Sensory: Life on the Spectrum An Autistic Comic Anthology
Author: Rebecca “Bex” Ollerton, editor
Publish Date: October 2022
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1524874766
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/lists/recently-reviewed-on-graphicmedicine-org
By Soph Myers-Kelley
Referencing Autism Connections, the prevalence of autism in the United States is estimated at 1 in 44 births (CDC, 2021). More than 5.4 million Adults in the U.S., or 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, are on the autism spectrum (CDC and Disability Scoop, 2020), and about 1 percent of the world population has autism (CDC, 2014). These numbers are likely on the lower side, as many autistic people don’t have access to diagnosis due to a lack of insurance or aren’t evaluated appropriately for autism due to inappropriate stereotypes about their gender, race, or age. The stigma of being diagnosed autistic is a large barrier to overcome, but more people are identifying as autistic at a later age. The anthology Sensory: Life on the Spectrum edited by Bex Ollerton comes at the perfect time to welcome newly out neurodivergent folks into the neurodivergent community.
Sensory: Life on the Spectrum is truly a spectrum of bursting colors, emotions, and experiences of multiple autistic people. Rebecca Ollerton, who goes by Bex (she/they pronouns), decided to do this collaboration before Autism Acceptance Month in April, 2021. They wanted to bring many autistic comic artists together and post comics throughout the month of April using the hashtag #asdcomictakeover. There were so many comic artists and writers that she decided to create a book compilation, especially since a lot of the current published material is outdated and inaccessible. This anthology is a refreshing breath of clean, fresh air, that lightens up the synapses in one’s brain.
Because there are 40+ contributing writers/artists, the art varies drastically from chapter to chapter. In this book one can find soft, paint like depictions, jagged, sharp, dark drawings, and human, animal, and surrealist interpretations of the artists’ lives as autistic people. It was very emotional reading about people who had felt different and outcast as children and adults only to later be diagnosed autistic and connect the dots. There are poetic explanations and visual representations of what burnout feels like, the sensations of overstimulation, the euphoria of happy stims, masking & mirroring, managing multiple conditions (like depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.), grounding exercises, conversation techniques, and the sense of empathy and justice that some autistic folks share.
The anthology does a great job of sharing multiple autistic perspectives, reflecting that the autistic community is not a monolith and might not agree on all autistic terminology or experience. And that’s okay! While many autistic people in the book share how much they love their autistic life or how they’ve come to accept that this is an inherent part of who they are that they don’t want or need to change, there are some stories where artists share their discomfort or even hatred with being autistic. To be an accurate group of stories, these need to be included, too.
My reaction to some stories bringing up autistic microaggressions (like telling someone they don’t look autistic) was viscerally relatable. People sometimes treat me like a child once they know I’m autistic- telling me my autism is my superpower or congratulating me for holding a job. Similarly, the artists discuss the masks they put on (behaviors, mannerisms, tone of voice, etc.) to appear neurotypical to others or to survive social engagements, and how draining that can be.
Some other highlights include hyperlexia (unexpected, advanced reading skills in a child given their age), dyspraxia (a developmental disorder evidenced by clumsiness and difficulty with co-ordination), the confusion of clothing and fashion, special interests, gender, autistic joy, how to get professionally diagnosed (if desired), self-diagnosis, non-suicidal self-injury, autism & race, and first-person language vs. identity first language. Autism professionals (not usually autistic themselves) and parents of autistic children often use person first language- the intention being to highlight the personhood of the person before their autism. However, according to the Autistic Not Weird Autism Survey 2022, the vast majority of autistic people prefer identity first language. Some of the reasons behind this are that many autistic people don’t feel like autism is a handbag or accessory of theirs that they can remove from their perceptions and interactions with the world. Others are frustrated that their personhood needs to be emphasized in the first place; it should be an innate fact of the matter. Autism is an inherent part of who they are. Autism is normal and a “cure” would permanently change their world in a way that they don’t necessarily want and might not enjoy (see also the Autism Not Weird Survey for cure opinion polling). While most autistic people prefer identity first language, it’s important to follow the lead of the autistic person you are talking with and ask what language they want to be used when it’s unclear.
Some of the stories may be triggering for neurodivergent people living in a world not built for them- and emotions may run high. Neurodivergent people’s needs are not considered or respected at most every experience of life- be it the bright lights, forced stillness, eye-contact encouraging workspaces and school spaces, the restricting expectations of gender presentation and relationships, the most popular modes of communication and their standards, or the disinformation and othering, belittling narratives most people have learned about neurodivergent people. But I found the emotional depth of the book healing and engaging.
One story I especially enjoyed was jo blakely’s because her experience was relatable and beautiful. From working hard academically because I was rewarded for my big vocabulary and poetic use of words, to the feeling of being different and special, to my autistic relation to spirituality and the universe, to a disinterest in hierarchy, power, or money, I felt kindred in her work. I might not be a Christian like her, but I empathize with her turning towards a life of activism imbibed with deep spiritual intent. No justice, no peace!
This book has something for every neurotype, whether the reader relates to autism or doesn’t. If autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, it may feel like a warm hug to read about similar life stories. If not autistic, this is a rare, vulnerable glimpse into a world the reader may only know tangentially. This explosive read is a must have for autistic representation by autistic people who happen to be cartoonists.
Soph Myers-Kelley is a medical librarian, herbalist, and activist living in North Carolina. They can be contacted at https://www.smyerskelley.com/ and followed at https://www.instagram.com/sophmyerskelley/
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