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

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Aspie Daddy

Welcome to Aspie Daddy, the website of Gillan Drew, author of An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. Here I blog about autism and parenting and whatever else takes my fancy.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 28, and now nearing forty, I live with my autistic wife and two infant daughters on the border of Dorset and Hampshire.

If you get the chance, check out my fiction website The Struggling Writer where you can read some short stories and novel extracts and some of my rants about writing.

Thanks for dropping by.

Gillan

My Life With Autism

For anybody in the Dorset area, I am doing a talk tomorrow night for DAAS (Dorset Adult Asperger’s Support) at the United Church in Dorchester (49/51 Charles Street, DT1 1EE).

The same talk was very well received in July at a similar event at Bournemouth University. Doors open at 6.45. It would be great to see some of you there.

Gillan

 

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?

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

 

Support for Parents With Autism

This is a long one, so brace yourselves.

There’s plenty of support for parents with autism. There’s also a total lack of support for parents with autism. Weirdly contradictory, I know, but read on and I’ll explain.

While Lizzie was pregnant with Izzie, we received plenty of support on account of our autism. They gave us a consultant at the hospital, sent us to a nutritionist, referred us to the ‘special’ community midwives and introduced us to our future health visitors. We also had an outreach worker from a local children’s charity who visited us every few weeks to make sure we didn’t need anything extra and were up to speed on the processes of labour, birth, and what comes next. Pretty nifty.

The ‘special’ midwives visited us every few weeks in the safety of our own home, and gave us extra time to explain things and iron out any problems. The team was so good that when Lizzie was sent home from hospital because they didn’t believe she was in labour, three community midwives turned up when the emergency shout went out, and two of them accompanied Lizzie in the ambulance.

We had meetings involving social workers, the local autism charity and representatives of the local council to offer their help and support, too. The unborn baby was assigned a social worker and our competence was assessed (and found to be fine). We were given a fake baby to look after for a few days and attended both NHS and NCT courses on pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. The midwife team could support us for 28 days after birth; the health visitors could start from 11; and they’d see us every single day if they had to. Promises were made, support was offered, and our hands were going to be held right through the pregnancy and birth and into the future.

But it hasn’t worked out like that.

The main problem we had before the birth was getting Lizzie ready for her two nights in hospital. As a medically high-risk individual, she and the baby had to remain under observation for 48-hours. Trouble is, they wouldn’t allow anyone to stay with her overnight – visiting hours ended at 8pm and partners had to be gone by midnight, not to return before 10am – and as a highly anxious person with autism, a fear of hospitals and difficulties adjusting to new situations, Lizzie was terrified of being alone, particularly with a new baby.

Various people contacted the maternity unit on our behalf, and we were even given a tour of the birthing suite, postnatal ward, Special Care Unit, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and Transitional Care Unit (TCU) – all of which we unfortunately got to use – but they wouldn’t budge an inch: despite Lizzie not spending a night by herself for years, having six hours of support from the autism charity each week and a hell of a lot more from family, friends, and me, and struggling to communicate when stressed or with strangers, both of which she was going to be, they would not make any exceptions for anyone. The best we got was that the hospital would try to give her a side room on the postnatal ward, or a place in the eight-bed TCU, depending on space and circumstance. So she’d just have to grin and bear it.

As I have mentioned before, the labour and birth were a bit of an ordeal. Lizzie lost almost three litres of blood, the baby spent the first two days in an incubator on NICU and the next two in the special care unit, and then another three on TCU. I would like to say that the midwives and nurses and healthcare assistants were great, and they were, but one deep problem overshadowed that whole week: where was our special dispensation for being autistic?

‘Ah,’ I hear you say. ‘Why should you get extra attention for having autism? Never happened in my day. The midwives and nurses should have been able to support perfectly well.’

And yes, they should. But there are a couple of problems with that.

Staffing is the first issue. They don’t have the time to provide the extra support a person with autism needs. On the Postnatal Ward one night there was one midwife to cover 25 beds – so presuming one baby per child, that’s one person to care for fifty people. And Lizzie was in a side room. Did the midwife have the time to check on Lizzie, explain things to a greater depth, make sure Lizzie understood, and, more importantly, that she had understood Izzie? Of course she didn’t.

Things weren’t any better on TCU. You’d think that with eight beds supported by one midwife and one healthcare assistant, you’d be seen when there was a problem. But one night, it was ten o’clock, the staff had changed over at seven, we hadn’t seen anyone for four hours and my taxi (also named ‘Dad’) was due at eleven. We were worried about Izzie as she was jaundiced and not going to the toilet, and I was worried about Lizzie, who was freaking out, and I’d buzzed three times already, so I went to find someone. It turned out the two staff were feeding two sets of twins, and they told me to wait my turn. Hardly supportive of two desperate and terrified new parents, particularly if they both have autism.

Another issue is therefore understanding. I don’t know if they’ve had training in autism and Asperger’s – they should have done as a result of the Autism Act – but I had to explain to every one of them what it was and how it affected people. They all said the same thing – ‘Oh, if she needs anything, all she has to do is ring the buzzer.’ Even without a three hour wait, the simple fact is that Lizzie isn’t capable of asking for help. She shuts down when there’s a problem, goes into herself and stops communicating. And she pretends she understands things, or thinks she understands them, when she doesn’t. I watched midwives ask if she was okay and she smiled and they walked off when I knew there was actually something wrong. And I watched as people explained things to her and she nodded intelligently and then afterwards said to me, ‘What did any of that mean?’ This is why she needed someone who knew her to advocate for her, to talk to people on her behalf as the support workers and social workers had been doing. But they still wouldn’t let me stay.

Now, imagine you’re a twenty-nine year girl – perhaps not the easiest of things. Imagine you hate hospitals and have had to have counselling from various sources to face up to the fact that you have to spend two nights away from home. You’ll be away from your partner and your regular support network, and in addition, you’ll have the responsibility of a newborn baby that you have to look after alone, without your partner backing you up.

Now imagine that you have the baby, only it’s a terrifying nineteen hour ordeal involving ambulances, blood, screaming and pain, a spinal injection, episiotomy, failed ventouse and forceps delivery. Imagine you then haemorrhage and have to have two blood transfusions, while the baby is rushed off to Intensive Care in an incubator. Imagine that instead of the two days you’ve prepared for, you have no idea how long you’ll have to stay. Imagine that they put you in a side room and ignore you for eight hours at a time while you plod back and forth to NICU, where your baby is being fed through a tube in her nose.

Now imagine you get transferred to TCU after four days, and are handed your baby and expected to get on with it. They’re too busy to sit with you and show you how to breastfeed, so they give you advice and leave. Now that the baby’s not being fed through the nose, she’s desperately hungry, and won’t stop screaming and sucking on your breast even though there’s nothing in them.

Imagine she’s been feeding for five hours, and you’re weak, and sore, and tired, and you haven’t recovered from the blood loss, and you’re in a strange place with strange people and nobody is responding when you buzz. And then they tell your partner, the one who has been standing beside you all day, supporting you, giving you strength, that he has to leave and come back almost eleven hours later.

Now imagine that you have autism.

I think that warrants a little special dispensation.

People with autism don’t like change, and with a different midwife or nurse every few hours, and no consistency from one day to the next, hospitals aren’t designed to be easy for us. With the additional problems with communication, understanding and anxiety, people with Asperger’s Syndrome and other forms of autism really need someone to advocate for them in hospitals. Ideally, a family member or partner should be allowed to stay with them to act as go-between. Hell, I’d have slept in a chair – I even asked to – if it meant I could stay and support Lizzie. It would free up nurses and midwives, provide far better care for new mothers, and be less cruel on people who have just been through a traumatic experience.

But they don’t make exceptions for anyone, apparently.

Once we were eventually out of hospital, we had great support from the midwives and health visitors. Until, unfortunately, a few weeks ago it was decided that as our village sits on the border between Hampshire and Dorset, all the people formerly looked after by Dorset health visitors (like us) must be transferred over to Hampshire health visitors. So the Dorset health visitors have washed their hands of us, but Hampshire haven’t picked us up yet. After seeing the health visitor every week since the birth, we’ve not been seen now for a month. I spoke to Hampshire and they said they’d be happy to see us, two towns over, in a year. So I rang Dorset to say that doesn’t sound right and they told me to speak to Hampshire. Again, for people who don’t respond well to change, to have support and then take it away seems like calculated cruelty.

So all in all, there are great support services out there for expectant parents with autism, and some great support services for parents with autism, but don’t expect to get much support inside hospital, because it all ends at the door. Equally, the provision of services in the community is terribly inconsistent and seems to be dependent on postcode and not need. I guess it’s lucky we’re doing so well, and nowadays don’t really need that much support, but for people further down the autism spectrum, I dread to think what could happen.