Quill Tree Books, HarperCollins, 2022
As an undiagnosed autistic kid, I felt overwhelmed and anxious most of the time.
Everything was too loud, or made me feel unwell. Kids picked on me a lot, and I struggled to talk or make friends. New situations felt really scary because I didn’t know how many unpleasant sensations I was going to have to grapple with!
Whilst other kids would get excited about days out, new adventures and birthday parties, my happiest days were the ones where I could keep to a nice predictable routine at home, dive into my own imagination, and obsess over books and comics. Stories and art were always used as an escape from this intense world I live in.
But, the heroes in the stories I grew up with never seemed to get overwhelmed or scared themselves. This seemed to reflect real life, too. Why did no one else ever struggle with loud noises like I did? Why didn’t anyone else ever have trouble coping with small changes in routine? I was so sensitive compared to other people, and I felt ashamed that I couldn’t be like other kids, or the heroes in the stories I read, who could take everything in their stride.
The older I got, the more bad I felt about this. Other thirteen year olds were starting to push boundaries and be ‘rebellious’ in more obvious ways, like going out to unsupervised parties. I, on the other hand, couldn’t handle drinking fizzy drinks, and had meltdowns at the overwhelming cinema when I had to go with people I didn’t know very well.
After such meltdowns, I would go retreat to my room, and try to find comfort in stories. But the feelings of inadequacy couldn’t be pushed away. I wanted to know that other people were as sensitive as I was, and it was not seen as a weakness. I wanted to process these anxious feelings. But the stories I escaped into never showed any heroes going through similar experiences.
These feelings of shame and self doubt are what helped shaped the story of Speak Up!
I really made this story for thirteen year old me.
In Speak Up, the main character Mia is, in a way, very successful! She has an online persona, Elle-Q, whom she creates songs through, and who is becoming very popular over the internet. So popular that even a kid who bullies Mia at school has heard of Elle-Q, and is her biggest fan.
But in real life, just like many autistic kids, Mia gets overwhelmed easily. She is very sensitive to noise and lights, to the point that she cant concentrate enough to talk much in school. She doesn't make friends very easily, and is anxious a lot of the time.
Mia keeps her successful persona a secret in real life. She is convinced that if anyone finds out that the amazing Elle-Q is a quiet anxious autistic kid in real life, she will no longer be praised online. But as the story progresses, of course Mia learns to grapple with these feelings and become proud of herself.
I wanted to show through Speak Up that autistic people can achieve what they want as much as anyone else. But I also wanted to show the kind of things we struggle with, and frame this as being heroic! Mia may get fixated on small things, but she goes ahead and creates so much from that same head space. She may have meltdowns over seemingly tiny things at school, but those meltdowns come from big, understandable feelings that most neurotypical people don’t have to deal with. It's amazing that Mia still goes to school and faces her struggles, in spite of all this.
I hope I can show through this story that Mia is just as brave as any other hero, and brave precisely because she gets overwhelmed and anxious. For me this is the best kind of heroic character. A character I can relate to so much more, one to make me feel proud of myself for all the times I’ve got through tough situations that others find easy.
I want autistic kids to read this story and relate to both the happiness and struggles, and most of all, feel proud of it all!
Rebecca Burgess is a comic artist and illustrator working in the UK, creating award winning published and small press work. Along with drawing comics for their day job, Rebecca also loves drawing webcomics in their free time. Being autistic, they are particularly passionate about bringing more autistic characters into comics and stories!
Outside of drawing comics and cuddling their cat, Rebecca also loves playing RPGs with friends, going on deep dives into history, and growing vegetables in their humble Bristol garden.