This week, The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas was published. Not only a great story in itself, the book highlights what it’s like to be an autistic teenager. Here, Rachael explains how she found Grace’s voice.
When my seventeen year old daughter Verity was very young, I suspected – having done some research – that she was autistic. Back then, autism in girls wasn’t really mentioned, and it took ten years to get a diagnosis.
Even now it’s still incredibly hard to get a diagnosis for women and girls as the media stereotype of autism is all pervasive – young, male, often non-verbal. In girls autism is often disguised – an obsession with horses or pop music doesn’t seem unusual, and girls learn to ‘mask’ their behaviour by copying their peers.
When Verity finally received a diagnosis of autism, it was only a matter of months before mine followed, after a consultant pointed out that we had almost identical traits.
Like lots of writers I make sense of things by writing them down, and the voice of Grace started chatting away in my head. It was about a year before I started writing in earnest, but I knew that her phrase “sometimes I feel like everyone else was handed a copy of the rules for life and mine got lost” was the central theme of the book. I knew that whilst Verity had been lucky to have some teachers who really took the time to understand her, there were others out there who couldn’t empathise with how it felt to be autistic and the challenges that school brought every day. I wanted to write a book so that other autistic teenagers could see themselves in the pages of a book and feel that they were being heard and understood.
I found it really easy to find Grace’s voice – I don’t think many adults really think like adults, and the fifteen year old in us isn’t ever that far from the surface. I also wanted to really put people inside the mind of an autistic person and let them see how the world looks and feels – of course, each of us is different, but there are lots of similarities in our experiences and I hope that’s reflected in the book.
I’ve had a lot of interest from autistic readers, who are happy that they can see themselves in a story – there are so many books out there where autism is used as a plot device, and for those of us who are autistic, it’s just part of life.
I’m a real believer in the “own voices” movement – until now, almost all books about autistic characters have been written by either parents or relatives, and whilst they have a place, they don’t accurately reflect autistic people and the way we experience life.
As Grace shows in the book, even teachers who think they’re trying to understand really struggle to appreciate what it feels like to deal with sensory overload, or to struggle to find words. We often need extra processing time – something that the National Autistic Society has recently highlighted with their ‘Too Much Information’ campaign.
I hope that Grace’s story will shine a light on female autism and help readers, teachers and parents to understand autism.