As authors, I think we are always running with what inspires us. We get an idea for a character or a scene and it takes off in our heads and before we know it we’re sitting down and letting it see where it will take us either by plotting it out and writing copious notes on characters, plot development and research, or just letting it take you where it may, flying by the seat of your pants so to speak (I’m most definitely of the latter variety). However, no matter what the story is or how it comes or how you write, there must be something that touches you about that story, that makes you want to delve deeper, to explore, a thing that inspires you to ask again and again, ‘what if this happened’ and ‘what happens after this’?
When inspiration is hitting you by it’s little lonesome, as it does for most writers, this part is the easy part, the part that feels like flying. But when you’re asked to write a story in a world someone else has imagined into existence – whether their imagining is fully fledged or just rough sketches, the rest for you to figure out – what gives you inspiration then? What drives you, as the author, to play in that sandbox, so to speak, and come up with something that inspires you as the writer, that you hope will also speak to and inspire others?
You find inspiration by turning inward, seeking to explore some of your own stories, or the stories you’ve come across that feel intimately personal to you. This became even more important when I was writing Dangerous Echoes, that I try to extend this and push myself into uncomfortable territory – uncomfortable because I was delving into something that was frought with emotional turmoil, because at heart, it was a mother’s observation of her son’s struggle to fit into society and allowing this to help formulate my heroine.
I decided to write a main character that is on the autism spectrum because I thought it was important to show that people who think differently, who associate with others differently, who process emotion differently, are capable of rich and fulfilling lives and can offer friendship and love to others and to themselves. What gives me the right to write about a character with autism? For some years, my son was diagnosed as being on the spectrum, although, we were given a diagnosis later of ADHD complicated by a Sensory Integration Disorder, brought on by his extremely premature birth and the fact his nervous system was not fully developed at birth. This led to impulse control issues, hyperactivity, an inability to learn despite being very intelligent, seemingly strange ways of expressing himself, often answering questions with what seemed like non-sequiteurs (although, as a mother, and having done a lot of work with him and having more of an understanding of how his mind worked, I could often understand exactly why he was answering the way he was). We were lucky – he was extremely social. Sometimes too social, given he had no understanding of social boundaries and little to no ability to recognise ‘safe and not safe’ or to read other people’s emotional cues. He made lots of mistakes, and many issues arose, especially when he was little and other parents interpreted his running into their child as bullying rather than what it was – a complete lack of spacial awareness and an inability to understand where his body began and ended in the space around him, something that doesn’t seem to be a big thing, but is actually huge and impacted on every aspect of life. For instance, he didn’t like being in a darkened room, so taking him to the cinema was a difficult thing, because he would get distressed, unable to ‘feel’ himself in the world when the lights went out.
We sought out a lot of help from specialists – child psychologists who worked with him on how to better read social cues and learn how to better understand why people found certain social boundaries and rules necessary, occupational therapists who worked with him on his spacial awareness and fine and gross motor function issues, specialist paediatricians who worked with us and his educators to come up with ways to get funding for more help at schools and in how best to help him to learn (literacy and numeracy were real struggles as his short term memory doesn’t work like most of the rest of us, and he would very quickly forget the letters he’d just learned, looking at the page he’d gone over only ten minutes ago as if it was a brand new thing he’d never seen before). Also, with the help of these people we came up with many coping mechanisms to help him ‘fit in’ and not be ostrasized in social situations so he could go to the movies and parties and have friends to play with and connect with at school.
And through all this, I was determined to make certain he never felt that it was because he was ‘wrong’ somehow. It breaks a parent’s heart when their child comes to them and says, ‘mum, what’s wrong with me?’ I can’t say that never happened – of course it did. This has been a learning journey for me as much as him – but when it did, we sat down and talked about the fact that being different was neither wrong nor right, it was just who he was, and we celebrate that person, because he is a truly special, wonderful boy who has as much of a chance to succeed at anything he wished as anyone else does. I never spoke in terms of how I could ‘fix’ him, but more in how we could help him to succeed in a world that, despite things being better and more inclusive than they were when I was at school, is still structured very much for kids (and adults) who are considered to be the accepted norm.
We are lucky. My son is very high functioning and we have never had to consider sending him anywhere but to a mainstream school – a private mainstream school that has been hugely supportive of him. He loves school, even though learning is difficult for him because his brain just works differently, he has many friends and is openly recognised as a Mensche (a Jewish word meaning many things, but most of all someone who is empathetic and caring of other people, who does things for others to make others feel good, not for themselves – he’s actually won the Mensche award at the school 2 years running for his year level which we are so proud of!) And despite his difficulties learning, he is considered by all his teachers to be a delight and at the handover meeting we have every year with his old teachers and new teachers, the old ones always tell the new ones, ‘You’re going to love having him in your class this year. He is such a sweetheart.’ Part of this is because of the hard work everyone, but most especially, my son, has put into creating the young man he is today, but part of it is luck as well. We are lucky he doesn’t have other issues, and we are lucky he is such a positive person and keeps himself moving forward at his own pace. We are also lucky we’ve had so much help.
Many people are much worse off than my son. I know. I’ve spent many years teaching kids with autism and other mental and physical disabilities, how to swim and working with their families on giving them a positive experience in something other children take for granted but can be huge obstacles for these children who are special in their own magnificent ways. So I see just how lucky we are with our son.
Having gone through this and also having been privileged to be part of the journey of other children with physical and mental disabilities and differences, I felt the need to express a character who had her own journey through the world in a different way. Erika Hanson shares some of my son’s issues with reading emotion and being stressed in certain social situations, but being a novel, I made things much worse for her than they ever were for my son. I thank god my son never had to go through what I put Erika through, but there are people out there who do go through things like that, who are struggling even now, and my heart goes out to them. This novel is partly for them, partly for my son, but it is also a nod to the people who helped us with my son so that his experience was not like Erika’s. She was made to feel ‘wrong’. She lost the only people who saw her as being who she was meant to be and treasuring her for that when she was young and it made such a difference in her life. She still succeeded in her career, but suffered in the rest of her life because she wasn’t given the help, guidance and understanding that’s so essential to people on the spectrum from their early years through puberty.
I would like to mention now the people at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, particularly those involved in the CAP and Vibes studies, who gave us so much help, information and guidance so that we were able to get our son the help he needed very early on and make his journey a positive one. Their research is so important in helping kids with all sorts of physical, mental, behavioural and learning issues, and they always need help. If you’ve got a moment and want to give to a worthy cause at this time of the year, I would ask that you give to MCRI HERE.
So, that was my inspiration for dangerous Echoes and why this novel feels so personal to me. And why I love very much when people tell me they loved my novel and really felt for my characters.
Over the next few weeks, I will feature blog articles by my fellow Echo Springs authors, Daniel deLorne, TJ Hamilton and Shannon Curtis, giving you some insight into how they found inspiration in writing their novel in the Echo Springs world.