Vicky Martin: "We Want to Keep Writing Books with a Lead Hero that Just Happens to Have Autism"
Vicky Martin is a London-based creative writer, drama teacher, and playwright. In partnership with the National Autistic Society and girls from Limpsfield Grange School, she released her first novel, M is for Autism, written from the perspective of a teenage girl with autism. In light of Autism Awareness Week, we spoke to Vicky about her experience in schools for children with autism, her novel, and how women with autism are underrepresented in both fiction and real life.
What is your personal experience with autism?
I work as a creative writer and drama teacher in special needs schools around London. I find that creative writing and drama can be really empowering to those who are vulnerable, so I find that sort of teaching to be really rewarding. I've always been drawn to working outside of mainstream schools, and with people who are a bit vulnerable. I just find it more interesting, more rewarding. I think just a bit more of a challenge. I've always worked within mental health, and am just drawn to it.
What drove you to write M is for Autism?
Initially, the NAS – National Autistic Society – had some funding to do some kind of work around girls with autism, because it's only just becoming recognized – it's only just come into the consciousness of people that girls can have autism in the past three or four years. So the NAS recognized this and they went to Limpsfield Grange School, which is the only school for girls with autism in the UK. A teacher at the school whom I had worked with years ago invited me as a drama and writing practitioner, and we had a meeting about what we could possibly do for that subject. I just thought a novel would be really good idea, rather than a leaflet or a project. I thought if we're doing a novel, we've got a chance of it getting published, and then it could just build or grow. It seemed to make sense for me to do something with a real vision, that we could plant in the world, in society, and educate about autism. But at no point did we want this to be a typically "educational book", we wanted it to be a good novel with a good story, to stand independent of teaching anyone about autism. That resulted in our first book, M is for Autism, and that sold quite well and got a really good response. So we were commissioned to do a follow-up, which was M in the Middle.
What was the reception from the autism community?
It's been really good. I think women and girls in particular have really embraced it, because it's the first novel that's ever been written about a girl with autism, so they're finally being represented. People were relieved and amazed that they're not alone. I think that's been a big part of our response, that people aren't feeling completely isolated and alone. They see so much of themselves in our character, M. I haven't been aware of any negative feedback, really. Because I wrote it with the girls of Limpsfield Grange, and because they were so precise about their feedback on M's reaction of things, it was quite authentic.
How were you able to write from the perspective of M?
I immersed myself in the world of autism, girls specifically. I approached it very much like a play, because my background is in theater. So I was going to the school for one day a month for a few months, and I'd run workshops all day to get to know the girls. We created this character, "M", and it was just a really successful creative process in that we created this girl, and everyone believed her. It's a funny situation, we all understand her ticks and we all know how'd she approach things. We all know her, we know that she's very quiet and reserved, that there's lots of watching. I think I was able to take on board how the girls' wanted to create M through a lot of listening. And that doesn't happen to the girls, they don't get listened to because so many people do not believe that girls have autism. They are just dismissed, constantly. It's this ridiculous stereotype that seems to have gotten into society's consciousness that only boys have autism, that it's a male condition. If you look it up in the dictionary, it actually says something like, "It's a predominately male condition."
Do you feel that there's been a trend of increased publication about autism?
I think the tide is turning, and we probably just happened to be a part of that movement. There's conferences now for women with autism; there was one quite recently and we were very much part of that. Our book was discussed, the girls from Limpsfield Grange spoke at it. The newspapers have featured us, we've been in The Guardian and The Telegraph and quite a few magazines as well. It's one of those things that I think the world is just beginning to recognize and we just happened to be a part of it as well. But yes, I think that more people are becoming aware of it, accepting it, and in terms of conversation, a lot of people are really interested in it. I also have a theory that when we look back on our life, especially school, we can identify that there was a girl in our class who probably was on the spectrum, but we didn't know it then. It's just she was a girl who was a bit of an outsider, perhaps who got bullied a bit. Now there's an awareness and we can understand and make sense of people in our lives, girls, who are on the spectrum, so things make a lot more sense. There just seems to be more openness, and people want to understand it more.
What is your hope in the future in regards to discussion and awareness about autism?
That it is understood more, and that's very much what the girls want to do. They feel very strongly, when I go in to run the workshop, that it is about helping and supporting other people who might have been in their situation and are feeling perhaps very alone or isolated. And that's very much what motivates them in the workshops, that they know that our stories will go out there and support people with autism, but also their families and friends. So I suppose it's just to continue raising awareness, but we feel very strongly as well that we just want to keep writing books with a lead hero that just happens to have autism. That girls with autism are just part of literature, and that people might recognize that it's not a big deal that the hero in our book has autism. I guess I don't want it to just be in the special needs section of the library.
Featured image via inews.co.uk.