Autism and the Beano | An interview with Jessie Hewitson

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Lottie here, The School Gate editor. While I’m not working on all things Beano, I’m mum/stepmum to six kids (yep, six!). One of our youngest boys has autism and is pretty much the world’s biggest Beano fan. A couple of months back, I read a piece in the Times by Jessie Hewitson, who also has an autistic seven-year-old son who is equally Beano-obsessed. It occurred to me there might be something about our beloved Beano that particularly appeals to neuro-divergent brains, so I thought I’d ask Jessie a few questions.

Hi Jessie, welcome to The School Gate! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and about your son?

I am a journalist at The Times and a mother of a seven year old autistic son. My son is at the local school with the support of a teaching assistant. He’s funny, logical, bright and musical. He’s very kind and sensitive and if I tell him what’s bothering me, he often gives me very good advice. He has started to make friends, which he loves as he’s a sociable boy who would love to find his gang.

When did you first start to wonder if your son was autistic?

My mother in law, a retired educational psychologist, suggested my son was autistic when he was a bit over one. She had worked with autistic children so registered the signs early. It took us a year and a bit to have this confirmed officially and several years later to understand more about what it all meant, and that is wasn’t a terrible thing.

Autism is a spectrum condition, so it presents in a wide variety of ways. Can you tell us a bit about this?

Temple Grandin, a US autistic academic and speaker, believes that autistic people can be divided into three categories of thinkers: visual ones, pattern thinkers (these people can be very good at maths and music) and verbal specialists who are good at talking and writing but not so good at visual skills [click to watch Temple’s brilliant TED talk on the subject].

Grandin, who wrote Thinking in Pictures, is a visual thinker and describes her mind as an internet search engine that searches for photographs. I wonder if my son is too – while language took a while to appear, he found reading numbers easily and at the age of two would be able to read out all the bus numbers (to the shock of the drivers).

That’s amazing! And it sounds as though this might be why he loves our Beano?

Yes – this is one explanation why he’s so drawn to comics as there is a visual element with the pictures explaining what’s going on as well as words. I also think he likes the mischief.

My sons’s favourite character are the Numskulls [ed: same with my son, too!]. The amateur psychologist in me thinks this is interesting – that they are making real something abstract for him (ie the workings of the brain) and they possibly represent his sensory experience, which is different to the sensory experiences of non-autistic people.

He’s loyal to the Beano. There is no other comic for him! He reads it every day at morning break at school.

Good lad. It sounds as though Beano is one of his special interests. Can you explain what special interests are?

Intense interests, also called special interests, are things that autistic people are drawn to – subjects that they find out everything about and spend their time doing. They can be a hugely pleasurable thing. In the past these interests were dismissed as obsessions and autistic people were encouraged out of them, but now thankfully this viewpoint is changing. Intense interests can mean expertise, they can help create a shining talent of the future and they can help someone develop skills that might help them get a job or live happily.

That’s so useful, thank you Jessie. Can you tell us more about your book – Autism, how to raise a happy autistic child?

I wrote the book so parents of autistic kids would have everything they needed to know in one place. It includes interviews with autistic adults, professionals, academics (including Simon Baron Cohen) and parents.

I also wanted to write something that is hopeful and practical. I don’t pretend being autistic in a neurotypical world is easy but I truly believe being autistic is no bad thing and that the world has to change and not autistic people.

My book looks at autism as a difference rather than a disorder to be fixed and explores ways you can adapt the child’s environment to help them. The focus is on happiness as I believe what most parents are really scared of is having an unhappy child, not an autistic one and too often we conflate the two.

That’s so true. Thank you for chatting to us, Jessie. Good luck with the book!

Autism, how to raise a happy autistic child book coverAutism, how to raise a happy autistic child is published by Orion, £14.99