Home / News / Writing about autism: ‘Parents are sick of being asked what special skill their child has’ – The Guardian (blog)

Writing about autism: ‘Parents are sick of being asked what special skill their child has’ – The Guardian (blog)

It was at my first occasion for Shtum, virtually precisely a yr in the past at Dulwich Books in London, once I first acquired a style of the impression the e-book would have. Almost everybody asked me about autism. It could seem naive however I didn’t anticipate it. Despite having been a father to a non-verbal autistic son for nearly 16 years, I had by no means had an in-depth dialog with anybody about the topic, aside from solicitors, barristers and docs.

The occasion on the bookshop was one thing of a watershed in my life – and never an altogether snug one, for I had by no means been a joiner. No teams, no golf equipment, no societies, no Facebook teams, nothing. I had guarded my privateness and opinions. This had nothing to do with disgrace surrounding my son’s autism – removed from it. But it was based mostly on two lengthy-held realisations of my very own character: I hated confrontation and felt my opinions have been of little worth. And when one is crippled by the primary, the second seems like pulling tooth. The first has not modified; the wrongness of the second, I’m nonetheless coming to phrases with.

So how did Shtum come about underneath such private strictures?

It was born, utilizing Pethadine and forceps, throughout a grasp’s in artistic writing at City University, London. The course director informed me I ought to write about autism. I informed him I wasn’t going to. He might have talked about the phrase “hook”; I’ll have replied with the phrase “bollocks”. And then I went house and thought about it and got here again with two standards: it needed to be trustworthy and it needed to embrace real humour.

So I started writing and planning, and it shortly morphed into one thing wider, one thing fortunately past memoir – which I needed to keep away from in any respect prices – and into a piece that mentioned wider points of communication and household secrets and techniques; how the power to precise oneself verbally is not any assure of correct human communication.

During a primary studying of 1,500 phrases above a pub in Clerkenwell, my present agent approached me – truly, inside a pair of days, three different brokers had emailed me hoping to see the completed manuscript, which was thrilling and uplifting. But I nonetheless needed to end it. Finishing a novel is troublesome – one as private as mine much more so – however following many iterations and 6 weeks of nervousness after it was despatched out, it was purchased by Orion. And I assumed the exhausting half was over.

And so again to the occasion at Dulwich Books. Autistic individuals and fogeys of autistic youngsters are protecting of their youngsters and vocal critics of depictions of autism within the arts and media. That night time I had extraordinarily constructive suggestions from each teams. Subsequent occasions everywhere in the nation and on-line critiques have additionally proved to me that Shtum has offered a rallying level and, on the very least, solace to these mother and father of autistic youngsters like mine who don’t converse and who are sick of being asked what special skill their child possesses. I feel probably the most typically-used phrase in relation to Shtum has been “finally …”

I discover this all humbling and gratifying. It has now been 10 months because the hardback was revealed. I’ve been a author for 30 years, so the essential acclaim Shtum has acquired seems like a shock, but in addition a vindication of all of the exhausting work that went into it.

As it’s revealed in paperback, I’m as soon as once more about to embark on a full schedule of readings, Q&As and panel discussions, most of which can little question give attention to autism moderately than the mechanics of writing. I feel I’ve come to simply accept that if the mechanics are invisible, the story can shine even brighter – this has all the time been my expertise as a reader – and I hope it continues to shine.


Emma waits within the kitchen as a result of the odor makes her gag. So the day unravels like each different: tub operating, Jonah standing half-sodden whereas I open the home windows, take away the bedsheets and spray the mattress cowl with disinfectant. The sheets I ball collectively together with his reeking pyjamas. The fragrant nappy and dirty wipes get tied in a plastic bag, and in he hops –the bubble-coated water turning to consommé on contact. I clear him vigorously, showering off the cussed bits, and dry him with his navy towel – some other provokes a tantrum. Dressed, I shoo him alongside the hall for breakfast. That’s our division of labour – she offers with what goes in and I cope with what comes out.

More about the e-book

Shtum, the Yiddish phrase for maintaining silent or hiding secrets and techniques, is the right title for a novel by which even those that can converse don’t share their ideas with one another … Lester doesn’t spare his foremost character: Ben isn’t an idealised hero battling for his disabled son’s rights. His failings are specified by plain sight. He is a person-boy who has by no means fairly grown up. At one level he displays: “I’m wearing a costume, shuffling around in oversized shoes, playing the role of an adult.” This is the literary territory of Tony Parsons and Nick Hornby, infused with the Jewish humour of Howard Jacobson and Shalom Auslander. – Saskia Baron

Buy the e-book

Shtum by Jem Lester is revealed by Orion at £7.99 and is available from the Guardian Bookshop at £6.79.

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