Books

Odd Girl Out review

Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World’ Is Norfolk based writer and advocate Laura James’ exploration of her autism diagnosis at 45 years old. James recently spoke out about autistic representation in the ‘Autism Writes Back’ panel; where she and fellow author Joanne Limburg joined forces with Dr James McGrath to talk about their experiences of writing and living with autism. It’s not told in a linear order, but it’s nonetheless an easy transition between James’ thoughts and feelings after diagnosis and analysis of her childhood and what went missed. It explores the influence of gender on autistic symptoms. The current supported ratio of autistic boys and men to women is 3:1, with the caveat that many charities dispute this when women’s symptoms are more likely to be undiagnosed. For example, many girls find the social pull to fit in more than boys do, and try to copy girls they admire in the media and real life to try and copy socially acceptable behaviours.

The book also challenges perceptions of autism and intelligence, and the binary idea of ‘mild vs severe’ autism. It’s entirely possible that, just like for James’ a high profile career and meaningful relationships can sit alongside panic attacks, past abusive relationships, academic failure and a tendency towards addiction. This last symptom was particularly interesting to read about – there’s a worrying tendency for the media to present autistics as ardent rule followers. Although James writes about the pervasive anxiety of accidentally breaking social rules, that didn’t stop her from smoking as a teenager, and struggling against prescribed addictive tranquillisers that played havoc with her mind and body.

Indeed, recent studies have shown that autistic people could be twice as likely to become addicted to alcohol and other substances – with the number increasing for people who deal with comorbid conditions like ADHD.

This information is more likely to be revelatory to nuerotypicals (those not affected by a neurological disorder) and cathartic to the recently diagnosed than it is to illuminate ‘autistic veterans’ who already self-advocate and research, but nonetheless it is a compelling book with an easy empathetic pull and a extraordinarily resilient and likable narrator.

As the still ever too small genre of ‘autistic memoir’ slowly expands it’s important to remember that diagnosis is an individual and idiosyncratic process and rarely an easy journey whenever it happens. There are pros and cons for either side: an early diagnosis assures support plans can come in place – but those supports may stumble alongside stereotypes. Those diagnosed later in life may be forced to develop more independence and experience with ‘masking’ in the neurotypical world, but often suffer with self-isolation and traumatic burnout.

What people tend to forget is that new comorbid diagnoses’ can pop up at any time, and of course so can physical disability. Indeed, one of the best parts of the book is how James weaves together her experiences of Elhers Danlos Syndrome – a disorder which affects connective tissues like the skin and joints – autism and mental illness together.

This rejects the common dichotomy that happens between neurological disabilities, mental illnesses and physical illness. How many times has someone had to explain their illness using the metaphor of a broken leg?

James’ reminds us that these conditions are far from exclusive.

She alludes to but ultimately stays away from the exploration of autism as a politicised identity, briskly and forthrightly acknowledging her privileges alongside her struggles, and going over debates like the search for an autistic cure only briefly. Having read a lot of articles about similar diagnostic paths, I can’t help but wish there was slightly more focus in telling intersectional stories about living with neurodiversity. For those I recommend the kaleidoscope society website, which frequently profiles POC creators, and the memoirs ‘Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight’ and ‘The Reason I Jump’ by Japanese novelist Naoki Higashida.

On its own merits, ‘Odd Girl Out’ is an unconsciously powerful memoir, and a call to remember that autism does not exist in binaries. This has been called out before by many, and deserves to be said as long as the ignorant exist. It’s at once an empowering and melancholy thought that this moment in time seems to be the first with a genuine impulse to actually listen.

Lois

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