Fingers in the Sparkle Jar review

About eighteen months ago I was asked to review Chris Packham’s nature memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by an autism charity with links to the man himself. Presumably they thought that, as an autistic writer who lives in the New Forest like Packham, I would give it a glowing review. But I didn’t. So they didn’t publish it.

In honour of World Book Day, here it is:

Chris Packham is a man who divides people. I have met those who adore him and his animal activism, and others who cannot abide him. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, his idiosyncratic memoir of his childhood, is just as divisive.

The title is, without a doubt, the best possible description for his work. A jumbled collection of vividly-drawn vignettes and intimately-rendered impressions, some magical, some shocking, all peculiarly individual, it will surely disappoint those looking for a straightforward autobiography. To read this book is to delve into a mixture of memories and imaginings, poetry and pain, as though shaking up a jar of recollections and drifting through the resulting chaos. This is the book’s main strength, and one of its key weaknesses.

While there is an overall progression – it’s the story of a boy taking a kestrel chick from a nest and raising it, in the process learning about life and death – to try to impose a linear narrative to the text seems to be to miss the point. Indeed, it has an obsessive focus on the details rather than the ‘bigger picture’, clearly representing how Packham interprets the world and mirroring the workings of the autistic mind. As a reader, however, and an autistic one at that, I found this wandering style more alienating than inviting, especially the multiple shifts from first- to third-person, and craved something – anything – that might give me a sense of direction.

It is also a particularly difficult read, both in terms of form and content. From the first page, you are struck by Packham’s individualistic writing style – long sentences packed with adjectives and multiple clauses that create a wonderful sense of a place or a feeling but make literal understanding almost impossible. Some of his sentences I had to read a dozen times to even come close to getting the gist of what he was trying to say, and this added to my frustration with the book. Furthermore, the brutal, unsentimental honesty of his writing is at times deeply uncomfortable; the depictions of bullying and animal cruelty, for example, some of it by Packham himself – a passage where he describes his fondness for eating live tadpoles stands out – are markedly unpleasant and not for the squeamish.

All of which makes Fingers in the Sparkle Jar an incredibly difficult book to review. On the one hand, it is revealing and brave, beautifully illustrating the isolation, confusion, and bullying often experienced by those of us on the Spectrum while we were growing up; and on the other, I found it both a challenge and a chore to read. Having discussed it with others, some really liked the lyricism and free form of the structure, while others, like me, struggled to cope with the poeticism and formlessness of Packham’s style. I can understand why, as a dark, individualistic depiction of a childhood living with autism and nature, it has earned bestseller status, but if you’re expecting a straightforward autobiography about how a naturalist became a TV presenter and was subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, this is definitely not the book for you.

Fingers In The Sparkle Jar at Amazon

Advertisements

Writers Bureau Blog

For anybody who is interested, because I came fourth in their Short Story Competition I was asked to write this week’s blog for The Writers Bureau. You can access it by clicking this link.

Enjoy!

The Perils of Perfection

I am a high achiever. This might come as a surprise considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law. But I am a high achiever nonetheless. And I’m here to tell you: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What makes me a high achiever despite never actually achieving anything of much note? With no false modesty, I just am. I walked early, talked early, read early, wrote early. In primary school, I jumped from the first year to the third year, skipping the second. I was in an advanced English class with older children. They told my parents that the sky was the limit. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely could be.

At middle school I was in an advanced English and Maths class with older children, and regularly corrected my teachers’ spelling and mathematical mistakes. They told my parents I would reach the stratosphere. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely would be.

At secondary school I was in the top set for every subject, and started getting Level 10s for English (the highest you can get) when everyone else was getting Level 6s. They told my parents I was the most exceptional student they’d ever had in the 54 years the school had existed. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said to remember them when I was on This Is Your Life.

In VI Form, my English Literature work was deemed third-year university standard, and I was selected to go to a politics retreat for especially bright students. They told my parents I had a gift that needed to be shared with the world. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they had no doubt I wouldn’t just be a novelist, I’d be one of the bestselling novelists in the world.

I sleepwalked through university, spending no more than two days on any assignment, and still came out with a first class BA (Hons) with distinction and the highest mark in the year. I was voted the person most likely to succeed by my peers.

I started doing Open University courses and got a Diploma of Higher Education, another degree and a Masters, earning a distinction for every module, exam and essay, whether it was humanities, arts or social science – English, History, Classics, Archaeology, Psychology or Philosophy.

I have excelled at every job I’ve ever done, be it medical secretary, student nurse, telesalesperson, administrator, public speaker or police communications officer. I have worked with famous people and for royalty, sold art to mayors, travelled solo across the United States and around New Zealand; I have spoken with James Cameron, stood beside the Queen and once saw Michael Jackson travelling down Broadway on top of a bus.

I have sailed across the Atlantic as deckhand on a tall ship; climbed 100-foot cliffs; abseiled down a mineshaft; caught a 50lb conger eel; ascended mountains; qualified as a scuba diver and a parachute jumper; played guitar in a number of rock and metal bands; acted in amateur plays; won screenwriting and short story competitions; had a book published about being diagnosed with autism as an adult; appeared on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the radio. I have kayaked, surfed, water skiied, disappeared into the wilderness. Last year I won a competition medal for rifle shooting the first time I picked up a rifle. I’ve done courses in blacksmithing, map-reading, survival, forensic science, private detection, web design, tai chi, sailing, Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The only thing I’ve never done is walk on water.

So, I’m a high achiever. Which is weird considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law.

The trouble with being a high achiever is when your achievements don’t actually amount to diddly squat in the real world. I haven’t reached the stratosphere, or This Is Your Life, or even London. I still haven’t had a novel published, despite having written ten over the past twenty years, sacrificing career and relationships in exchange for 350 rejection letters declining my entry into the hallowed halls of the literary world. I’m hardly setting the world on fire.

I mean, even Clark Griswold invented the Crunch Enhancer, a non-nutritive semi-permeable cereal varnish. I’m less successful than Clark Griswold. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

I feel that if I died at eighteen, I’d have been on the front page of the newspaper – so much potential, he would’ve been great and done so much, what a tragedy. If I die now, I’ll be lucky to get a footnote in the obituaries – so much wasted potential, he could’ve been great and done so much, but didn’t, oh well.

Living as a high achiever messes with your mental health. Ten out of ten is not something to strive for; it is something to be expected every time. If I get nine out of ten, I beat myself up because it’s not good enough, damn it, I should be better. When you throw parenting into the mix – especially of two little girls aged two and zero – that’s when perfectionism is a right royal pain in the ass.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I’m a little obsessive over my role as father. It’s not good enough just to be a dad – I have to be the best dad who ever lived. I model myself on Supernanny Jo Frost – calm, collected, consistent, and always in control.

So now that, after two years and nine months of putting up with the crap of parenting, I have started falling short of this ideal – when the baby is screaming and the toddler joins in just for fun and I suddenly shout, ‘Oh for God’s sake, shut up the both of you before my brain starts leaking out of my ears!’ and the toddler starts sobbing ‘don’t shout at me, daddy!’ – I have been sinking into a shame spiral, thinking I’m the worst father in the world, and punishing myself for my abject failure to live up to my unrealistically high expectations.

All of which has resulted in me taking an Anxiety Management and Coping With Depression course, where I have learned four interesting things:

  1. Eight out of ten is good enough.
  2. When you’ve lived with the Black Dog nipping at your heels all your life, just getting up in the morning is an achievement, let alone looking after two kids and a heavily dependent wife.
  3. If I’m always in control around my kids, I’ll teach them that it is bad to show their emotions and they should strive to be perfect all the time, which will set them unrealistic goals and thus perpetuate the cycle.
  4. I am a human and not a robot.

To which I respond with:

  1. For whom?
  2. They don’t put up statues of people simply for getting out of bed.
  3. Fair dues.
  4. Beep boop – does not compute.

But in all seriousness, they’re right. I have to lower my sights and lower my standards, because I’m killing myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I have to accept that sometimes I’m allowed to be ‘crap dad’. Eight out of ten is a perfectly acceptable standard to live at. And what does it matter if I never publish a bestseller?

It matters to me.

Setting aside everyone’s expectations of me, my supposed potential, all the things I ‘should’ have done, all the things I was ‘meant’ to achieve, the only pressure on me to live at ten out of ten comes from within my own head. So it’s up to me to change the thought patterns of a lifetime if I want to access that elusive thing called ‘peace of me mind’.

Can I do it? Of course I can – I can do anything!

Let’s just call it a ‘work in progress’ and see where I end up, okay?

My Life With Autism

For anybody in the Dorset/Hampshire borders region (or further afield, I’m not fussy!), I’d like to announce that I’m talking at an event on Tuesday evening, June 6, entitled ‘My Life With Autism’.

It’s hosted by Autism Wessex at Portfield School from 7:00-9:00pm and it’s free, but as spaces are limited you need to book tickets from the following link: Get Involved.

I will be talking about my journey to diagnosis, the difficulties of growing up undiagnosed, work, parenting, and day-to-day life. Along the way I’ll provide hints and tips on living with the condition that have proved helpful in my own life. There will also be the opportunity to ask questions.

I hope to see some of you there and thanks for reading!

Children with autism become adults with autism

There is a deductive argument so straightforward and sound that all intelligent, educated, free-thinking people should be able to grasp it with ease. It’s so patently obvious that I shouldn’t even need to write it down because we all just know it to be true. I will, however, because it is necessary for what follows.

  1. Autism is incurable.
  2. Children grow up.
  3. Therefore, children with autism become adults with autism.

I mean, it couldn’t get much simpler than that. You’d have to be a philosophical contortionist to somehow argue against it.

And yet, looking at the way that autism is treated, represented, categorised, theorised and mythologised, you’d be forgiven for thinking autism is a childhood disorder that disappears on your eighteenth birthday. You step up to your birthday cake a person with autism, and as you blow out the candles, lo and behold, you’re neurotypical! Hallelujah!

It strikes me as bizarre that even though we all know that children with autism become adults with autism, the latter group is virtually invisible. From the services available, to funding, to treatment, to research, to specialists, to TV programmes, to books, to websites, to expertise, it’s all heavily skewed towards children with the condition. Much of it simply vanishes as soon as a person reaches their majority, as though nobody realised that these children with needs would one day become adults with those same needs that are now, sadly, unsupported.

Go look at 100 books on autism, you’ll find that around 99 of them have children or childlike images on the cover, and contain chapters dealing with school and adolescence and how you can help your child make friends. Research the statistics on autism and you’ll find statements like, ‘1 in 88 children has autism’, when surely they mean 1 in 88 people has autism? Then try and find academic studies on autism and sex or on parents with autism and you’ll find it pretty damned hard, because the experts don’t seem to realise that autism extends beyond the first eighteen years.

When, as an adult, I spent a decade seeing psychiatrists and psychologists under the Mental Health Team, not one of them ever brought up the possibility I might have autism. When I asked to be seen by an autism specialist, I discovered there was one person qualified to diagnose adults in the whole of Dorset – a county with a population of almost 800,000 people – and she could only devote one day a week to this. When I was finally diagnosed with autism at 28 (and immediately discharged by the Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’), I went to the Learning Disabilities Team, to be told that all of their support services were for children with autism, and they had neither the funding nor the expertise to cater to adults. So that was that.

But the greatest irony, and to me the greatest illustration of this very real problem, is the book I had published last month. Now, I am incredibly grateful that it has been published and I’m gratified to learn it is helping people, but I wrote it specifically to address a shortfall in the autism literature, namely, people diagnosed with autism as adults. The book is entitled An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis. It is written for adults with autism, about adults with autism by an adult with autism. So where does it appear on Amazon?

Here’s the directory information: Health, Family & Lifestyle > Pregnancy & Childcare > Children’s Health & Nutrition.

Ever get the feeling you don’t exist?

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis

Well, it’s here: today my book, ‘An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed‘ is released into the world. You can buy it from Amazon by following one of these links: Amazon UKAmazon US, or from your regular book supplier.

Here is the blurb:

Being diagnosed with autism as an adult can be disorienting and isolating; however, if you can understand the condition and how it affects perceptions, relationships, and your relationship with the world in general, a happy and successful life is attainable. Through an introduction to the autism spectrum, and how the Level 1 diagnosis is characterised, the author draws on personal experiences to provide positive advice on dealing with life, health, and relationships following an adult diagnosis.

The effect of autism on social skills is described with tips for dealing with family and personal relationships, parenting, living arrangements, and employment. Important topics include disclosure, available resources, and options for different therapeutic routes. On reading this book, you will learn a lot more about the autism spectrum at Level 1, be able to separate the facts from the myths, and gain an appreciation of the strengths of autism, and how autism can affect many aspects of everyday life. Drawing from the author’s lived experience, this book is an essential guide for all newly diagnosed adults on the autism spectrum, their families and friends, and all professionals new to working with adults with ASDs.

So, why did I write this book? The short answer is that when I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 28, having only heard of Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism a year previously, I was sent away without so much as a leaflet to explain what it was, why I had it, how it would affect my life, and why it had taken so long to identify. I had nobody to talk to – nobody knowledgeable, at least – who could help me come to terms with this life-changing news.

Like anybody, I turned to books and the internet. I discovered, much to my dismay, that books on autism seemed to fall into three categories: those for autistic children; those for parents of autistic children; and those for healthcare professionals working in the field. There was very little about adults with the condition and nothing for the many thousands of people diagnosed each year as adults.

The internet was worse. There were dozens of sites, and now hundreds, if not thousands, offering conflicting, confusing, inaccurate, unreliable, opinionated and impenetrable information and advice, often littered with jargon and insider knowledge, with no explanations for the layperson. I therefore struggled to accept the diagnosis, to make sense of where I now found myself, and to understand what any of it meant for my future.

I wrote this book for people who find themselves in a similar situation, a one-stop shop for those newly diagnosed with Asperger’s and ASD Level 1. It is not exhaustive, not ‘the only book on autism you will ever need’, but it contains answers to everything I wanted to know when I was first diagnosed. It is designed to help explain the basics, untangle the jargon, and describe in clear and plain terms how autism might affect the various parts of your life.

If this book can help just one person avoid some of the confusion and grief that I went through upon being diagnosed, if it can help them learn about their condition and be able to see the diagnosis not as an end but as a new beginning, and if it can make them feel not quite so alone in the world, then the effort will have been worth it.

Happy reading!

Gillan Drew