It’s estimated that around 700,000 people in the UK are autistic, more than 1 in 100, yet their voices are almost entirely absent from the conversation. Winner of the inaugural Spectrum Art Award that celebrates the work of autistic creatives, Charlotte Amelia Poe’s How To Be Autistic seeks to rectify that. It’s an eye-opening, impassioned, incredibly articulate memoir that takes control of the narrative by describing her own experiences.
Talking about everything from her tattoos to Marvel fandom, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask Charlotte a few questions after finishing the book, here’s what she said.
Tell us a little about how the book came to be, how did it start and what led you to publish with Myriad?
By sheer chance, I got an email about the Spectrum Art Award, back in 2017, and decided on a whim to enter, never expecting to win. Long story short, I did win, with my spoken word video, How To Be Autistic. When I got home, after the prize announcement, I just started writing, the video felt like a jumping off point and actually writing everything down felt like some kind of grand extension of that. It felt like it had to be said, and I didn’t really eat or sleep until I had something that resembled a manuscript. It felt important to tell my story, to question the narrative autism is given by television, films and books written by neurotypical people. I don’t claim to speak for all autistic people, this is only my story, but I thought, maybe it could help someone. Once I’d finished, I was lucky enough to have the guidance of Mary Simpson at Spectrum, who helped me get it to Myriad.
If there’s one thing you could have readers take away from this book, what would it be?
I think empathy, and the ability to understand autism more complexly. There’s no one way to be autistic, and the title kind of plays on that, it’s not a how-to guide, because there is no how-to guide. I wanted to explain that autistic people are just like ‘everyone else’, we’re utterly unique and often the only thing we have in common is our autism, oh, and the trauma we experience as a result of that, at times.
Throughout the book chapters are broken up with your poetry, do you have a favourite? Or favourite verse?
My favourite poem is ‘Better’, because it’s a pretty honest portrayal of how I felt before writing the book, and how I still feel now. There’s no end point to autism, no point where you’re ‘cured’, you just, with the right help and medication, learn to cope with the harder aspects of being autistic. So ‘Better’ is saying, kind of, there’s no Get Well Soon card for autism, but it can be better, even if it’s never best. And that’s okay.
What’s the significance of the cover design and how involved were you in realising it?
I was extremely lucky to be very involved in the cover design, though I must say all credit goes to the wonderful designer, Clare Shepherd, who is a genius. I never wanted to be on the cover, whilst the book is about me, I felt like it was also about something larger than me, so by removing my face and just having the barest bones of my appearance, it let me both be there and not be there, which is how I relate to life in a lot of ways. I also really wanted the book to be an art object in its own right, something you look at because it’s beautiful, the kind of book you want to have on your bedside or coffee table because you like how pretty it is.
In one chapter you talk about how rock and alternative music spoke to you, do you think there’s a link between punk/rock etc. and mental health?
Honestly, I listen to most types of music, but I think when you’re an angsty teen, alternative music can speak to you in a way more ‘mainstream’ music doesn’t, and that was incredibly helpful, because you could listen to singers ripping themselves to shreds with their lyrics, and relate to that, to the sadness, to the anger, to all of it, and feel less alone as a result. So I think there’s definitely a connection to mental health there, but I wouldn’t limit that just to the shouty music, but to all music. Wherever people can find a connection, that’s a lifeline. And I think music can be a very important lifeline to many.
You also talk a lot about fandom (a whole chapter!), particularly Marvel and The Walking Dead, are there any other fandoms you’re into right now?
I’m still very much stuck in the Marvel fandom at the moment, somewhat reluctantly! I really disliked Endgame, I didn’t think it did the characters justice at all, but the good thing about fandom is that people are constantly moulding their own versions of the characters, fixing and tweaking things, and sometimes, throwing them into whole new worlds, so there’s always a new way to look at your favourite characters, which I find fascinating. It’s also a really great way to practice writing, and to have your writing seen by thousands of people, and fanfic writers and artists really don’t get enough credit for what they’re doing everyday, and for free.
Another thing that gets a lot of mentions is your tattoos, do you have any new ones planned?
I have so much planned! It’s just a matter of finances, arranging appointments, and gathering up the courage! People think it gets easier the more you have, but it never does. I’m still just as nervous for each new one now as I was for my first one, and I’m pretty heavily covered now. But I love the idea of my body being a canvas, and being able to experiment with new ideas and to allow the art to evolve as I change and grow.
Now that you’ve published your first book what’s next for your writing? Fiction? Or something else?
I’ve written a couple of fiction books that I’d really like to get out there, and I have an idea for the weirdest short story collection, and I wouldn’t say no to writing nonfiction again. I’m constantly in bed on the verge of sleep when a sentence will pop into my head and I have to groan, roll over, and grab my phone and write it down so I don’t forget it. So there’s a lot still to come, which almost sounds like a threat! Seriously though, writing is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ll keep doing it, whether it makes me any money or not, because it was never about that, it’s about mushing words together in ways they haven’t been mushed before, and I love that, I find it’s absolutely brilliant, I think it’s one of the best things anyone can ever do, and I think everyone should try it at least once.
Charlotte Amelia Poe is a self-taught artist and writer from Suffolk, UK. She also works with video, and won the inaugural Spectrum Art Prize in 2018 with her video, ‘How To Be Autistic’. Her website is at capoe.co.uk.
How To Be Autistic by Charlotte Amelia Poe is out 19th September from Myriad Editions
(9781912408320, p/b, £8.99)