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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

proposal statement saying, “Well I was playing with the idea of perhaps comparing the Antigone

family to the Wyeth family and how they both dealt with the grief of losing their brother/son. What do you think?” He then replied with an approval response stating, “I think that is a great and very creative idea! Go for it!” After spending a long period of time working on the article, and

waiting weeks to hear the results, Robert Weinstein finally emailed me with exciting news on

Tuesday, February 4, 2014, stating, “Congratulations! Your article has been selected for

publication in The Inquirer. I am not sure when it is going to be in the paper, but as soon as I find

out, I will let you know!” The article I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer was called The Timeless Nature of Grief in Other Desert Cities and Antigone, and the main essence of the article

was explaining how the main female leads Brooke Wyeth and Antigone wanted to memorialize

their deceased brothers by having a burial and writing a memoir, and despite the disapproval they received from their peers, it didn’t stop them from wanting to pursue their mission of honoring the dead, even if that meant being disowned in the process.

In Elle McNicoll’s novel, Addie is the main female lead who wanted to memorialize the deceased victims of the European witch trials by having a plaque placed in their village, and despite the disapproval that she received from her peers, it didn’t stop her from wanting to pursue her mission of honoring the dead as well. Reading the plot of the story, was able to hit home for me personally because my 2014 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer was my very first experience of being published as a journalist. Then when I read A Kind of Spark for the first time, it felt like I was reading my published article all over again, but this time it was in the form of a novel and it’s about autism! As a Student Award-Winning Autistic Journalist, I am filled with joy to know that someone out there who doesn’t even know me, decided to think enough of me to recreate that magical moment of seeing the stage through her eyes. The third reason why I love Elle McNicoll’s novel A Kind of Spark, is because of how autism acceptance is beautifully advocated and presented through the power of sisterly love. Throughout the entire novel, Keedie, Nina, and Addie were nothing more than ‘ride or die’ for one another, and through their strong devotional

love for one another, they were able to showcase autism acceptance and their acceptance of Addie and Keddie’s autism as well as advocate/fight for each other whenever one of them felt

oppressed by the world around them. One example is from chapter 2 pages 8-10. When Keedie

makes her first appearance, Addie can recognize her right away when she states, “Then I hear it.

The gentle tap on the large kitchen window. I bolt out of my seat to fling it open before Dad or

Nina even notices. I could hear her knuckles graze the glass before the knock even happened. Keedie is here.” Then Addie describes Keedie to be a warm, welcoming, and accepting haven by

simply describing the way they both greeted one another when she states, “She clambers into the kitchen, ducking through the window. She’s always done this. She knows I love it. I hug her.

She’s the only person I ever hug. She never grips me too tightly; she never tenses. She doesn’t

wear strong perfume that stings my nose, just a mild soap that smells like home. “Hello, my

favorite person.” Her voice is all one color, a beautiful molten gold. I smile against her ribs. She

asks me no questions. She lets go when I do.” This first moment of sisterly love is a beautiful

poetic one because it shows how much Keedie is loving and accepting of who Addie is as an

autistic individual. Knowing Addie’s sensory needs, Keedie is willing to accommodate herself in

a way that makes Addie feel safe and comfortable so that she will feel included in her life. The

fact that Addie smiles during their warm embrace verify that Addie not only feels safe and

comfortable with Keedie, but she also trusts Keedie to make her feel safe and comfortable so that she can remain included in her life. Acceptance and inclusion are first recognized in the novel, through something as simple as a hug and warm welcome, and the fact that Keedie is autistic herself makes this moment even more special because aside from acceptance and inclusion, this was also a moment of empathy too. Another example would be on page 11, we see Keedie and Addie go for a walk by the Water of Leith after dinner. While they’re walking through the field of sensory pleasure with the leaves, Addie tells Keedie how her teacher Ms. Murphy mistreated her by yelling at her over her bad handwriting. Keedie tells that her teacher shouldn’t have done that, and when Addie explains to Keedie that Ms. Murphy didn’t read her work because she couldn’t read it, Keedie made her feel better by explaining to her that her bad handwriting skills are due to her motor skills. She explains how that is when she states, “Our brain sends messages to our hands. It tells them what to do.” She continues saying, “When you’re…different, your processing is a little unique. The hands have a bit of trouble doing exactly what the brain wants. They’re so busy getting the words exactly right, and in the right order, that they don’t have time to get the writing perfect or pretty.” I love how at this moment, Keedie was able to make Addie feel better by explaining that having bad handwriting is nothing to be ashamed of because it’s just part of who she is as an autistic person, and when Keedie told Addie that her handwriting is bad as well, it not only displayed another example of her accepting Addie as an autistic

individual, but she was also able to help Addie feel like she’s not alone either and that is an

amazing thing to have not only between siblings but especially between neurodivergent siblings.

Now Addie’s relationship with her other sister Nina is different from her relationship with

Keedie and one of the reasons are that Nina is not autistic-like Keedie and Addie are. Having

two different brains can often make it hard for two people to understand each other and that was

certainly the case with Addie and Nina. In chapter 2 page 9, Addie explains how complicated her

relationship with Nina can be at times when she states, “I don’t understand Nina. She wants

things out of our conversations that I don’t know how to give. She talks to the people who watch

her videos as she loves them. I watch her sometimes. When I was doing my Saturday therapy,

the man would place photographs in front of me, photographs of different people wearing

different faces. Expressions, he would correct me. But they were different faces. He would ask

me to tell him what they were feeling, but I never knew how. How to tell, how to know what was

really going on. But I practiced and got better. I watched Nina. She would look into her camera

and smile so widely. She was happy; she loved the people she was speaking to. But they were,

are, just strangers. Faces she cannot even see. I’m her sister. Yet she looks at me with a face I cannot read. I never know what Nina wants.” Even though it’s hard to understand each other at

times, Addie is still accepted by Nina for who she is as an autistic individual and does try to

include her in her life. In chapter 4, Nina surprises Addie by asking her to be in one of her videos

and even though Addie is not interested in makeup (and feels sensory uncomfortable when it

comes to makeup), she doesn’t say no to the opportunity to spend time with her sister. You know

what Addie also wouldn’t say no to, advocating/fighting for her sisters, especially when it comes

to life-threatening situations. In chapter 5 page 37 for example, Addie remembers a life-threatening situation that she experienced with Nina and Keedie when they were kids. The experience involved a woman name Mrs. Craig, who was babysitting them at the time. During

dinnertime, Keedie was having a meltdown and Mrs. Craig was on top pinning her to the ground.

When Nina told Mrs. Craig to stop, she didn’t listen to her, and Keddie was crying and

screaming on the ground in horror. Then Addie found the courage to spring into action to fight

and save her sister when Addie states, “I flew at her. My whole body hit her back with the force

of a train, and I sank my teeth into her fleshy shoulder. She yelped and screeched, letting go of

Keedie to try to break free from my bite. Keedie’s whole body was convulsing with sobs.” As

traumatic and scary as the situation was, Addie has no regrets about what she did for her sister

and if given the opportunity, she would do it again when she states, “I know that if anyone tried

to hurt Keedie, even now, I would probably still try to bite them.” Fortunately for Addie, Keedie and Nina feel the same way about her. Another example would be in chapter 6 pages 45-46,

where Keedie advocates and fights for Addie when confronting Nina about the online video that

she made with Addie. This is a very important thing to mention because there are plenty of

people who are against the idea of parents putting their kid’s privacy on the internet and forcing

them to become child stars anyway, especially with the drama that unfolded in 2020 where

former YouTuber Myka Stauffer re-homed her nonverbal Chinese autistic son Huxley, many