One in forty-five people are autistic. This is a fact that Daniel Bowman regularly reminds his reader in his debut nonfiction work On the Spectrum. In this memoir-style collection of essays, Bowman pours out his soul in a series of essays, reflecting and analyzing all different areas of his life, and how being autistic has affected them.
It may be unlike any linear memoir you are used to, but that is intentional. In the first chapter, Bowman lays out the groundwork for his book. A literature on his life and experiences, he writes in contribution to the #OWNVOICES movement, which works to fill the void of first-person autistic representation.
He does not claim to speak as the definition of the autistic experience; instead it's quite the opposite. Bowman writes, in part, to inform his readers on how broadly autism can affect an individual's experience, and invites neurotypical people to see autism as so much more than a list of stereotypical experiences, careers, and symptoms.
The prelude starts off immediately immersing you into his world. In it, you travel with him through some of his darkest times, and along his journey to diagnosis. In this sensory-saturated chronicle, he familiarizes his readers with his world, introducing family, work as a professor, home in rural Indiana, and livelihoods. Through his fight for a diagnosis, you instantly see his nothing but honest personality.
Much of his work reflects on what it means to be an autistic creative, and how in part his writing comes from a desire to create representation for that title, to break down the stereotypes of the mad scientist or the computer genius, and encourage the possibility of the deeply feeling poet.
Just as Bowman writes as an autistc father, creative, and professor, he also writes as a Christian. In much of his writing, he chronicles his complex experience with the church, and how autism has touched every part of that. He writes a profound theology, naming the things in the Christian community that have hurt him, but also opening the door to just how an autistic perspective can positively impact the church. Bowman invites his readers to imagine the possibilities of a neurodiverse body of Christ.
I particularly enjoyed Bowman’s characterization of place. As he writes, his autistc experience with the sensory world is made tangible for his reader. None of these details or emotions are lost as he writes about places dear to him, from Rochester, New York to Hartford City, Indiana, sacred hidden lakes as a place of retreat, and even tracing family history, exile and pilgrimage to America, as characters that influence his world. Through his vivid and specific detail, he captures the deep love he has for these places, and invites the reader to consider finding a place in their hearts for them as well.
Specifically, I enjoyed his chronicle of his coming of age in an epistolary to a parent or guardian of an autistic child. In it, he describes the way he drifted through his childhood, trying to find places of belonging and coping however he could. In just one single page, he tells an entire bildungsroman.
I also love all of his essays on faith. I think each offers a very unique angle of spirituality, inviting the reader to consider questions out of necessity that they may previously only ever been condemned for asking. In it, he speaks honestly about the ways he has felt forced out of a community he sees himself a part of because of his neurodivergence, the religion he has found in the unconventional, and his dreams for a greater, neurodiverse church and what that coud have to offer.
A few more favorite essays were “The Tracks of my Tears," “Peace in Terabithia." At not even three pages long, “Tracks” is a short but powerful essay that gives one of the best looks at Bowman’s heart for the world. In a similar vein, “Peace” chronicles how he watches his daughter navigate and fall in love with literature in the same way he did, but finds the balance between letting her keep it as her own, and tracing it back to the meaning of “good art."
His characterization of a life with autism is not without difficulty or struggle. He admits many times that he can often find himself wishing for a neurotypical brain. However, he speaks to the beauty and creativity that an autistc brain and soul has to offer, as a way to broaden the spectrum of human experience.
He does not claim to offer a solution or resolution about how to live with autism, or how the rest of the world should be adapting. Instead, he invites his reader into his own, to feel and experience his day to day life. He just offers his story, and trusts that they will treat it with care; perhaps as a reference to keep with them while navigating the world and their relationships with others. Through his world and his words, Bowman advocates for himself and the thousands of others who do not have the opportunity to do so, in hopes of making a more neurodivergent world. So if you wish, I would encourage you to read On the Spectrum and see what there is in it for you.
I received a free copy of On the Spectrum in exchange for an honest review.