Freak - Emily Heather Bower

For the last few weeks, we’ve been sharing guest posts by creatives supported by our Young Artists Development Programme (YADP). This week we’re showcasing Emily Heather Bower’s poems and images which she’s collated into a powerful zine. Emily takes us through the process.

I hadn’t heard of the concept of ‘female autism’ until I was 18, ‘female autism’ being the different way girls and women often present their autism. The experiences described in the articles on the subject felt eerily like my own. (‘Female autism’ is of course a generalization, as autistic men and boys can also present in ways associated with autistic women, as can many other autistic, trans and non-binary people.)

Along with other happenings, this started the chain of events which led to me, at the age of twenty, discovering I was autistic.

It’s being more frequently acknowledged now that older autistic people have gone without support and understanding because they’ve been through school before the modern understanding of autism that we recognize today.

I’ve felt from my own experiences that young people are often left out of the conversation about underdiagnosis. There’s an idea that autistic people who grew up in the early 2000s would have received some level of support and understanding. However, through my own experiences and hearing the experiences of other young autistic people online, I know this is a misconception.

My project ‘Freak’ aims to challenge that misconception.

The word Freak is written in large black lettering across the top of the page in ink. The background is white. There is a portrait of a 12-year-old girl in the centre of the page. She has wild brown curly hair that is shoulder length. She is white and has green eyes. She is wearing a vest and underwear set. The vest and underwear set are a dusky pink with a pink lace trim at the top. There is a white cartoon cat on her vest, bellow the cat her vest says ‘Kitty kat. On the top left corner of her knickers there is a small white cartoon cat head. The drawing of the girl is outlined with black fine line pen and coloured with watercolour pencils. Along the bottom of the page, it says ‘By Emily Heather Bower’ in bold black ink.

Freak is an illustrated autobiographical poem anthology. It explores my experiences, at the beginning of secondary school, of being an undiagnosed autistic. I chose this period as it’s often recognized as a particularly difficult stage in an autistic girl’s life. For me it was a period of great transition, upheaval, and difficulty.

Starting the book

Over lockdown I’ve been reflecting a lot on my past and I have been having moments of inspiration. Googling pictures of my old school, which has been demolished, and remembering what it felt like to enter those gates for the first time. Walking through Camden market and remembering what my first visit felt like and what it meant to me.

I already had some of these poems to work on at the start of my commission, so I went with the inspiration as it arose, expanding on my collection and editing existing poems. I noticed that I don’t seem to edit my poems much. This is because I want to give a more authentic and undiluted view of what being an undiagnosed autistic girl is like in the early 2000s.

My poems rarely rhyme as I want the rhyming couplets that are there to seem like more of a profound connection, much like going through life as an undiscovered autistic and making these connections eventually. I also wanted my writing to seem more spontaneous and ‘from the heart’.

Initial images

To start my project off I created a brainstorm, breaking down the imagery of each poem in my collection. After this, I drew eight simple thumbnail compositions for a selection of my poems, working completely from memory. Working this way was important for this project as it needed to be a direct connection between me and my past. It also needed to feel like a window to my personal and quirky interior world.

I then took motifs from the thumbnail drawings and worked through them in a range of media, using watercolours, ink, watercolour pencils, marker pens, fine liner pens, and crayons. It was important that I achieved quite a personal style and aesthetic for my images, a dreamy but depressing quality, with a small amount of optimism!

I used the successful images, materials, and thumbnail drawings to design and create my final images.

Final images

When proposing this project, I wanted to create a vintage children’s book colour-plate aesthetic so you could lose yourself in the world of twelve-year-old me just as you would lose yourself in the Land of Oz. I wanted to make my connection with the viewer stronger, and to encourage empathy, but also to reference ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ because I love it and it meant a lot to me.

The image is of Heather as her twelve-year-old self. She is sitting at a table on a train, wearing a purple puffer jacket with a faux fur trim. She is wearing her purple square glasses and has her usual wild curly brown hair. Her eyes are green. Underneath her puffer jacket you can see peeking out a purple t shirt with a gold star, she is wearing blue jeans. She is holding a baby blue Nintendo DS. There is a Simpsons comic on the table. The tabletop is a blueish grey with a green tint. The sides of the table are wooden, and the single table leg is black. The train floor has a blue-ish green nylon carpet. The walls of the train are beige. The train seats are blue with a multi-coloured confetti pattern on them. Outside the train window you can see train tracks, bushes alongside the tracks, a field with a quaint cottage and two twisting trees. The image is drawn and coloured using watercolour pencils, giving the image a very pastel, watery and slightly blurred effect.

I use strong and vibrant colours because I’ve always felt like a colourful person, even when feeling at my worst. However, I have contrasted the vibrant colours with either black or grey, and on one occasion beige, to symbolize how I often felt trapped in a bleak world. This is with the exception of ‘Doncaster’ and ‘Camden’ because those poems deal with a surreal sense of escape.

Written words

Towards the end of school, my art technician remarked that I created everything with the same font, as if it were a bad thing. I felt this font was unique and dreamy, and something I’d never seen before.

It seemed like a perfect fit to create titles in this zine using that font. The other writing was created using my regular, neat as possible, dyslexic handwriting. It was written using a light box to keep it as readable as possible. My normal dyslexic writing was chosen so as to further the sense of personal connection.

I hope that you enjoy the piece I created. I did it to provide an insight into my experiences as an unidentified autistic, and to challenge stereotypes. It may prompt you to realize that autistics are all around you, whether they are identified or not, or to help you see that you’re not alone in your experiences as an unidentified autistic.

You can download a PDF of Emily’s zine here, download a transcript here or download an audio version here.

Emily’s creative work and blog post resonated with me as I’m sure it will with many other neurodivergent people. This zine is a phenomenal and important piece of work – thank you Emily.

There will be more work from YADP artists next week.

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