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Jo Case: Bravery, motherhood and Asperger’s

HerCanberra Team

Jo Case’s memoir will be a very important book for some people – possibly one of the most important books they read.

While Jo’s recount of her son’s journey through childhood with Asperger’s in Boomer and Me will provide a great read and food for thought for many readers, those whose lives are inextricably intertwined with the challenges of Asperger’s will find solace in Jo’s pages. Her struggles as a single parent with joint custody of a ‘different’ little boy will bring comfort and wisdom to those in similar situations.

This weekend, Jo will be appearing at Muse Canberra in conversation with Melinda Smith, whose PM Literary Award-winning collection of poetry First… Then… explores the world of autism – both from the point of view of autistic people, and also that of those who love and care for them. We chatted to Jo ahead of this weekend’s discussion about bravery, diagnosis and balancing creativity.

HerCanberra: Your memoir, Boomer & Me has often been described as ‘brave’. Did you feel like it was a brave thing to do?

Jo Case: “‘Brave’ feels like a double-edged compliment, for some reason. It carries a flavour of Sir Humphrey’s ‘You’re very courageous’ in Yes Minister – which usually signalled someone putting themselves on the line in a way that significantly risked destruction, when they hadn’t thought through all the consequences.

When I published my memoir, I felt like I knew the risks and judged accordingly. I revealed aspects of myself and my life that made me uncomfortable, but tried very carefully not to reveal anything that I couldn’t live with having in the public domain, or would damage my relationships with people I cared about. This included betraying the confidence or trust of people I cared about, especially my family. All of this was tricky, but I believe that it you don’t risk anything, there’s no point writing memoir. This doesn’t mean revealing your most shameful moments; it just means going beyond your comfort zone.

That’s really long-winded, isn’t it? I guess I don’t know if it was brave or not. It wasn’t reckless, in any case.”

When did you realise you had ‘a book in you’?

“When my publisher, Rose Michael at Hardie Grant, emailed me to ask if I’d thought about writing a book! She had read a couple of Age articles I’d written about my son, particularly one on AFL and Asperger’s, and thought there was a book in it. I had thought about writing a memoir about motherhood and Asperger’s, but as I work in publishing, I also thought that everyone thinks they could write a book, but that doesn’t mean they should. I really needed someone else to suggest it.

Like so many writers, I wonder if I would have published a book if not for the RMIT Writing & Editing course. I wrote and published those articles that resulted in the book as part of a journalism class with Sian Prior, where we were all actively encouraged to think of ourselves as working freelancers. In class each week, we went around the room and volunteered news on what we’d pitched or had accepted that week. That exercise inspired me to get some of the ideas I had out of my head and onto the page: it made me feel like it was possible.”

Do you think the conversation around Asperger’s has changed since Leo was diagnosed?

Absolutely! For one thing, Asperger’s Syndrome no longer exists as a diagnostic category: around two years ago, it was fully absorbed into the autism spectrum. The diagnosis now would be ‘high-functioning autism’. Labels are only words, of course, but it was pretty hard to have an identity our family had worked at coming to terms with, then owning and finally feeling proud of dissolved. I do feel like Asperger’s Syndrome was a more precise term than ‘high-functioning autism’, which is broader. These days, you tend to say you or your child is ‘on the autism spectrum’, then explain where on the spectrum you fall.

Awareness is better than when Leo was diagnosed, which is a positive. Governments have put in place better guidelines about the responsibility of schools to accommodate students on the spectrum. More teachers have some sort of awareness of what challenges a student with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) might present with, and the simple measures that can be taken to help them fit in. There’s a long way to go, but I think it’s becoming less expected that ASD children completely adapt to the school system: the path is a mix of students adapting to the school and the school adapting to the students. At least, I hope that’s true and I’m not just imagining it.

Finally, with increased awareness there’s less rhetoric about ‘curing’ autism – or at least, the idea of a ‘cure’ is more widely questioned. Neurodiversity, a way of looking at autism as a difference rather than a defect or disease, is on the rise. It’s wonderful that Steve Silberman won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction last year for Neurotribes, a kind of alternative history of autism that advocates for listening to autistic people themselves, and recognising the positives as well as challenges that autism bestows.”

Author Jo Case

Author Jo Case

What piece of advice would you offer to parents whose child has just been identified as Aspergers?

“Read everything you can. Be kind to yourself: focus on the websites and books that talk about ASD in terms of a specific set of challenges and gifts, as a way of being rather than a disease to be cured. Read Tony Attwood and Steve Silberman. Join a parent support group – online or in your neighbourhood – so you can swap stories with other ASD families.

Most families with an ASD diagnosis for a child find that this presents elsewhere in one or both of their families (there’s a strong genetic component). Following this thread to find out more can result in increased understanding of yourself, your family, or your past – but it can also lead to blame. Be careful that you don’t follow the blaming path. For one thing, ASD is no one’s fault. And for another, ASD has both positives and negatives: try to acknowledge them both.”

You’ve also published some short stories. Do you think you’ll write more fiction or a novel in the future?

“I think so: I’ve been writing more short stories so far this year. I’m very much still learning how to write fiction; non-fiction comes more naturally to me. But I am keen to continue to work at it.”

You work in programming with Melbourne Writers Festival. How do you balance your own creative work and working on other people’s creativity? 

“Ha! Good question. In some ways, it’s easier than it has been: I was an editor in my day job for years, and at least working in programming involves a different part of my brain. Programming is about working with lots of moving parts and having lots of conversations, all at once. It’s about doing a lot of a little bit, in terms of creativity. When I have free time (and headspace – the big challenge), the part of my brain that likes to get really deep in an idea and the details of its execution is raring to go, these days. I miss that kind of immersion.”

What’s on your bedside table/reading pile?

“Literally on my beside table is Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies, on how the changing history and circumstances of unmarried women has changed the United States. Traister’s last book was a terrific on-the-campaign-trail work of reportage about her devotion to Hilary Clinton, and the gendered treatment of Clinton in the Democratic primaries. So I am keen to get stuck into this one, which has had her called ‘the heir to the tradition of Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion’.

On the pile next to my bed is: Helen Garner’s book of non-fiction Everywhere I Look (like so many Australian writers, I worship at the altar of Garner’s work); Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes; and Melbourne novelist Olga Lorenzo’s The Light on the Water, a novel about motherhood, marriage, grief and media perceptions involving an autistic child who goes missing on a bushwalk (which comes highly recommended).”

the essentials 

What: Jo Case in conversation with Melinda Smith
When: Sunday 10 April from 3.30pm until 4.30pm
Where: Muse Canberra. Inside the East Hotel at 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston
Tickets: $10 per person, including a glass of wine or soft drink. Book them here


Her Canberra

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