As adults, we often look back on childhood with a certain fondness and sense of nostalgia.
“Those were the good old days when everything was right with the world and we didn’t have to worry about anything!”, we say to ourselves, knowing full well that this wasn’t the case.
In truth, nobody’s childhood was perfect. We all had struggles to contend with, yet some struggled more than others. I personally struggled a lot. Growing up with autism, there was much I didn’t understand about the world and the way it operated. This angered me immensely and I’d often lash out in inappropriate ways. Some, like my parents, knew what was going on and handled these situations with care. Others, like various educators and passersby, didn’t understand and just thought I was being naughty.
This brings me to the story of Deborah Brownson, a mother of two autistic sons from Cumbria, England. Like my parents, she had to contend with regular misunderstandings about her kids. Yet the way she dealt with the issue was remarkable!
At 18 months, the Brownson’s youngest, Jake, was diagnosed with autism. This was shocking, of course, but not as shocking as it might have been for other parents as her eldest, Joshua, had been diagnosed as well. Yet what she had not accounted for was how much more severe Jake’s case was than his brothers. Jake was prone to meltdowns in a way that Joshua simply wasn’t and the public school he was attending simply didn’t know how to handle him.
Kids would bully him and teachers didn’t know how to accommodate him. Every time he lashed out, they just assumed he was being naughty. Then things reached a tipping point.
“We reached the point where we could take no more, when we found our precious son crying under a table wearing nothing but his underpants whilst other class members were making fun of him,” Brownson told Geek Club Books. “He’d not been able to dress himself due to sensory overload, following a P.E. class and being treated as naughty and refusing to do as he was told, he was just left under the table in a distressed state and we were called in to deal with him.”
Jake was promptly pulled out of that school and never set foot in it again. For five months, Jake stayed with his mother in homeschool, all while she took notes on his behavior so that the faculty would be ready when he reentered public schools.
“I decided to write down everything I could think of that someone looking after Jake would need to know,” she told BBC.
— Deborah Brownson (@Hesnotnaughty) July 16, 2014
Yet, when Brownson showed these notes to an educational psychologist, she was urged to publish them. She didn’t want to just leave them as is, though. She wanted to create a guide that answered questions that caretakers of autistic kids frequently asked (questions that she once had herself) like “Why does (s)he rock back and forth when excited?” and “Why is (s)he not making friends?”.
“Their brains work completely differently to yours or mine,” Brownson said of autistic people. “Sometimes they are non verbal. You have to be a bit like a private investigator.”
Turning the notes into a guide, of course, took some retooling. She wanted to the guide to be formatted like a children’s book told from the perspective of an autistic boy’s friend. This was done to subvert the overly-complicated medical jargin of most guides on autism and make the book as accessible as possible.
“The idea is that anyone of any age or ability should be able to understand it,” Brownson said.
— Prospero Teaching (@Prospero_Teach_) April 4, 2016
She settled on the title He’s Not Naughty, a thought she often had when seeing outsiders’s reactions to Jake. Creating the book took four years, with Brownson receiving help from other parents, teachers, Educational Psychologists, and more. Two of those years were spent looking for an illustrator. She eventually found one in the form of Ben Mason, an ideal fit for this type of project, considering that he himself is autistic.
He’s Not Naughty released in 2014 with an initial print run of just 1,000 copies (although now it is used all over the world). Shortly after the book’s release, Brownson was “bombarded by parents who were desperate for help”, so she started a Facebook support group which now has over 3,000 members. She’s also received media attention and will soon be awarded a “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) for her efforts. She claims that this honor came “completely out of the blue”.
“I am not sure why I was singled out,” she said. “I am proud to be part of a community of parents up and down the country doing something to make the world better for their children.”
Meanwhile, Jake is excelling. He’s graduated from primary school and has passed all of his SATs. His mother couldn’t be more proud.
My gorgeous boy left his amazing primary school yesterday having passed all his SATS, not bad for a boy who we were told was unteachable! pic.twitter.com/5muDeRNp6c
— Deborah Brownson (@Hesnotnaughty) July 21, 2017
It’s tough growing up with autism. I know from experience. Yet, once you get past the initial hurdles, there’s a whole world of opportunities waiting for you. Go get ’em, Jake! Show the world who’s boss!