Online I talk a lot about writing. In the real world I also talk a fair deal about autism, given that I have a child on the spectrum. Recently I found myself talking to someone about coping with having a high-functioning autistic child, how the problem is amplified; you’re not only having to deal with your child’s behavioural issues but with other people’s reactions to your child’s behavioural issues. I let on that while trying to calm a highly-strung, overwhelmed, tantrumming child, I’ve been told by complete strangers that I’m not fit to be a mother.
“How do you deal with that?” she asked me. I shrugged.
“I guess I’ve grown thicker skin.”
Thicker skin. It’s one of the qualities you need as a writer too. Until that point I’d seen having an autistic child as a major drawback for anyone considering a writing career, but for some reason saying it loud made me question the ways in which learning to cope with autism has actually helped me as a writer.
1. Thicker skin. Repeating myself here, but then having to cope with repetitive behaviours is another major autism trait. You have to deal with a lot, both from your child and from a wider world whose population still seems to believe that autism looks like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Or who just don’t care, I’m not sure. Whether it’s dealing with the ninth screaming tantrum of the day (and it ain’t even breakfast yet) or the fact that the screaming tantrum is taking place in Sainsburys and the crowd you’ve drawn around you look a lot like a lynch mob; you will inevitably reach a point where it’s water off a duck’s back. It has to be. Hiding in the corner, crying, is no longer an option. This comes in very handy when someone is taking a red pen to your script, or telling you it’s weak, on-the-nose or they read something very similar last week. It’s not a catastrophe. It’s not even about you. Pick yourself up, brush yourself down and carry on. Deal with it.
2. Cracking open. In direct contradiction to growing a thicker skin, you’ll also need to crack open, reveal your deepest vulnerabilities, your failings, your weaknesses. The discovery that your child is imperfect, is deemed flawed and undesirable by the so-called perfect world in which we live – it can hurt. A lot. Watching your child getting rejected over and over, even by people you thought you were close to – it hurts. Being tired of getting yelled at, waking and dreading what the day will bring – it hurts too. There’s a lot of hurt involved. There’s a lot that you have to acknowledge, to yourself and to others; you get honest, fast. You become more aware of vulnerability in yourself and in others. You get used to having your heart broken, not only by harshness and pain but also by beauty; the small moments of contentment that might otherwise be overlooked. I have curled into a ball on the kitchen floor and howled, and I have gently squeezed a small hand placed in mine as we sat watching television together. This openness, this ability to put yourself into pain, into joy, into quietness or chaos, this habit of putting yourself into the path of the storm emotionally again and again – it’s going to help you write.
3. Imperfection. You can’t believe you’re perfect. Not for a second. You have no doubt about your constant failings, whether that’s your child blaming you for buying the wrong type of cheese, or a total stranger berating you on the train. Both of which have actually happened. If I hadn’t had an ASD child, I might have been able to believe I was a good mother. I might even have been a bit smug about baking fairy cakes with my offspring and going for healthy walks together. Fat chance. I’m rubbish, evidently. So when somebody likes a script I’ve written, that’s a really big deal. And when somebody points out that it could be improved, I’m already on it. If you are a script editor or dramaturg, director or actor, I will listen to you, make careful notes and then go away and make it better. I’m constantly looking to see how I can make it better, because I know all too well that I’m not perfect and so neither is my writing. If you want to make your writing better - don’t believe it’s perfect to start with.
4. Juggling fussy. Kids are damn fussy. Autistic kids take fussy and run with it. Control freak doesn’t come close. Likes and dislikes change on an hourly basis, and that’s before we mention the number of allergies, intolerances, special diets and peculiar addictions. If you think it’s hard trying to juggle ten different opinions on how to write your script while handling ten different personality clashes, divas and dictators, then just try a week’s worth of planning, shopping and cooking for autistic kid + sibling. You will develop the negotiation skills of the leader of the UN. You probably should become the next leader of the UN. You rock.
5. Editing. Diagnosis and the ensuing merry-go-round of endless appointments and professionals in the ultimately futile quest of gaining some kind of support for your child will lead to you telling your story over and over, filling in the forms, answering their questions. Telling other people, answering their questions, hearing their stories. You start to learn to edit it down, focus on the key moments, work out what the other person needs to hear. While we’re at it, you learn to deal with the frustration of having to fill out and return a 20 page form (I’m not joking) in advance of an appointment, then realising the Professional hasn’t actually read any of it. If there’s anything to be read in advance of a workshop or meeting, I will have read it, trust me. I’m not going to do that to you.
6. Sanity. Questioning of. There will be times when you question your sanity. Undoubtedly. Whether as the parent of an autistic child, or as a writer. There will be times when it gets so hard you’ll ask yourself Why the hell am I doing this? Because you really thought that parenting would be more fun than this, and you thought writing would be more fun than this too. And if you had a choice at that point, you might give up. As a writer, you could give up – but giving up probably won’t make you any happier. Once you’ve been bitten by the writing bug, it’s hard to lay it to rest. You might decide to keep writing as a hobby rather than a profession, but truth be told most writers want to make it in the big wide world. As a parent, you don’t get to give up. Ever. So you learn to just stick at it. No matter how hard, how crazy, you keep going, sane or not. Take a look at the odds; it’s insane to think you can make it as a writer. Are you going to let that put you off?
7. Different points of view. One of the things that autism does really well is to provide you with an alternative lens with which to see the world. Other things include memorizing every obscure fact about dinosaurs and Doctor Who, and remembering everything that was ever said to you ever, but I digress. Autism sees the world differently, sometimes frustratingly, sometimes mind-blowingly. Being the parent of an autistic child is like being ushered in through the door to a different world. It looks mostly the same as our world, but it’s different. Odd things happen there. Time moves differently. There’s a lot of velcro and acronyms and laminating and waiting rooms and lining things up. You’re on a steep learning curve to get to know the rules of this odd new world, rules at once regimented but also constantly shifting, its constitution determinedly refusing to be set down in stone. Yet simultaneously you’re still walking through the old world, the same planet that everyone else is on. And you can’t help but look at it with different eyes. You suddenly question things, and wonder why no one else does. You realize that normal is just a point of view and that there are plenty of others.
8. Getting brave. Boy do you get brave. You’re now an advocate, and you didn’t volunteer for this. Hell no. But if you want to get any kind of support for your child, if you want your child to be treated fairly, even, you’re going to have to fight for it. You’ll find yourself speaking up when everyone else in the room would rather you stayed quiet. You’ll find yourself getting dogged in the face of a brush-off. You’ll find yourself getting patronized, getting turned away, getting the shitty end of the stick over and over and having to find ways of dealing with it and working around it. As the mother* of an autistic kid, you’re going to get written off as being neurotic and over-protective whenever you try and advocate for their rights; you will find yourself having to stand up for yourself and for your child. You will get used to being in circumstances you would once have found intimidating, humiliating or downright unbearable. In other words, your fear muscle gets a good workout. Writing is scary. You’re exposing your soft and tender underbelly to the entire world, and there’s always the risk that people will laugh you out of the building. There’s always a risk of it going horribly wrong, of getting your work slammed, ripped apart by the critics. You need to get used to fear; acknowledging it, working through it, working with it, working despite it. Fear will block you every step of the way – don’t let it sabotage your hopes. You need to get your brave on.
*Interestingly, this only seems to occur to the mothers. Fathers generally aren’t seen as being neurotic or over-protective/over-involved and are much less likely to be patronized. Such is life.
9. You get a bit political. The status quo starts to look a bit shit when your child is different. Schools that blather on about tolerance and diversity suddenly start to look all Resistance is Futile! when faced with an Asperger’s kid. You realise how much our society is built on conformity, it runs through us like a stick of rock. You start to question why difference is seen as some kind of threat. You start to worry about your child’s future and concerned that so many vulnerable people are basically left to rot by an uncaring government. You begin to think that most people go about their lives like sheep, never stopping to question any of it. You start wanting to wake people up. You start writing about it.
10. Weird shit happens. Weird shit that you can use in your stories. You can’t make this stuff up. You meet an entirely different circle of people, with weird-shit stories of their own. Real life heroes and villains; the devoted volunteers at Saturday club, the vindictive yummy mummies at softplay. Other people’s three year olds say Mummy, but your kid insists on calling you Jeremy Clarkson. In public. Loudly. There’s a hell of a lot of inappropriate backchat, and once it’s stopped being mortifying, it’s hysterically funny. There’s bad stuff too, like the time you drove to Tesco’s to do the weekly shop and didn’t get any further than the car park because your kid was going batshit crazy and you hadn’t even got out of the car yet, sitting there crying helpless tears of frustration. And how that happened three weeks in a row, which is why you ended up pretending to be shopping-ninjas on a mission because that was the only way to get the job done. You get used to spinning stories off the top of your head while powering along the M5 because it turns out that the tale of the Cheesepuff who wanted to be a ballerina is the only thing that’s going to stop the all-out war in the backseat. And the only way you can get your child to wash their face, or brush their hair is by inventing characters and silly voices for the flannel, the towel, the brush, and woe betide you if you get them mixed up. Even though your child is nearly at secondary school, rather than toddler age and part of you is screaming I shouldn’t have to be doing this by now. Your life is now full of weird shit, and weird shit rocks when it comes to writing.
What challenges are you facing in life? Your Creative Friday mission is this; take a good look at how those challenges might actually help you be a better writer. What have your challenges taught you about life, people and the world that ultimately is going to make you a better artist?