Book Review: Neurotribes

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“If normal is being selfish, being dishonest, having guns and waging war, I do not want any of it.”

Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman, is a wide ranging exploration of the history of autism and society’s attitude to those living with the diagnosis. It is a book about the condition but also about people, their fears and prejudices. Autistics have long been branded as diseased and inferior. They are not necessarily uncomfortable with themselves, it is others who are uncomfortable with them.

The book is divided into chapters which take the reader back to well before clinicians gave the condition a name. It introduces significant individuals from history whose discoveries and inventions shaped the world we know today but whose behaviours were deemed eccentric. The point is made that, should a cure for autism be found, scientific progress may be stymied. These people think differently, and it is that which could be regarded as their strength.

For centuries those who would not, or could not, behave as demanded by rigid, social rules were condemned to institutions. These individuals were damaged by the experience and had little chance of ever becoming contributing members of society. Those whose parents refused to bow to demands to give up on their misfits could work on finding a way to live in a world they struggled to make sense of.

“imagine the child’s reaction to the futility of living in an incomprehensible world run by what must appear to him to be demanding, ritualistic, arbitrary and inconsistent psychotics”

Parents of autistic children mourn the child they expected to have, desperate to have their beloved offspring fit in to a culture preoccupied with mass consumption and vacuous spectacle. They grasp at any straws which may offer a cure when what the autistic child wants is to find a way to communicate their needs and to be accepted as they are. There is much adult hand wringing over a child’s inability to make friends, even when the child appears happy with their solitary preoccupations. Little thought is given to why the child would wish to befriend those who mercilessly tease and bully them for being different.

“Left to his own devices, Robert might not have experienced himself as mentally ill at all, though he certainly could have developed an anxiety disorder from being perpetually grilled by men with clipboards.”

In the twentieth century psychiatry entered the mainstream of medicine and children labelled mentally retarded were studied. In Vienna, a pediatrician named Hans Asperger worked with a tight knit team of staff to find ways of engaging with unusual children. He dubbed these young people his little professors. His work was neglected until recently due to outside events. In America, the Eugenics Society was promoting the idea that those diagnosed as mentally deficient should be sterilized or even eliminated for the good of future humankind. Another Viennese, Adolf Hitler, took these ideas to extremes, but he was far from the only advocate of removing undesirables from the gene pool.

The cruelties inflicted on those deemed retarded make for depressing reading. From those autistics who are now adults and who, thanks to the advent of the internet, can be more widely heard, we learn that they view what would be regarded as normal behaviour as incomprehensible. One lady stated that she felt all her life like an anthropologist observing human interactions from a distance, straining to find meaning. She also pointed out that when autistics get together they can make sense of each other.

“the same behaviours that had been viewed for so long as inherently antisocial could become social in a group of autistic adults, particularly if there were no clinicians around to pronounce them pathological.”

The scope of the book and the detail offered make this a fascinating if sometimes challenging read. There is a great deal to take in but the central theme is constant – difference needs more acceptance. There has not been an autism epidemic, merely an expansion of the diagnosis. Autism is not a modern issue caused by vaccines, pollution or processed food, neither is it a fate worse than death. Autistics can lead full and happy lives if, just like the rest of society, they are welcomed in their community.

Difference is endemic yet so much effort is expended to promote a particular set of behaviours. By expounding on the damage this attitude has caused over centuries readers are encouraged to think differently themselves. Those raising neurodiverse children require and deserve more mainstream support. A varied society is scientifically and culturally richer, and this should be celebrated, not suppressed.

Random musings: Burqas and bikinis

The idea of wearing a burqa holds certain attractions. Until I am able to purchase an invisibility cloak it offers the chance to hide away from the judgemental eyes of other people. What I don’t like about this garment is the repression that it represents. It is worn because men say that it is required, because a woman’s body tempts a man to sin simply by being on display. It absolves these men of their most basic responsibility: self control.

Those who try to claim that a girl in a skimpy outfit is asking for sex are speaking the same language as those who insist on women covering themselves from head to toe in a black or blue tent. I don’t buy this argument. Any individual should be able to display themselves as they wish without fear of attack, physical or verbal. An attack is always the fault of the attacker, never the victim.

I like to read diversely. Fiction is such a fabulous way to learn about different ways of thinking. I do not tend to seek out books featuring sexually diverse characters or those with varied skin colours because I already see these people as just like me. Skin tone is of as little significance as the colour of clothes. I eat meat but have friends who are vegetarian, am heterosexual but have friends who are gay or bi. Personal preferences are not my concern, unless there is an element of coercion. I do not wish anyone to tell me how to live my life.

What I do like to read about is characters whose day to day lives are coloured by expectations that are foreign to me, whose actions are ruled by cultural differences, acceptance of which I find hard to comprehend.

I will actively seek out a book that will enable me to better understand the issues faced by a child raised in a traditional Pakistani family, or who is expected to adhere to rules laid down by a religious organisation to which their family has always subscribed. Whilst I may wonder at the way these people think, I can learn more about why traditions have developed and see benefits beside the many flaws. I can broaden my understanding and challenge my thinking; see oppressors as people who, perhaps, have never known that it can be beneficial to act in another way. I may not agree with their choices, but I can gain a better understanding of why they behave as they do.

I find it much harder to empathise with those who have been raised with the ability and freedom to decide for themselves, yet who consider it vital that they always present an outward appearance that is acceptable to those around, such as women whose main aim in life seems to be to achieve a bikini body, big hair and smooth skin.

I tend to avoid books where the heroine must be beautiful and has her life enhanced by a handsome hero who will take care of her every need. Why does she have to be beautiful to find love? Why can she not look after herself? I am not against relationships, I have after all been married for more than twenty years and value my husband’s place in my life highly. He is not, however, responsible for my happiness, that is down to me and me alone.

I support the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks because I recognise that there are too many people who think it is fine to have only pale skinned, heteronormative, cisgendered, able bodied protagonists. In young people’s literature especially, a more realistic physical, sexual and cultural mix matters. All children should be able to see themselves as the hero in at least some of the books that they read.

Still though, I am uncomfortable reading books that contain characters who match a huge section of the society in which I live, those who feel it is desirable to look like Ken or Barbie. I do not understand why so many fear wrinkles and grey hair, why they feel unable to don a bikini because of the very natural shape of their stomach following childbirth or because their legs are dimpled by their love of cake. I find it sad that some men are now swallowing the marketing hype and feel a need to build muscle or moisturise skin. I cannot comprehend this way of thinking.

My hankering after invisibility indicates that I am not immune to other’s judgements. I may struggle to understand why so many think so much about outward appearance, but I am affected by the knowledge that how I look generates negative comment. My antipathy and therefore avoidance of books where the young and beautiful win some mythical happy ever after may well be feeding my prejudices. If I am to gain empathy and understanding then I need to step beyond my view that these books are damaging because they sell an impossible to achieve lie, and try to better understand why they are so popular.

I decided to review a book titled ‘Diary of a Diva‘ because I expected it to be an amusing if superficial account of life from the point of view of a beautiful, media type person who moved in the sorts of circles that are anathema to me. Having read it I suspect that I wished to pat my prejudices on the head and feel quietly superior. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I feel ashamed.

I judged this book by its cover, the author by her looks and career, something that I call others out on doing all the time. This searingly honest account was as much of an eye opener as any of my chosen, foreign based reads. I had wrapped up ‘media type people’ as a vain, homogeneous mass to look down upon. It would seem that I still have a long way to go in dealing with my negative responses towards those who think differently to me. The protagonist of this non fiction book had many admirable qualities to which I should aspire.

I will wear neither burqa nor bikini because that is my choice. I will however continue to try to read more widely. The author of ‘Diary of a Diva’ was able to see and acknowledge her flaws which she then worked to improve. In reading her book I have uncovered a fair few of my own. I will try to do better.

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Mr Gove needs to read more books

It started with Ladybird books, which looked so pleasing to the eye lined up neatly on the bookshelf above my small toybox. I knew each of their stories by heart. My avid reading, however, was inspired by Enid Blyton. My father, the educated reader I looked up to and wished to emulate in so many areas of life, did not seem to approve of Enid Blyton. He did approve of me reading; I was never denied my choice of books.

I expanded my interest to Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Susan Coolidge, Ruby Ferguson, Helen Dore Boylston. I lapped up CS Forester, Jules Verne and Conan Doyle. I discovered the small library near to my primary school and devoured anything and everything that I could find in their childrens section. I immersed myself in new worlds and dreamed of being anyone other than who I was.

When I moved on to Grammar School I needed my books more than ever. I discovered Tolkien, but also a slew of writers of popular fiction; best selling thrillers that were easy to read and romances that fed my burgeoning, dreamy desires. Once again my family showed some disapproval of my choice of reading material, but did not interfere. I frequented the book sections of charity shops and read voraciously.

By the time ‘O’ levels were on the horizon I was a true lover of books. I had opinions that I had no difficulty expressing in essays, a growing vocabulary. I enjoyed English literature, but not the school lessons or the set texts that we were required to dissect and analyse. I preferred Wilfred Owen to Wordsworth; struggled to memorise ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by dull, old Shakespeare; found Dickens ridiculous with his over the top characters; disliked the foolish women of Cranford who never seemed to do anything. When my sister, who was studying for English ‘A’ level, showed me Chaucer I determined to give up the subject when I could.

I did not give up on books though. Alongside my favoured modern writers I read Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I discovered George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf. I tried Dickens again but still disliked him. I tried Shakespeare and came to realise that I enjoyed watching his plays but not reading the texts. I have read some of the ancients, Virgil and Plato, but have not yet attempted Chaucer.

I read widely, books by both living and dead authors from countries near and far. I read popular fiction alongside the more obscure titles that I make efforts to seek out. I still know little that can beat a quiet afternoon spent immersing myself in a well written, fictional world.

I was lucky. I grew up in a house filled with books amongst a family of readers. Not every child has that advantage.

The current Education Secretary, Mr Gove, wishes to raise standards of education in British schools. Following a review of the GCSE English Literature curriculum, the set text list is to be revised to ensure that more British authors are studied. The new GCSE course content will include at least one play by William Shakespeare, a selection of work by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, a selection of poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama. About three-quarters of the books on the list are from the “canon of English literature” and most are pre-20th Century. The Department for Education wishes the exam to be “more focused on tradition”.

Mr Gove studied English at Oxford and is reported to personally dislike Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, which has been dropped by GCSE exam boards along with ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and ‘The Crucible’. Mr Gove has stated in a speech that he is disappointed when he hears of teenagers reading the Twilight books rather than something like Middlemarch. The message that is coming across is that Mr Gove wishes teenagers to read the sort of books that he has enjoyed rather than those that they may gain pleasure from. The suggestion that books are not to be read for pleasure infuriates me. If we all liked the same sorts of books then the literary world would be a poorer place indeed.

There are so many aspects of this that anger and depress me. Schools are required to teach pupils about tolerance and acceptance, yet will now have more difficulty in presenting them with works of fiction that explore diversity and the impact of inequality. For children who have not grown up in a house full of books, the texts that they will be required to study at school are as likely to turn them off reading as to instil in them a love of literature that could broaden their outlook and aspirations.

Mr Gove is showing a narrowness of imagination, a lack of understanding for what literature can offer and achieve. He is harking back to a bygone era rather than looking at the world which today’s teenagers must inhabit and will one day rule. We need readers and thinkers, not young people who regard books as anachronistic.

I suspect that, given his inability to empathise and understand the potential impact of his policies, he has been reading the wrong sort of books. He needs to diversify his bookshelves, to get inside the heads of some fictional characters who differ from the yes men he surrounds himself with. He needs to learn to listen, to see how much damage the policies he promotes will inflict on the young people whose future he purports to wish to improve. If anyone needs to be educated on the wider benefits of English literature then it is Mr Gove.

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Author Interview: Sarah Benwell

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Sarah Benwell writes fiction for young adults. She has a particular fondness for travel and foreign places, both in real life and in her stories. Alongside her writing, Sarah delivers literacy workshops for teenagers and works on various social media and online websites.

She is an advocate of diversity, in life and on bookshelves. Her involvement with Diversity League has recently gained prominence through the amazingly successful #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

I first became aware of Sarah’s work when her name started to crop up amongst the outer circle of my daughter’s writer friends; there is nothing like a personal contact, even if a few times removed, to generate interest. Having investigated the work that she and others are doing to raise awareness of the current lack of diversity in popular fiction for young people, I knew that I wanted to know more.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Sarah Benwell.

Where do you typically write?

The short answer is, ‘anywhere I can’. The long answer: I’d prefer to write on trains and planes, deep in the jungle or lakeside in The Serengeti. And I sort of do – I always have a notebook with me – but I also find it really hard to write for any length by hand, so the majority of it gets done at my desk, surrounded by my wall of post-it notes.

Tell us about your writing process.

Hm. I think this is always an evolving thing. I recently realized that, despite always maintaining that I only have the brainspace to work on one project at once, I currently have seven on the go (what? I don’t even know how that happened!). And before the latest WIP I would have sworn that the hardest part was always the first 8k, but this time the hard part kept on going.

I can tell you that for me, situation and character appear almost simultaneously. It’s like ‘how would I/ someone deal with this weird/ awful/wonderful thing?’ and invariably a character who would find themselves in that situation– usually someone from an entirely different kind of life to my own – walks into my head.

And I can tell you that diversity is always at the heart of what I do. I’m fascinated by the perpetual difference:sameness of us all, and all the facets of that. My world isn’t populated by white, middle class, straight. cisgendered, able-bodied, neuro-typical protestants who all live in the west, in nuclear families, with identical problems. But it doesn’t mean we can’t relate. Life isn’t just one story, and I don’t want my books to be, either.

And because I’m usually writing (at least in part) as an outsider, I try to be careful and respectful; to do everything I can to ensure fair, accurate representation. Research is important. Experience or firsthand accounts, insider knowledge and opinions are essential. Seeking out art (in all its forms) and observing the way language works and always, always asking questions (and listening to the answers). We’re lucky. The internet opens all those doors; we just have to seek them out.

Tell us about your publishing experience.

If you want the full and lengthy story, you can read more about the journey to my first book deal here. Since that deal, I’ve been very, very lucky to work with the wonderful Becky Stradwick at RHCP UK, and with the brilliant David Gale at S&S US. They have very different approaches, and I’ve benefited hugely from that. Plus, it’s kind of nice to know that the ‘no one way’ rule applies everywhere, not just to writers. Diversity FTW.

In what ways do you promote your work?

I don’t, as such. I mean, it would be lovely if people seek out my writing (it’s not out yet, or I might slip a shameless plug in here) but I’m not entirely comfortable yet with the idea of self promotion as an active, deliberate thing.

What I do, though, is interact. Not for sales and gaining interest, but because I love this world that we live in. I love being part of the writing community (IRL and online), whether that means running workshops that enable teens to engage with their creative selves, beta-ing for Twitter friends or just being there.

I’m also, er, not good at keeping quiet about the things which are important to me. If there’s a book I love, you’re going to hear about it (and so will the author, probably). I talk about articles I’ve read, and am always on the lookout for discussions, especially where YA/ publishing/diversity are concerned. I want to be well informed. I want the tools to make a difference. And I want my friends to be too, because no one can do that alone.

It’s not about my work. It’s about ours, and the collective difference we can make to the world.

What are some of your current projects?

I can’t talk about everything. You’d be bored in 5 minutes. But my current WIP moves away from the stillness of Last Leaves, and into the land of Bollywood. It’s mad. Mumbai is a pretty crazy place, and the film industry is even more so. I’m playing with form, and colour and busy rhythms, and blurring the lines between reality and fiction just a little; it’s basically a Bollywood movie, except on the page!

On top of that, I’m collaborating with some wonderful people on things I hope I can share soon, and I have a couple of secret things lined up.

And there’s always my non-writing projects; things like the Young Writers Squad, where I get to work with enthusiastic teens and initiate them into this wonderful, crazy book-world that we live in. Best. Thing. Ever.

Where can my readers find you?

There will be a website, coming soon, but it’s not finished yet.

In the meantime, I’m pretty much always lurking on Twitter, either as Sarah Benwell (@SWritesBooks) or DiversifYA (@DiversifYA).

The Last Leaves Falling is now on Goodreads.

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Sarah Benwell is a YA author, teacher, traveller, mad.

Will always rise to a challenge, even when it involves giant hairy spiders. For lunch.

Lives in Bath, England but prefers living in books or on planes or trains or remote unmapped places.

Advocate of diversity in life and bookcases.

Rep’d by Gill McLay. The Last Leaves Falling is her debut novel, coming spring 2015 from Random House UK.