Drama Queen charts comedy script writers Sara Gibbs’s journey to her autism diagnosis at age 30. In it, she looks back at her memories of growing up, trying to navigate a world she didn’t quite understand
What prompted you to write a book?
I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was tiny but never quite found the right story to tell. It was suggested to me that my unusual upbringing coupled with my late autism diagnosis was a story people would want to read. I resisted at first because I felt quite shy about being the focus of the story. As a writer I’m used to being behind the scenes, putting words in other, more talented, people’s mouths. Ultimately, I’m very glad I went for it, even though it has totally ruined the game of ‘what would my imaginary memoir be called?’
Was it difficult or emotional writing your own story?
It was incredibly emotional. I had to delve into some very difficult, long-buried places. At times it was like going on an exciting psychological treasure hunt, rediscovering lovely, tender moments - especially through interviewing friends and family. At other times it was harrowing, particularly reliving my dad’s illness. I’d spend all day at work with tears just streaming down my face and at times I had nightmares. In the end, the overall experience was cathartic. I have a fantastic counsellor who got me through the stressful days and, having exposed these vulnerable feelings to the world and having turned lots of them into comedy, I seem to have robbed them of their power to haunt or hurt me.
You weren’t diagnosed till you were 30. Growing up had you always felt different?
Absolutely. I was different in so many ways it took a whole book to detail them and I still feel like there’s so much I missed out. Everything from how I socialised to how I dressed myself, my mannerisms, my vocal inflections, the way I processed sensory input, my eating habits - all of it was so wildly different from the people around me. I grew up in a very odd new-age community. I attended a school where one lesson involved prancing around in silk robes and I still felt like I was too weird for the other weirdos!
Looking back how did being autistic affect your childhood and teenage years?
I grew up feeling like a total outcast. While I had friends here and there, the general vibe was that socialising with me made you a pariah. I also felt very misunderstood by the adults around me as my difficulties were often misread as attention seeking or hysteria. I sort of adopted a big, bold persona to try to own the situation, which I think made me seem more confident and in control than I actually was.
Would you say, that prior to your diagnosis, you used writing as a way of expressing yourself?
I’ve always used writing to express myself and still do. Writing is the most controlled way to communicate. It can be edited and rewritten until it conveys exactly what was intended. As someone who has always been misunderstood, this is a massive luxury. Writing is a medium where nothing is blurted out by accident or conveyed in the wrong tone. I don’t tend to lie in bed at night worrying about that awkward thing I wrote.
You are a comedy scriptwriter, do you think being autistic has been a positive in this genre?
Being autistic has its positives and negatives. It has certainly limited some opportunities, for example, applying for rare full-time comedy work in busy environments was out of the question for me, but has been a great asset in other ways. I have a unique thought process which can lead me to funny ideas other people might have missed. Also writing about being autistic in a funny way has opened a lot of doors. I think it’s important for autistic comedians to have a platform so people understand we can laugh at ourselves and that disability isn’t a tragedy.
Has your diagnosis influenced your work in any way?
I think any self-knowledge can only improve your work as a writer and finally knowing and accepting myself has massively changed the way I write. In a more literal sense, a lot of my project since have centred around my own experience or feature autistic characters. I can’t imagine what I’d be working on now had I not been diagnosed.
In terms of awareness of autism, have things changed much since you were young?
I think our cultural understanding of autism has come on leaps and bounds since I was young, especially when it comes to people who are socialised as girls and women. Until fairly recently, people didn’t even know that girls could be autistic. Even in the last couple of years there’s been an explosion of interest in autistic women. There’s still a long way to go but it feels like people are really starting to listen.
What do you hope people will take away from your book
My book is just a snapshot of one autistic woman raised in a very particular way and, of course, we’re all different, so I hope that my book is just one of many texts written by autistic authors that people consume. It would be nice if my book was a gateway book to further interest. While I hope it helps people better understand autistic loved ones, it’s also just one person’s life story. It’s not just for people who have a particular interest in autism, so I hope people are entertained and ultimately uplifted.
Drama Queen: One Autistic Woman and a Life of Unhelpful Labels by Sara Gibbs, Headline, £16.99, is available now