The author has channelled the hurt felt by a sizeable minority who feel like ‘unwelcome visitors to a strange world’
Despite book sales seeing a resurgence thanks to BookTok — TikTok’s book content — books by autistic authors are often overlooked. Pete Wharmby might argue that very many thousands of books are probably written by autistic people given that the “world population of autistic people could be as big as 230 million”. It’s likely that you know a lot more autistic people than you think and therefore many autistic writers.
But here is a book by a known autistic man — Pete Wharmby. Its title Untypical: How The World Isn’t Built For Autistic People And What We Should All Do About It is a not-so-subtle hint at the tone of the book. Wharmby is cross, he says. He is frustrated at the disproportionate disadvantage autistic people have by simply existing. He outlines the things which upset him, stories and traumas gathered from talking to his almost 74,000 followers on Twitter.
“The frustration of being punished for a miscommunication, the disappointment of being passed over for job opportunities or turned down for not being ‘likeable’ enough at the interview. The years of terrible confusion and loneliness”. As an autistic person, he has the ability to absorb the prevailing emotion in a situation but doesn’t know what to do with it. But Pete Wharmby does know what to do with it. He has channelled this hurt that the autistic community feel and put it into this book.
Not all autistic people are able to ‘speak’ both neurodivergent and neurotypical. Not all can go ‘undetected’ in the wilds of everyday life. Wharmby can, and has taken it upon himself to act as an interlocutor between the two. His attempt to help the majority understand the minority, however, is based on an underlying assumption that the majority want to be helped and will pick up this book in the first place.
If they do, an exciting possibility awaits. Neurotypical people reading this book are treated to a journey of busting half-baked but well-known myths about autism set against the real lived experience of autistic people. (Mainly Wharmby, but also some of his Twitter followers, whom he names by their handles).
The book is smartly conceived and well-executed; it is persuasive and firm without being hectoring. Wharmby’s voice is direct and uncomplicated. Autism awareness and autism understanding are two very different beasts. In the last decade, we have made significant inroads with the former. Most people have heard the term ‘autism’, but if you dig in a little to what their understanding is, you quickly find that they paint a picture of Rain Man or some other media-influenced render. This dangerously incomplete understanding, Wharmby says, is ‘“fed annually by well-meaning charities using ham-fisted attempts to raise awareness”.
The book sets out immediately to address two different types of people — autistic and not. The tone suggests that autistic people will sit back and nod, seeing themselves on every page, but that non-autistics will have a harsh light shed on their benighted and privileged view of the world and will learn how to do better.
Shame and fury have never worked well when trying to affect change, and I worry that this book will isolate neurotypical readers by chastising them continuously for the myriad unconscious horrors they enact on autistic people.
Every point made by Wharmby is correct. As an autistic person, I read the book with a sad understanding of the world he describes. However, books by minorities, especially ones which set out to highlight injustice, are often received by the majority as an accusation and are dismissed.
If someone takes the time to pick up this book, they are already doing more than the majority to help us and I, for one, am grateful for that.
On the other hand, I wonder if it’s ableist of me to police the tone of the book and wish it were slightly softer to attract a neurotypical audience. It’s actually the exact point made by Wharmby in several chapters.
Autistic people are forever having to mask and act in accordance with a neurotypical society’s rules. We make small talk when we don’t want to. We make eye contact when it’s deeply uncomfortable because if we don’t, we are seen as untrustworthy. We make phone calls that stress us out because the business and medical world doesn’t facilitate asynchronous communication. And here I am, an autistic person who has often been reprimanded for being “too direct” or “too officious” or “too cold” in my communications, telling an autistic author to have the magnanimity to adjust his tone so as not to offend the delicate egos of a neurotypical audience. There’s no winning.
It’s a searing examination of what it means to be autistic in a world that has utterly no consideration for autistic needs. Wharmby is remarkably strong on the pervasive marginalisation of autistic people. He gives stark examples backed up by data; like “12pc of the homeless population in the UK are autistic”. He also has a clear eye for the assumptions that underpin ableism.
The chapters on school and employment stand out as demanding to be read by teachers, policymakers, or anyone who has ever or will ever hire anyone. What are the chances that any of these people will read the book? The problem with books like these is captured in Wharmby’s sentence: “News about minorities travels slowly”. Expanding on that a little: “Stories about minorities, written for the majority, travel slowly”.
I want this book to reach people, to open and then change their minds, to have a real tangible impact so that my life, and the lives of other autistic people, may change. I want it to catalyse an urgent change in the experience of being autistic in a non-autistic world.
He says: “All of the sensory pressure, the difficulty with planning, the endless problems communicating with our fellow human beings — it all contributes to a feeling that the world is hostile and unpleasant… and that we are unwelcome visitors to a strange world. Sadly that’s only the beginning”. However, if enough people read this book, it could possibly be the end.
Non-fiction: Untypical by Pete Wharmby
Mudlark, 256 pages, paperback €15.68; e-book £8.99