Author Clem Bastow and Hardie Grant Books Publisher Arwen Summers discuss Clem's new book Late Bloomer - a heartfelt coming-of-age memoir that will change the way you think about autism. Clem Bastow grew up feeling like she’d missed a key memo on human behaviour. She found the unspoken rules of social engagement confusing, arbitrary and often stressful. Friendships were hard, relationships harder, and the office was a fluorescent-lit nightmare of anxiety. It wasn’t until Clem was diagnosed as autistic, at age 36, that things clicked into focus. The obsession with sparkly things and dinosaurs. The encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music. The meltdowns that would come on like a hurricane. The ability to write eloquently while conquering basic maths was like trying to understand ancient Greek. These weren’t just ‘personality quirks’ but autistic traits that shaped Clem’s life in powerful ways. With wit and warmth, Clem reflects as an autistic adult on her formative experiences as an undiagnosed young person, from the asphalt playground of St Joseph's Primary School in Melbourne to working as an entertainment journalist in Hollywood. Along the way she challenges the broader cultural implications and ideas around autism, especially for women and gender-diverse people. Deconstructing the misconceptions and celebrating the realities of autistic experience, Late Bloomer is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious, and will stay with you long after the reading. Buy a copy of Late Bloomer here: https://bit.ly/36OkxAy#autism#autismdiagnosis#nonfiction
Arwen Summers 0:01
Hello, everyone. My name is Erwin summons, and I'm a publisher at how to write books. I'm here today with the wonderful Clem vesto, author of late bloomer, how an autism diagnosis changed my life. If you haven't read this book, I'm going to do Molly Meldrum, and say, Do yourself a favor, get out there and buy it straight away that claim for the benefit of those who haven't yet got a copy, could you give us a quick summary of what your book is about?
Clem Bastow 0:25
Sure, I can give you the elevator pitch, it's, I kind of like to call it a time traveling memoir. So it sort of starts at this moment of diagnosis and looks backwards and forwards. So I was diagnosed when I was 36. And in doing so kind of started to re examine my life and understand certain things that had happened to me through this prism of understanding, understand it through the prism of understanding of diagnosis. So yeah, it's it's, it's a memoir, but it's also I guess, more broadly, using my experiences to kind of contextualize certain aspects of autistic experience that that I guess, are still quite opaque to some people. So, you know, they might have been diagnosed, or maybe their kids been diagnosed, and you're given all of these clinical terms, and you just kind of go Yeah, but what are they? So it's a way of looking at some of those terms. Through that, through that kind of lens of my own experience.
Arwen Summers 1:28
Yeah, right, kind of humanizing the clinical terms and normalizing the autistic experience, as you know, a human experience instead of being something that happens in institutions, which I think is, unfortunately, one of the kind of notions of how autistic people must end up thanks to Rain Man. Now,
Clem Bastow 1:52
my favorite film,
Arwen Summers 1:54
you know, I think as you said, to me, Rain Man was important because it was representation, like any representations better than a representation at all. But how much were the kind of stereotypes about what is in your mind when you set out to write Late Bloomer?
Clem Bastow 2:10
Look, very, we're very much cemented, and I think I'm a person who, you know, I've worked as a, as a cultural critic, I'm a screenwriter, I understand how screen media works. And even I had absorbed these imperfect representations, whether they were explicit, like Rain Man, or atypical, or kind of coded as autistic, like, like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. And so you get to the point where you just think, alright, well, that's what autism looks like. And what it looks like is, you know, a white, straight, awkward man who's interested in in steps and STEM fields, and I was none of those things. I mean, I am white, but that was it. So I didn't really ever think that that was possibly what was going on in my life. Because the kind of the weight of those those depictions is so huge. So it was only when I was actually writing a character myself, who turned out to be autistic, that I started to think I should read some more about this, you know, I want to not do a Rain Man. So I started to do my research. And as I was doing that, was was experiencing this quite strange thing of going, Okay, yep. Like, oh, that's me. And Yep, that happened to me in primary school. And, and so, you know, as I was writing this, this character for this screenplay, kind of, at the same time writing my way to a diagnosis, so I guess, yeah, that was that was part of it, too, was wanting to illustrate that it can look quite different to, to what we understand, through the media. And I think, you know, it's great timing that it's out now, because I think there is this growing understanding of the diversity of experiences within autism. But what I also wanted to write about too, was the, the sort of universal things that I think most most, if not all, autistic people experienced just to differing degrees. So this idea of a spectrum is something that's new to quite a lot of people. And they sort of often think that it's, it starts at not autistic and, and that very autistic, and it's actually a lot more nuanced than that. So part of what I set out to do with the book was to kind of illustrate that too, that there are experiences that are unique to autism, and that autistic people experience them to differing degrees and sometimes differing degrees from day to day, you know, that our so called functioning is not static,
Arwen Summers 4:36
which is true of everyone, but people seem to forget it, you know, you have good days. And I think you've used two beautiful analogies that have really helped me to get my head around the idea of a spectrum. One of them was you said it's like an RGB spectrum. You know, when you're using PaintShop Pro or whatever. And it was a kind of circle with colors in it. Instead of it being a linear kind of You know, a linear progression that has uncanny echoes of say, evolution. It's more like a color spectrum. And the other analogy that you use in the book that I have repeated constantly is Pokemon related clemen, I have shared a love of Pokemon throughout the editing process of the book. And you say, you know, it's not enough to catch a few Pokemon, you got to catch them all. And there might have been at some stages of evolution as well.
Clem Bastow 5:29
That's right. Yeah, to get in the club. Yeah, you have to catch them all. I think that's the thing that people don't understand. And when, and when people say things like, what, are we all a little bit autistic? Or Aren't we all on the spectrum? No, we're not. And in order to be on the spectrum, there are, you know, a sort of minimum number of experiences and that you have to have as an autistic person. But where I do think that, that those sorts of phrases are helpful is, is that they can, you know, I think they can be used in the sort of pursuit of empathy. So in reading the book, maybe somebody who used to think, oh, we're all a bit autistic can can kind of recognize, okay, I've experienced something of, you know, sensory overload. So now I have an empathy for what it must be like to be prone to that all the time. Rather than thinking about it as these things that you sort of experienced discreetly, like I once went to a loud concert, or one day, my heater was too hot, like, you know, it's, it's sort of a process of going, Okay, I remember the day when my head was too hot. And imagine feeling like that all the time. Or, you know, at the time, I couldn't express myself, like, what if, what if that was every day of your life? So yeah, I hope I hope that the sort of Pokemon analogy is like the kind of springboard to, to understanding some something of the nuance of the spectrum itself.
Arwen Summers 6:49
Absolutely. I feel like I went on a journey of learning in wonderment in the process of working with you on this book. As someone who had limited understanding of neurodiversity, but was interested in it, it's been so fascinating to kind of understand that classic phrase, which is overused, but so true, which is, if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person, these, there are overlapping experiences. But everyone is an individual and has a totally different response to the world. There are other other themes in the book, which I found really interesting to read and to talk to you about when we were editing it together. Gender is a big one family class is another big one and mental health features in there, too. How, how much were you conscious of? or How much did you want to incorporate these other themes into your memoir, knowing that it was the foundation of the new mom was always going to be your diagnosis as an autistic person?
Clem Bastow 7:51
hugely, I think because, you know, a lot of the, you know, I call them in the book, the sliding doors, moments where I sort of go are what if, you know, at this moment, in grade two, somebody had done something, we were limited by the fact that, you know, my school was very underfunded, we were pretty poor ourselves. So, you know, even if I had been picked up, it's possible that that sliding doors moment could have actually led to worse outcomes, you know, so I think that was really important. I think there is often this kind of misunderstanding that, you know, like diagnosis is something that that super privileged people kind of have the time to, Oh, that's interesting that, you know, it's a bit like going on ancestry.com or something. And it's not at all. So yeah, class was a big, big thing for me also, just because that was effective. My, my, my youth, so beyond, even I was an artistic young person, even though I didn't know it. You know, so much of my experience of school was also colored through that lens of class of, you know, not having the right clothes or t shirt or not being able to afford to go to, you know, this setting the other. So that was always a really big, big part of it for me, and the agenda thing was really important as well, because, you know, like, a lot of autistic people, my kind of perception of my own gender is constantly in flux. But I was also aware of the fact that a lot of people don't recognize that autism can present differently in in girls and women and gender diverse people. So that was a big, big part of it as well, was to sort of say, for many years, we didn't think that, that, you know, a lot of clinicians didn't think that the girls could be on the foot autistic full stop, because so much of the clinical literature was drawn from studies which were inevitably done on young boys. And, you know, in the writing process, I spoke to some psychologists who were working in the 80s because I wanted to kind of get a sense of if if somebody had picked up picked up that I, you know, had these differences, what would have been the outcome and, and a lot of them said, it just would not have even been on the radar, you know that in the early 80s, if a girl didn't also have, you know, an intellectual disability, or some other disability, it would have been so unlikely for them to have even considered autism, like it was, it was just not on the table. So it's possible that I would have been misdiagnosed. Right. And I certainly had a number of them throughout my life. So the gender thing was really important. And I think I think I was careful to not be too prescriptive about it, because you don't want it to become another binary, where it's like, well, you're either Sheldon Cooper or you're, you know, this outgoing, vivacious young girl who, you know, copies these, these characters are fictional copies of the popular girls. And that's how she copes because I think I had a bit of all of them. But to just make it clear that it can look like that in young girls, I think is really important, because I certainly know lots of lots of women who are Sheldon Cooper, you know, who are a man who don't fit that, that that sort of feminized model, but, but the knowledge that it can look like that, I think is quite revolutionary for some people. Yeah, yeah, I think the gender in the class stuff was a really important thing for me.
Arwen Summers 11:09
Yeah, I was, I was reminded of the last generation that you talk about to about how there are people, both men and women now in their 30s 40s, or 50s, who have been diagnosed to, if they were a child now would probably be diagnosed at age three, four, or five. And so then it reflects that, that their rigid idea of what an autistic person can be all black from the past, it's a great time to be autistic.
Clem Bastow 11:35
Is it is and I guess there's this, you know, you often hear this quite unkind approach, which is, oh, there's an epidemic of autism. And it's not the case at all. I don't, as far as I'm aware, I don't think they believe that, that the actual kind of literal, you know, what's the word that I'm looking for prevalence of autism to have changed at all? It's just that we're getting better at finding it. So yeah, for younger people, there are there are, you know, improved kind of diagnostic approaches. But yeah, also for that last generation of people who may have either been completely misdiagnosed or they may have been sort of misdiagnosed in the sense that something was picked up, but not the whole story, which was the case for me, you know, I I was diagnosed as having anxiety, and also depression, but not autism. And there were some other, you know, question marks along the way. So, you know, this, this so called kind of tidal wave of autistic people is actually just because that rigid idea of how it looks and how it manifests is starting to expand.
Arwen Summers 12:42
Yeah, it is, I mean, your book, I find, it's just an extraordinary read claim. It was such a joy to work with you on it, but also to see how you've interwoven those broader societal themes, class, gender, relationships, mental health, with the foundation of autism and using these clinical terms in a way that becomes really comprehensible often quite funny. You know, you are very witty and very charming. Occasionally very heartbreaking too. But it's just, it is an absolutely, you know, I'm going to use a tour de force here. I haven't ever had the opportunity to use it before. Thank you so much for talking to me about Late Bloomer today, which is out in bookshops now.
Clem Bastow 13:26
Thank you so much for publishing it.
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