Allison Anderson knows she's a little different, but it hadn't bothered her too much-until now. Moving away from everything she's ever known to a new house, new neighborhood, and new school is bad enough, but it's her first year of high school too, making it even more intimidating. She's more aware of her social and physical limitations than ever before. And then there are the new people she meets: the tough-looking girl in her home room; the cute but dangerous-looking boy she first saw before school even started; the quiet, older girl who keeps to herself; the sullen-looking, seemingly isolated junior that doesn't seem to trust or like her at all. Can she trust them? While the peaceful situation of her new home only amplifies the sound of her own doubts, she begins to learn that things are not always what they seem, and her world is turned upside-down by these new friends, two-legged and otherwise. Life soon becomes more complicated, and much more interesting!
The Difference by B B Shepherd
“It’s obvious that we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover”—evaluate people by appearance or situation in life, or even by the things they choose to do in some instances—but that’s easier said than done much of the time. We all make assumptions every day. Some more important than others. Some more damaging than others. And things, very often, are not at all what they seem.” The Glister Journals: Bronze
For this post I was asked to share my thoughts or advice about how hard it is for teenagers like the main character of my novel, Allison, to remain different in the way they want and the problems they can have because of it. I assume the topic refers to the pressure to conform—to go with the crowd—whether that just means wearing the right shoes and having the right hairstyle, or more serious issues like getting into drugs or sex.
First of all, that is a huge and complex (and very important) topic rather outside what I’m prepared to deal with here and one that I don’t think I have much insight to anyway. It also is not really an issue for Allison. Yes, she is different, but it has nothing to do with what she wants or doesn’t want. So I will tweak the topic to fit one of the more prominent themes of The Glister Journals and the character of Allison in particular. I think the themes of my series are subtle—I don’t like beating people over the head with things—and the actual story is one of friendship and romance, but the main theme throughout the series is how assumptions color everything we think and do, and that usually has to do with the people around us. In the main story this is mostly circumstantial and relatively harmless, but there is an underlying issue that is very important indeed.
Second, it needs to be stated clearly that I am not a psychologist and am not speaking from a clinical perspective. I am speaking from a certain amount of research, a lot of observation and experience (over 20 years) working with children and teenagers—many of whom I can see my younger self in—and from a lifetime of looking out through eyes and thinking with a brain similar to Allison’s. I hadn’t planned on getting into this topic at this point in my writing career and feel I’m going out on a ledge, but here goes….
Allison has a mild autism spectrum disorder. That is not the same as saying that she has a mild cold, a mild overbite, or a mild heart murmur. It’s not something that can be cured or fixed. It’s not a phase she’ll grow out of or get over. And people not understanding that is probably one of the biggest problems children and especially teenagers like her face. The original question was how do teens who identify themselves as different stay true to themselves, but that’s the wrong question for someone like Allison. She is not a teenager trying to be seen as unique or special in some way. She doesn’t choose to act a certain way. She’s not looking for attention at all (except from a certain boy.) The difference is in the function of her brain. And though she can try to compensate, struggle to understand others, and learn to imitate them in some ways, that aspect of her will never change. And that should be okay.
All autism disorders are neurological disorders—they have to do with the way the brain develops and functions. This can profoundly affect the senses, motor coordination, communication, restrict interests and/or include repetitive behaviors, and cause difficulties (I prefer to think ‘differences’) in communication and social interaction. Some people have symptoms that are extreme and almost immediately apparent. Some become obvious soon after meeting or first observing a person. And some have symptoms so mild that you may know them for years and years and not realize they are affected. You just perceive them as being a little odd or quirky and perhaps think them anti-social. They might not know themselves. As mild symptoms don’t always interfere with normal day to day living, they may go undiagnosed and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
People like to label things, especially other people. These labels can be based on race, ethnicity, gender, educational level, tax bracket—you name it, there’s a label for it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either, if the label is helpful, specifically for identification, or for appreciation of some sort. But labels are usually vague. Some people on the autism spectrum need to label too, sometimes on a very basic level. Labeling is one of the ways they organize their thoughts and their world. Autism is also a label, but it should be understood to be a very vague descriptor of a unique individual.
Is there more understanding and tolerance of differences—gender, race, etc.—in the world today than in the past? Definitely. Is there still a long way to go for there to be true equality and acceptance? Undeniably. But even people with obvious physical disabilities or mental disorders seem to receive more tolerance than those with moderate to mild disorders such as Aspergers or even attention deficit disorders. It’s especially difficult to be a teenager with these disorders—to be neurologically different but expected to think and act the same as everyone else. These are the kids often targeted for bullying or just avoided completely. I understand firsthand what it’s like to feel punished and ostracized for things you only understand in an abstract way, if at all.
So what is the answer? Well, it’s the same as for anyone else: tolerance, acceptance, inclusion. Where does it start? At home. At school. At places of worship. Don’t look to Hollywood to change this. The stereotypes out there right now are appalling. And I’m not advocating excusing rude or destructive behaviors; the disorder may be an explanation but it isn’t an excuse. I’d appreciate hearing the thoughts of anyone reading this, especially if you identify with what I’m describing or you have family or friends who do. For my part, I think the answer lies very much in one of the themes in my story, The Glister Journals: all people regardless of race, gender, education, family situation, or mental, physical, or neurological variation deserve respect, kindness, and acceptance. Labeling should be limited to useful identification and not based on assumptions or used as way to demean, subjugate, or bully others. Never as an excuse to treat someone as less intelligent, capable, or sensitive—sometimes even as less human—than others who consider themselves ‘normal.’
I am hypersensitive to sound and smell and often light too. I have always had difficulties in social situations though I can usually cope for short periods of time and usually keep my mouth shut to keep out of trouble. I become intensely focused on projects but I am very easily distracted which upsets me, makes me very nervous, and often exacerbates the hypersensitivity. I don’t like to be touched at all by people I don’t love and probably won’t sustain eye contact with you. I experienced a lot of depression in the past and have always had anxiety issues. I am also friendly, loving, intelligent, highly creative, have a great sense of humor, love to cuddle, am very good with animals, and try very hard to be considerate of others. I can only speak for myself, but after a lifetime of wondering why I don’t understand other people, rarely fit in, and have a wealth of apparent ‘quirks,’ I can say there is nothing ‘wrong’ with me. I’m just a little different.
Author B.B. Shepherd A graduate of Cal Poly with graduate work at Chapman and U C Santa Cruz, B. B. Shepherd has lived most of her life in California and loves the diverse beauty of its many landscapes. Music, horses, literature, and art have been her passions as long as she can remember. She enjoys road trips, almost all horse sports and extreme sports (as a spectator), and is addicted to research. As a writer, Shepherd enjoys exploring emotions and motivations: why do people do what they do? She also likes trying to find the funny side of things. She admits to being a hopeless romantic and often gets in trouble for her sense of humor. Bronze is her debut novel, the first in a series of four called The Glister Journals. She currently works full time as a music professional and educator, and lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her youngest daughter and a very silly cat.
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