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What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Stories about those who differ from what’s considered normal have always been very attractive to both authors and readers, but writing them successfully is not an easy task, no matter if it is fiction or nonfiction. How does an author get in the head of somebody who is different from what we accept as normal? Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism are examples of these challenging subjects. Ever since the publication of the 2003 international bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, we have seen a plethora of fiction and non-fiction on these disorders.  We’ve put together a bookshelf of 16 inspiring titles in this category which you can find here. However, we wanted to bring one of these books to your attention since it was written by somebody with a very unique perspective. Boomer & Me is a new memoir by Australian freelance writer and journalist Jo Case about her experience of discovering that her son Leo has Asperger’s Syndrome. In the process of writing her story – which is both moving and funny – Jo discovered that the traits of this condition are deeply ingrained in her family and that she is quite likely to have this condition too. It’s rare to read a book that is presented from both insider and outsider perspectives.

boomer and me

We caught up with Jo Case in person and were able to ask her a few questions about both her experience of writing this story, and also her hopes for what the readers will discover when immersed in Leo’s world.  

Boomer and Me is a very personal book: while writing this book was there anything that made you hesitate or become more determined to share your story with a wide readership?

Oh, yes! It was very confronting to be writing about my family. I have written about them all with affection, but I certainly don’t portray them (or indeed, myself) as perfect. I don’t believe in perfection; it’s not real. Or, it only exists in fleeting moments. (Luckily, disaster is usually fleeting too.) Real life moves between those extremes; it’s complex. On the page and in life, when I meet someone who presents as unblemished, I don’t quite believe in them. I may not dislike them, but I can’t actively like them either. The characters I love most, the ones who feel real to me, are complex. They behave badly sometimes, they say things you might raise an eyebrow at, and they are flawed. So I knew that if I were to write about my family, I would need to present them as complex characters, to make them multi-dimensional. That’s a big thing to do; it’s exposing. Of course, I’ve also revealed plenty about myself. Just a few examples: I make catty (and unfair) judgements to make myself feel better, I am preoccupied with finding a decent coffee while at a protest, I yell at a teacher who is not empathetic to my son, and I cook shoddy meals and forget important doctor’s appointments. Revealing all this was far easier: I consulted with myself, and I was okay with it. I am a huge, huge fan of Helen Garner, who is hard on nearly everyone in her writing, but most of all on herself. I have tried to take that on board. I was determined to share my story with a wider readership, despite all this, quite simply because I think it’s important to have a wide variety of stories out there about Asperger’s and life on the spectrum. When Leo was diagnosed, and then when I received a provisional diagnosis, I looked everywhere for a book that would speak to my experience, either as a parent or as a woman on the spectrum. Look me in the Eye by John Elder Robison was valuable as a book that was entertaining and positive, and showed that Asperger’s has advantages as well as challenges. Music critic Tim Page’s essay ‘Parallel Play’, published in the New Yorker (and later as a book of the same title) was an engrossing piece of writing that gave another, different, insight into what an Asperger’s brain can look and feel like. Another book I read after my book had been handed to my publisher, and would have helped me, was Rachel Robertson’s Reaching One Thousand, a beautifully written and very thoughtful look at raising a child with Asperger’s, looking twice at her family history, and dealing with a diagnosis and a way forward. There’s a saying that if you’ve met one person with Asperger’s or autism, you’ve met one person with Asperger’s or autism. It’s useful to have various ways of living with ASD in the public domain.

You seem to be very uniquely positioned to write this story – since you wrote it as both the observer, but also as someone who potentially has the same condition as your son. Did this make the writing of this book easier or more difficult for you, and if so how?

I’m not sure if being a person on the autistic spectrum made writing the book easier or harder for me. Making the decision to ‘out’ myself was challenging – originally, both my publisher and my agent understood the book as being a memoir about parenting a child with Asperger’s; they weren’t aware of the wider investigation into myself and my family that were a part of our story. And they certainly weren’t aware that I was planning to write about my own provisional diagnosis (or that I had one). But I thought it would be dishonest to write about my son without also revealing my own place on the spectrum. I felt that would be exploitative. What kind of message would it send, if I was comfortable talking about his challenges, but not my own? And how could I publicly claim him as being on the spectrum, but hide my own place on it? It would send the message that I was ashamed of it – and would be hugely hypocritical, given that I am teaching him to own it as a positive identity. Writing the book forced me to face my own feelings about Asperger’s, rather than bury them. I believe in honesty, so I had to admit while writing that I do sometimes feel ashamed of it, and that it’s not something I like to tell people about myself, for fear of judgment. But I’ve balanced that with an acceptance and a kind of pride that lives alongside that. It took time to come to this position. I think part of the reason I don’t tell people, and haven’t pursued a formal diagnosis for myself, is that as an adult who has found a place where I function well in society (the book industry is a thriving haven for eccentrics and outsiders!), I don’t have any reason to explain myself. I don’t actively conceal it, but I don’t reveal it in my everyday life either.

When you read a good book, you enter a form of conversation, because all good books talk to the reader, but they also provoke questions in readers. What kind of questions would you like your readers to ask themselves when they finish reading your story?

I completely agree with this – my favourite books (both fiction and non-fiction) are the ones that leave me with lingering questions, rather than try to provide all the answers. In this book, I explore two key questions, I think. The first concerns what is ‘normal’ – and what does it mean to fall outside this definition? The second is, how do you be a good mother – and what does a good mother look like? I haven’t answered either of these questions definitively; I hope these questions linger for the reader. It can be frightening and isolating to be labeled as officially not-normal. I’ve watched my son struggle with that. When you’re a kid, all you want is to be like everyone else, to fit in. I know I did. And I know that I actively changed who I was in order to become like the kind of person I thought people would like. Looking back, I can see how unhealthy that was. It certainly damaged my academic prospects; I went to a high school where it was uncool to be smart, so I decided to do badly on purpose. I relished deliberately failing for a while. But I was lucky that I had friends, one good friend in particular, who took a kind of pride in not being like everyone else. That meant that I was much less focused on moulding myself into an ill-fitting form than I might have been. I try to encourage my son to find friends who suit him, too, rather than become the kind of person who’ll find friends. Of course, I have mixed success – but he has befriended kids who like creating their own worlds, like I did. (My friends liked writing stories; his like making YouTube videos.) I’ve realised that ‘normal’ is actually a pretty narrow definition; most people deviate from the norm in some way. Similarly, the ‘normal’ family is hard to find these days. I spent a lot of time as a single mother, then as a mother who shares custody of her child in a blended family (where both my husband and I have divorced parents) worrying about being less than a ‘normal’ family, and being judged for that. And worrying that I’d given my son a lesser family experience, that he was missing out. But when you stop looking inward and look around, you notice that there are all kinds of non-traditional families about. The most important thing is that a family works, and that there’s genuine affection and support for one another. We all have our own ways in which we’re different. In fact, that’s what makes us interesting. The question of how to be a mother correlates with that question of what ‘normal’ is. We have the idea that there’s a right way to be a mother; that’s what drives the ‘mummy wars’ that are always being beaten up. (For example, helicopter or free-range parenting?) Being a terrible housekeeper and a reluctant cook, I’ve always felt guilty that I fall so far of the manicured women on television advertisements, who are always obsessed with germs and having a clean bath when the neighbours pop over. But I’ve come to think that none of that really matters. What matters is that we care for our children, emotionally and physically. And it’s not necessary to do that perfectly, much as I would like to. We’re all human. Though I beat myself up as much as the next mum (sometimes more) for where I fall short, logically I’ve come around to the idea of the ‘good-enough’ mum. There are as many ways to be a mother as there are to be a woman. Mothering takes the shape of you; it’s not a prescribed role you need to squeeze yourself into.

Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have been popular subjects in both fiction and non-fiction in recent years – why do you think this is? And have any of these books made you think of this condition in a different way?

I think it’s popular partly because it’s fairly new in the public consciousness. When I was growing up, no one had really heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. If the diagnosis had been around, I have family members who would have received it, I’m sure. There was a real gap in the literature available, so writers and publishers are filling that gap. I’ve talked above about how some of the books I’ve read have helped me to come to terms with Apserger’s and figure out what it means for me and my family. Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome was the book that really helped me navigate the world of Asperger’s and understand what it meant; Tony is generally accepted as the world expert, and his book is knowledgeable, comprehensive, positive and entirely readable for the layperson. Oddly enough, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is one of my son’s all-time favourite books. He also loves Silver Linings Playbook (me too), which doesn’t say what the main character’s diagnosis is (unlike in the film, where he’s bipolar), but he certainly seems like an Aspie to me. I think maybe the sense of humour in those books particularly appeals, and the way they successfully navigate challenges. I also read About a Boy and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby as very Asperger’s books. (Interestingly, Nick has an autistic son.) I adored Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. I think it’s very clever and funny, and has a terrific way of confronting the reader with myths and assumptions about Asperger’s, only to knock them down. I bought Rosie as a Christmas present for my dad, who identifies as Asperger’s, and he loved it too. He rang me a few times while he was reading it to tell me how much he liked it, and to discuss the character of Don. It’s a novel that presents Asperger’s as responsible for Don’s challenges, but also his tremendous gifts. And the reader falls in love with Don as a character. That was my aim, to introduce the reader to characters on the autistic spectrum as people, rather than as sets of symptoms (which I think Graeme beautifully achieves). I wanted readers to react to me and Leo – and hopefully engage with and empathise with us – as fully rounded characters.

You have gone through the experience of finding out that your child has Asperger syndrome, but also discovering that you might have this condition. What is the one thing that you wished you knew at the outset of this experience and would like to pass to others as advice?

I didn’t know much about Asperger’s Syndrome – and I thought of it mostly in terms of the challenges, rather than the positives. I think that more rounded perspectives of what Asperger’s means are just starting to become more widely available. I wish my first introduction to Asperger’s had been more balanced, and more positively framed. I also wish I’d been able to read personal stories that I could really connect with, that would make me positive about my son’s chances of having a productive life, with love and happiness in it. I have found some in the intervening years (including John Elder Robison and Rachel Robertson) and that’s what I’m hoping to provide. Advice? It’s not a life sentence, though it might feel like one at first. It’s a path to understanding. Knowledge is a powerful tool. Allow yourself to grieve at first, but realise that diagnosis often represents both the worst time and the moment before it all starts to improve, with the tools and understanding that a diagnosis brings. Asperger’s is a particular brain structure built on extremes, and that while it presents considerable challenges, it also presents considerable gifts. I truly believe that childhood is the hardest time for someone with Asperger’s. It’s the time when you receive a general education. We’re not good generalists. As we move into university and work, where we can specialise and focus on what we’re really good at (and passionate about), life improves. Hang in there. We would love to hear back from you about Boomer & Me, about Jo’s great answers to our questions and about other books on Asperger’s that you would like to add to our Asperger’s & Autism Collection Bookshelf. You can leave your comments here or go to Jo’s author page on our site where you can either leave another comment or join in conversation with Jo via her twitter.