A non-savage review of On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith and the Gifts of Neurodiversity by Daniel Bowman Jr

We don’t always have to be savage. Seriously.

Seriously.

With thanks to NetGalley for giving me an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This book is a series of short #ownvoices pieces about autism, faith and life. Like Bowman, I am autistic. We are both creative types. We were both diagnosed as adults. Nonetheless, I’ve read a lot of nonsense about autism in my time, so Bowman was going to have to work to win me over.

He did.

I must admit, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book when I first picked it up. I had some difficulty connecting with the rather roundabout and metaphorical approach to language. Bowman will suddenly meander off into talking about cornfields, or his favourite shirt, or a tree – but he’s a poet, so he gets a pass on that one. It does always come back to a point about autism. I think this might make it a love-or-hate book for many. If you think that’s the kind of thing that might put you off, it probably will.

It’s a relatively short book but it’s by no means an easy read. It’s challenging for two reasons. First, Bowman will force you to think, pulling in novels, poems, Christian scripture, and philosophy in order to make his point. Secondly, if you’re not autistic, you’re probably going to have to re-evaluate what you’ve always thought about autism in a way that might be uncomfortable. Nothing said here is revolutionary. Most of it has been shouted from the rooftops by other autistic people, including myself. Another autistic voice is always welcome on this roof, though.

There are a few little slip-ups (yes, the average life expectancy for autistic people is thirty-six years, but that’s largely because of common comorbid conditions like severe epilepsy, which can be fatal in themselves.) But there’s so much that is relatable. I cringed along with him when he talked about people touching him unexpectedly, the backhanded compliments, the “but why aren’t you, a real person, more like [fictional character written by a neurotypical person]?” I didn’t connect so well with the section about faith and autism, but it’s right there in the title so it’s not like it was unexpected. I’m sure those essays will be of value to many; they just didn’t do much for me.

The most interesting part was the interview section in the final quarter of the book. In this section, Bowman doesn’t just talk about how autistic people think, but directly reveals it. Over and over, he answers the exact question he is asked, which is not necessarily the question the interviewer thought they were asking. When the interviewer clearly expects a broad answer (a more neurotypical way of thinking) Bowman begins by narrowing down to a fine point and being clear about what he is and isn’t speaking about: there is no one answer. This is how what you’ve said relates to me, and me only.

That aspect really spoke to me. On the one hand, answering the exact question you’re asked gets you good grades on essays. On the other, you get called impolite constantly for some reason.

This book is a precise and specific exploration of exactly one autistic person’s life, and is clear that it doesn’t claim to be anything else, even if some of the experiences within have far broader connotations. If you want to understand more about autism than you did before, read the thoughts of this Bowman chap. He’s smart and eloquent. And then keep reading.

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