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Giving Autism Some Love In 'A Room Called Earth'

Penguin Books

The new novel A Room Called Earth opens with a young woman as she gets ready for a holiday party in Melbourne, Australia.

Getting ready takes 17 chapters. And every detail has a reason for being. As the narrator tells us, "My inner processes can be visceral to the point of being completely illusory, and absurd."

Writer Madeleine Ryan says there's a word that's important to understanding her book. "And that would be autism ... I'm autistic," she says, "and I was diagnosed as autistic when I was writing the book. So it was a very intimate adventure, writing this book, in lots of ways."

Interview Highlights

On whether writing the book helped her get perspective on her own experiences

Definitely. She helped me to embrace so much about how I process thoughts, feelings and experiences. It sort of dawned on me that she was autistic too — it kind of took some time. Like I kept writing once I got the diagnosis, I didn't really think about it too much. And then one day I was sitting outside having a cup of tea. And, you know, I was like ... this is in the first person. So I'm inside her mind. And if I'm kind of harnessing the way that I process feelings and thoughts and experiences, and if I'm applying that here to help bring her to life, does that mean that she's autistic? I just felt this big, warm "yes." And it was such a relief too, and it felt like she'd chosen me. And in a sense, from that point on, she really helped me to embrace autism.

On how it can take 17 chapters to get dressed

Savoring every moment with herself and in her world is her special place. And I think that there's also something to be said for the power of getting ready for an event, and kind of the stories or imaginings you can weave of what's to come. It's like this beautiful, sweet spot before the event where you can imagine how amazing it's going to be. And you're in this place where you don't, you know, the reality of it hasn't kind of confronted you yet. And you can dream it into being and be with yourself and care for yourself — and so hence the 17 chapters of it.

On whether reading this book can help people appreciate their on company in isolation

I hope so. I mean, this book is a real celebration of having space with yourself in lots of ways or how that can become a very loving experience. And I mean, she is not without challenges. She's not without pain, but she's found a space to hold that both in her physical world but also in her inner world.

Because I think a lot of time alone, you're confronted with yourself. We're confronted with ourselves. There's nowhere to run. There's nowhere to hide. You can't rush out. And that's certainly been the case for a lot of people, obviously, this year. And this book is, I guess, a testament to how that space can be a loving one, even if there are challenges.

On seeing autism not as a disability, but as an opportunity

I would love for them to see it as an opportunity. And I think the word autism could use a bit of love and being expanded. And if it becomes something that is synonymous with the idea of opportunity, that's a beautiful choice of word, because I really think it is a different way of seeing the world and experiencing sensations and processing thoughts. And there's a huge value to someone who has a different perspective, and an autistic person is always going to have that. So, yes, opportunity. Absolutely.

This story was produced for radio by Peter Breslow, edited by D. Parvaz, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.