When I started writing Just Bea, I did not know that Bea was on the autistic spectrum. I had a clear sense of her personality and character traits, maybe I had drawn her from a number of other women I have encountered over time. However, as I wrote the first three chapters I suspected that this might be the case and so I did some research.
I discovered that many women are never diagnosed as being on the spectrum. This may be because behaviours are misunderstood in girls as shyness or awkwardness. Girls and young women are generally very good at adapting their behaviour to fit in. I found through my research that young women are experts in pretending not to have autism – camouflaging. By modelling their behaviour on peers, TV personalities, or studying psychology books they learn how to fit in. Dr. Tasha Oswald has published some interesting research on this.
Women on the autistic spectrum describe feeling fake, not understanding who they are, and the burden of continually trying to fit in.
Bea has not been diagnosed but we understand something of her experience in chapter two when the boss, Mr. Evans, explains why she is being passed over for promotion.
‘What is it that I lack? What should I have done differently? Tell me. I’ll learn.’
Mr Evans dropped a sugar cube into his tea and stirred. ‘I don’t think that you can learn these things.’ He coughed. ‘Um, maybe…’ He picked up the teaspoon and put it down again. ‘Perhaps you’d like to see our occupational health doctor, get some advice as it were? Maybe see a psychologist?’
Now Bea was angry. Really angry. This was how it had been at school. The constant referring to something considered missing. As if she needed to be ‘fixed’. When she was younger, Bea found it hard to control the rage that this sparked, but now that she was older and wiser, she understood that it would do her no favours and she was better rising above his thoughtless remark.
I did not want to write a book about autism or write a stereotypical character because I believe many people live with this experience but it does not define who they are. When I recognised Bea in my research of young women on the spectrum, I wanted to write her authentically by understanding the lived experience of these women.
I understood from my research that women and girls on the spectrum can be manipulated by men because they do not recognise when a man is being creepy or do not understand the social rules of when it is okay to say No. Until Bea meets Ryan she has avoided relationships with men and continues to be cautious.
Bea has difficulty processing information, for example, when Mr. Evans negotiates a career opportunity with her.
Bea’s heart was pounding. There was too much information to process. Evans was talking too quickly and Bea felt as though she was in a runaway car with no brake. Before she could say anything, he continued, ‘Alastair will control the budget. If you need to exceed the allocated fund, you will have to present your case to me. I think that is all, Miss Stevens.’
When you understand that Bea is on the autistic spectrum then the clues will no doubt become obvious; her aversion to the feel of ice on her skin, the way she is distressed by the noise and lights in the hospital, her mother’s overprotectiveness. It doesn’t matter that most readers do not pick up on this because Bea is Bea – she is not a person with autism. There are many women who experience the world as Bea does. Each of us are unique, and so is the way that we experience everyday life.If you have not yet read Just Bea, I hope you are encouraged to do so, and if you have please tell me if you picked up on some of these clues.