bring about a change of mood quite unlike anything else. Laughter, as the saying has it, is a powerful medicine.
There are touching moments in Notes on My Family. There are also moments of despair when we see how Lou struggles so valiantly with life. The comedy in the novel helps provide a contrast to the dark times. It gives Lou a greater depth of character. Sometimes Lou knows she’s being funny but more often she doesn’t, and that’s okay. If we laugh at Lou that’s okay too because she would most definitely laugh at us. Neurotypical people may think autistic people are a little odd but, believe me, we think neurotypical people are even stranger. Comedy in fiction can be used not only to provide tonal contrast but to highlight diversity.
I have a very good friend with cerebral palsy. She has mobility issues and walks with the aid of two sticks. When I saw her recently she told me a story. She was in the park with her Italian friend. My friend tried to get up from the grass, using her sticks and her Italian friend slapped her bum, causing her to fall back down. They both rolled around on the grass laughing. My friend told me how horrified those around them had been that not only had he failed to help her up but that he had slapped her bum and actually caused her to fall. My friend loves those who see her before they see her disability. She loves people who aren’t afraid to joke around with her. Having cerebral palsy does not impinge upon her ability to laugh at herself and the world. Of course there are times when laughter is inappropriate, but I find those times occur less often than you might think.
I also think it’s important to teach teenage girls that being funny isn’t just for boys. Girls can be funny too. It’s brilliant to laugh and to make others laugh. Making others laugh is a wonderful gift.
If you want to read more books with autistic main characters or find out more about Autism Spectrum Disorder itself, check out The Essential Autistic Reading List for more book recommendations.