Kay Kerr reflects on autism & writing
Kay Kerr’s debut novel Please Don’t Hug Me depicts life on the cusp of adulthood – and on the autism spectrum. Kerr is a freelance writer and former journalist and community newspaper editor from Queensland. She was writing the first draft of Please Don’t Hug Me when she received her own autism-spectrum diagnosis.
If I were asked to name my most life-changing moment, it wouldn’t be my book deal, my wedding day or even the day my daughter was born. It would be the day I received my autism diagnosis. The other events were life-affirming, life-giving, and life-building, but finding out I am autistic truly CHANGED things.
While my debut novel Please Don’t Hug Me is not autobiographical, it is about as personal as it gets. I wrote it before, during and after diagnosis, and used the process as a way of unpacking and rebuilding my own self through my protagonist Erin.
I have always struggled with small talk, social cues, sensory overload, and mental burn out. Now I have the language and framework to understand why. When I’m in a space with lots of people and someone is talking to me, I struggle to distinguish their voice from all the other voices and noises around me. That can make me seem rude, like I’m not listening. Making conversation often means following a script I’ve pre-planned in my head. Artificial fragrances are a migraine-inducing nightmare and getting good sleep is a battle against the noise of traffic, barking dogs, and every other bump in the night.
The biggest lesson I can take away from being diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an adult is that there is no singular ‘right’ way to move through the world. Some people love going to parties and out to drinks at loud bars. Other people don’t. Removing the idea of right and wrong has allowed me to build a life that works for me, to lean further into the things I’m quite good at as well as to shed the shame of all the things I didn’t ‘get’.
That lesson is followed closely by the understanding that facing ableism is one of the most challenging parts of being autistic. The way most people view autism is not what autism is. We are not all math geniuses, and there is no scale of ‘low functioning’ to ‘high functioning’. My experience of being autistic differs wildly from other people on the spectrum, because it is just that. A spectrum. Telling people I’m autistic isn’t the hard part. Managing their reactions is. People aren’t ‘all a little bit autistic’ and when someone says ‘you don’t look it’, that’s not a compliment.
Thirdly, I have learnt that underneath all the happy faces and beautiful photos on social media, everyone is dealing with something. Maybe it’s mental illness, grief, self-doubt, body image issues, family dysfunction, financial stress, fertility struggles, unfulfilled dreams, relationship breakdowns or loneliness. Kindness is free and we could all do with a little more of it.
My autism diagnosis changed everything, and nothing. I am the same person I was before, but how I move through the world and view myself, is new. I’m better because I am able to be who I am.
In Please Don’t Hug Me, Erin is about to finish high school and she’s navigating all of the change that comes with that. She has an idea of how the last months of school will go, including working, studying, passing her driving test, going to formal, graduating and heading off to Schoolies. Then things start to unravel. She loses her job, fails her driving test and has to figure out how to manage when things don’t go to plan. Erin is awkward and vulnerable, unintentionally hilarious, insightful, kind and empathetic. I am looking forward to readers having the chance to meet her.