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The Magical Spark of Elle McNicoll

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless Its Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 3, Slice #10

It’s not easy to find a movie or tv show that resonates with you as an individual, and neither is it

easy to find one that resonates with the community that you are part of. Literary books are no

different, there are several different works of literature that are problematic for the autism

community. According to an article written by The Guardian titled I have autism and the lack of

authentic autistic voices in books angers me, Sara Barrett who is a late diagnosed autistic

woman in her teens expressed that ever since she discovered her true neurological identity, she’s

felt a great deal of disappointment about the lack of positive representation for the

autism/neurodivergent community when she states, “Since being diagnosed with ASD (autism

spectrum disorder) a few years ago, I have found myself becoming more and more angry at the

books, movies and TV shows portraying autistic characters. One of the biggest culprits is Mark

Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” The Curious Incident of the Dog

in the Night-time is one of the most well-known autism novels in the neurodivergent community

and when Sara explained her thoughts about the novel she states, “It’s a beautifully told book

about a boy with special needs. The thing is that for someone like me, it’s really depressing. For

one thing, the book starts with the main character of the novel, Christopher, living with his

father, his mother has walked out on the family because she can’t deal with Christopher’s

disability. Can you imagine how hard it is for someone with autism to read? It feels like I’m basically being told that no one will ever love me because of my autism. Everything will fall

apart because of my autism. I will always be a problem BECAUSE I HAVE AUTISM.” As Sara

went on to give more bad examples of autistic characters in fiction, she did give at least two

examples of book series that portray autistic characters in a more hopeful way which are The

Night School series by CJ Daugherty and the Gone series by Michael Grant. Sara explains the

strengths of both series when she states, “Night School features Zoey, a character who constantly makes me cry because of how much the people around her not only accept her autism but often actually prefer her company because of it. Gone isn’t quite as good. Little Pete is a very extreme example of autism and is generally looked at as a freak by most of the characters. It is only the main characters that protect him and care for him. But they do protect him. And they do love him. Something that just seems so completely absent in autistic fiction.” Part of the problem with having a shortage of authentic representation of autistic characters in novels is that they are written by people who are either not autistic and didn’t do enough research on autism to write their books more accurately, or they’re written by someone who’s not associated with anyone who’s autistic either and therefore does not have an authentic perspective of what autism truly is to write for their novels. To write an authentic novel about autistic people and for autistic people, it takes thorough accurate research, it takes real-life authentic experiences, it takes a village of autistic voices to give their say on how they want the book to be done, and it takes… a kind of spark, which is what I was fortunate to find in neurodivergent Scottish Writer Elle McNicoll.

Promotional Photo for the novel "A Kind of Spark: Being different doesn't mean your voice doesn't count."/ Random House Children's Books

Promotional Photo for the novel "A Kind of Spark: Being different doesn't mean your voice doesn't count."/ Random House Children's Books

On Monday, September 20, 2021, I was watching a YouTube video from the channel

Annalisa Ely when I was introduced to Elle McNicoll and her first novel A Kind of Spark. The

story is about an autistic girl name Addie who’s introduced to the real-life historical event of the

European witch trials, which took place in her Scottish town. During the classroom discussion,

Addie learns that innocent women were accused, persecuted, and killed as a result of being

accused of something they weren’t which was witches. While everyone else is looking at this as

a typical class discussion, Addie is instantly drawn into the topic because she sees something

important that no one else sees- herself. Addie sees that innocent women were persecuted and

killed for being different from everyone else, and she resonates with that because every day she is bullied, misunderstood, and judged for being different from everyone else too. Because of this,

Addie has decided to campaign for a memorial in her hometown in honor of the innocent women

who wrongfully died during the European witch trials, and even though there were people who

tried to discourage her, Addie never gave them the satisfaction. When I first heard of the plot of

this book, I fell in love with it and after I finished reading the book, I loved it even more. Here

are my reasons why. The first reason why I love Elle McNicoll’s novel A Kind of Spark is

because of how the book resonates with autistic people historically as a community. As

mentioned previously, innocent women historically were labeled and accused as witches and

therefore were persecuted and killed due to them being different from society. In chapter 3 pages

20-21, the teacher Ms. Murphy explains the horrendous tortures that women experienced during

that time period when she states, “It is said that witches were dunked in the Nor’ Loch. Their

thumbs and toes were tied together, and they were tossed into the water! If they floated, they

were guilty of witchcraft. If they drowned, they were innocent. Guilty witches were removed

from the loch and taken to Castlehill to be burned or hanged.” While autistic people today are not labeled as witches, they are historically labeled as something just as equally harmful…puzzle

pieces. In an article titled Autism no puzzle, nothing wrong with us, Former Autistic Advisor

Paula Jessop explains that the origin story of the puzzle piece goes as far back as 1963. She

explained that as time went on, the puzzle piece was adopted in America and used as a symbol for autism by the infamous organization Autism Speaks. They used it in various big Autism

Awareness campaigns in America, and the problem for many autistic people is that the Autism

Speaks campaigns were negative and problematic for autistic people. Then Paula explains the

offensive and dangerous history that Autism Speaks had in expressing their offensive and

harmful views towards the autism community when she states, “Autism awareness campaigns

historically have been modeled on campaigns to raise awareness of diseases, illnesses like

cancer. Early autism awareness promotion was based on organizations' and parents’ beliefs that

autism is a disease. A tragic and terrible one. Autism Speaks was the biggest organization to

approach autism awareness from the perspective that autism is a disease requiring fixing, and curing. Therefore, their campaigns were the most hurtful, upsetting, and offensive to autistic people. In 2006, as part of Autism Speaks campaigning for Autism Awareness, the organization ran a range of advertisements on television and created a short film about autism that featured the organization’s leader at the time talking about her desire to kill herself and her autistic daughter, via driving off a bridge. She spoke of these urges in the film, while her daughter was in the room and could hear what she was saying. Autistic people continue to be horrified there was ever a time it was seemingly socially acceptable for people to discuss killing us while we listened. Another advertisement featured comments that autism ruined families and was almost a curse to families. Their campaigning held a lot of very negative ideas about autism, that autistic people found very offensive and unfair.” Since the puzzle piece is a symbol that reminds autistic people of a harmful organization that tried to publicly frame them as a tragic disease that needed to be cured, the puzzle piece is seen by the autism community as a negative representation of autism that we don’t associate with. So, this is one example of how the puzzle piece has been used as a harmful label towards the autism community. Another example is that the puzzle piece causes. autistic to be viewed by society as ‘puzzling’ or a ‘mystery’ as if we’re missing something or we’re difficult to figure out. Paula explains how this offends autistic people when she states, “For autistic people, this is problematic, as we don’t wish to be viewed as akin to a puzzle that can’t be worked out.” I find it beautifully creative that Elle McNicoll was able to use a historical event such as the European witch trials as a mirror image of how early Christians in Europe are a reflective mirror representation of Autism Speaks, the innocent victimized women are a reflective mirror representation of the neurodivergent community, and the label ‘witch’ is a reflective mirror representation of the label ‘puzzle piece’ to show how over the chasm of time, ableism, prejudice, stereotyping, and persecution still has a timeless nature in our society today.

Speaking of timeless nature, the second reason for why I love Elle McNicoll’s novel A Kind

of Spark is because of how strongly the plot of the story hits home to me. When I was a

Junior at Delaware Valley Charter High School in 2013, I signed up for an internship at the

Walnut Street Theater called Seeing the Stage Through Our Eyes. The internship was about

attending the final dress rehearsal of Broadway Productions, writing feature articles for each of

them, and the best two for each production would receive publication in the Philadelphia

Inquirer. I attended the Broadway Play Production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz

with my parents and brother on Sunday, January 12, 2014, and the day after, I emailed the

Associate Director of Development for the program Robert Weinstein to pitch to him my

proposal idea for my upcoming feature article. The email conversation started with me asking

Rob if he had ever heard of Sophocles' play Antigone, he said that he had and asked me if I

was thinking about writing an article comparing the two works. I responded to him with my