When I was about nine, I described something I did at home to a classmate (I’ve forgotten what, but it required a degree of extraversion). “I can’t imagine you doing that” she said “you’re too quiet”. “I’m one of those people who is quiet at school and loud at home” I said. “What people? Those people don’t exist” she sneered, no doubt confirmed in her view that I was weird.
This was one of many incidents that made me feel an outsider, an odd girl out. It was only in my forties, after my Asperger’s diagnosis, that I found that ‘those people’ DO exist. One of the places I find them is in books like Odd Girl Out by Laura James, Laura recalls being quiet at school and a chatterbox when just around adults. A ‘quiet chatterbox ‘she called herself repeating it over and over in her head adding train noises because it sounded like a train.
Odd Girl Out is a beautifully written and candid memoir tracing the year and a half after of journalist Laura’s autism diagnosis in her mid 40s. It is honest and unflinching but never depressing or negative as she reflects on her past and begins to comes to terms with her diagnosis, trying to pick out which parts of her were her and which parts were borrowed.
Reading the book has brought up so many memories. I just want to go through it and say “that’s like me” and “that happened to me” and “that” and “that”.
There’s so much in the book I relate to. From the feeling of uncomfortable outdoor shoes at school to being punished for not being able to eat disgusting school dinners, to living with anxiety and constant fear. From special interests and learning to copy other people to needing routine and things a certain way but being disorganised because of executive functioning problems and much more.
Like me, one of Laura’s special interest is reading. Until I read this book I wasn’t even sure if reading was a special interest. It’s kind of like breathing for me. It didn’t occur to me reading the same book repeatedly, 10, 15, 20 times was unusual – well it’s not if you’re autistic. Like Laura I get to the end of a book and start again from the beginning. I read fast (I finished this book in three hours and have read it twice now). People often say to me “Have you finished that book? Already??” as if fast reading were some sort of crime.
We are a similar age and read many of the same books . Laura describes reading Jilly Cooper as “you would an instruction manual for a washing machine” looking for answers to life. Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles were part of my guide-to-life reading too. I also recall a family holiday in Wales before I went to a new school. I discovered a second hand bookshop selling old Enid Blytons and quickly became obsessed with Malory Towers. I read and re-read them in the same way Laura describes, looking for instructions to follow for my new school. When we talk about that holiday, my mum says “Ah yes, Malory Towers”.
I’d recommend this to anyone. For non-autistics it will aid understanding of what being autistic is like and challenge stereotypical views of autism. It should be required reading for anyone who has ever said “she can’t be autistic” or “you don’t look autistic” as it shows how someone can be successful, superficially look like everyone else and yet still be autistic.
I think its main value will be for autistic people. I found reading the book an incredibly validating experience and left me feeling less alone and more sure-footed as an autistic person. I unexpectedly found tears in my eyes unexpectedly on a number of occasions. I’m sure a lot of other people will get the same validation. I can see it being the book that makes someone who once thought “autistic” an alien word see that, actually, it applies to them.
It helped me as well. When Laura said, a year after her diagnosis she realised she was still “a cat, judging myself by dog behaviour”, it made me sit up. Not just because I use that metaphor too, but because three years after my diagnosis, I am still judging myself by “dog behaviour” and perhaps this is the root of my depression.
I”m sure I’ll read this book again. When the world feels spiky and hostile, when I’m crushed by the weight of expectations, when I’m sick and shaky from sensory overload, this book will be a friend to turn to. I’ll relax in to it like a warm comforting bath finding understanding and reassurance that I’m not alone. Odd girl out no more.
(Thanks to Bluebird Books for a review copy of the book)