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My Kind of Spark: On Neurodivergence and Unlearning.

This post is inspired by Elle McNicoll’s book A Kind of Spark. The book is about a neurodivergent girl called Addie who campaigns to get a memorial for women killed in witch trials held in her village.

I’m nervous about this blog because it has been a long time since I had such a strong and visceral reaction to a book. I absolutely loved A Kind of Spark. This is not a criticism of it. If you haven’t read it, do.

In the book, there are a lot of interactions with a teacher called Mrs Murphy. I’m not going to tell you the context because spoilers but I think it’s fair to say that Mrs Murphy is an unsympathetic character and she doesn’t like supporting or adapting her teaching to neurodivergence. At many times in the book, I got the anxious, tight stomach feeling I experience when I am carrying worry and my partner actually stopped me reading in bed last night because I was in the middle of the second meeting and had started tapping and biting my nails off. I hadn’t realised.

Elle McNicoll had shown a mirror to some memories I hadn’t previously understood. I was diagnosed as dyspraxic, dyslexic and with ADD when I was in my mid-twenties. That means that I periodically understand things that happened to me as a teenager and young child that had caused me distress but I couldn’t explain.

As I read Addie’s interactions with Mrs Murphy, I was taken back to my Year One (aged 5-6) classroom where I learned I thought very differently to other people, that this was not how I was meant to be, that I should be very afraid, and, in my own context, “mask” how I behave and see the world. It explained to me why I worry to the point of obsession about being misunderstood or getting tasks wrong. It told me why I find particularly emphatic styles that are repetitious frustrating. I get almost everything first time if I’ve processed it properly and tend to remember it too. I understood how one person conditioned me to believe I was wrong about everything, and because we didn’t understand my brain then, no one knew or thought to argue.

It all begins when I asked my Year One teacher if all the stories in the bible were true. Like Addie, I had an underwater animal obsession but mine was whales (and dolphins!! Sorry, Addie). So when we listened to “Jonah and the Whale” and I saw the picture in the illustrated children’s bible, I was confused. The species of whale in the picture had a sieve in its mouth and only ate plankton. So how did Jonah get swallowed? My teacher, Miss Anderson, was furious. I was five so she didn’t call me blasphemous as such but she humiliated me for being literal and obtusely ignoring “the message”. In another class, we had to draw God. (Yup, I know) and describe what He looked like. So I wrote a paragraph about how we can’t see God. He’s actually a feeling. (Yes, I really know.) In a beautifully ironic twist, Miss Anderson told me I had failed the exercise because I was supposed to draw a person and put my sheet in the bin, demanding that I do it “properly”. Bewildered, I drew an eye here, a moustache there, and wrote something like: “God’s face is everywhere so his nose is up and his mouth is down.” Guess what. I had to do it again. Somewhere in my house, there is a sheet of A4 paper with a face with a moustache in the middle of a rectangle box with “This is God’s face” written underneath it. At 6, I was trying to conceptualise non-corporeality but instead was punished, called “lazy” and a “show-off”, made to work through lunch and breaks to meet the tasks to her standard.

This continued. We studied the plague and I tried to draw the smell coming from the doctor’s beak. It turns out I was meant to colour it in gold instead. When I asked why it would be gold if it was made from leather or wood, I got a detention through break. When it transpired I’d read all the books in the classroom, I was punished for not telling her. It didn’t occur to me she might let me read other books or send me into the Year Two classroom to borrow things. But there was another hidden agenda, I wasn’t allowed to share about Year Two books with the class. Book reports hidden, no contributions in story time. Books were the one thing getting me through and then, they were weaponised to remind me that I was always the odd one out.

(Diversion: Shout out to my secondary school librarian Miss Radon, who saw me as a Boss Level reader and spent about five years helping me work through everything in that library, reading new things at the same time as me, teaching me about book prizes, and story tropes while I plodded miserably through everything that wasn’t French, Music, and Art)

At the same time, at 6, I started getting terrible headaches and migraines that would continue intermittently through school. I basically stopped getting them after I finished my undergraduate degree. And I became hyperconscious about everything I did. I used to hide what I was reading so teachers wouldn’t dig at me. I would mask, using the fact that in the 1990s and early 00s, a learning issue meant “behind” or “incapable” rather than “different”. Because I did fine, no one was worried although it was repeatedly noted that my verbal and reading dexterity was way out of step with my writing. Can’t imagine what brought that on.

I think now about how I hate strip lighting because it’s too bright and have to turn lights down in the evening in order to be able to sleep. Of how I avoid meeting friends in big groups because I can functionally listen to multiple conversations at once and I burn out. And realise that classroom and playground didn’t work for me. That everyone thought I sought the company of adults because I was a lonely only child and not because I was bullied for speaking and reading ahead of my peers and having terrible co-ordination skills. They thought that I couldn’t skip or hula hoop or cartwheel because I was lazy and putting on weight rather than because I my brain blacks out when I can’t figure out how to do a movement. (There’s a running joke in my friendship group that I can’t turn left on the spot or to get out of bed. I have to do a three quarter turn to the right or get out and in.) What young me didn’t know is that I find running freeing and I love being fit. Dancing, weightlifting, boxing, kayaking, swimming. But I am still unlearning always being the person hunted in chases, not being allowed to climb the frames because I was too slow, of panicking about swinging on bars and falling and the fall leading to yet another humiliation.

I talk often about wishing I could be invisible. Not absent but without an appearance. Able to thrive without being looked at. It’s only now that I see how this was all part of one long process of erasing myself. Example: I gesticulate a lot. People think it’s because I’m musical and, therefore, dramatic. That may be true. But it’s actually because I am reaching for the words in front of me and conducting them into an order. I’m extremely visual. I love words and maths but hate letters and numbers. I see words and numbers as pictures or feelings or sounds.

For a very, very long time, I became out of step. I “underachieved”. I was not good at things that naturally went hand-in-hand with other skills. I was pushed into speaking because my writing was inhibited. A Kind of Spark has made me see the conditioning I have internalised without ever realising how far it went. It comes with so much fear. So much noise. I wish I’d realised the noise was other people and if I’d just let myself be, I could have been walking to my own music a long time ago. I’d love to meet Addie. I’d love to read her shark book and show her one about whales. I love for my friends and colleagues to read it and get a small glimpse of neurodivergence. Addie is not the same as me and I am not the same as her. But for once, I saw a very young Hannah and understood why they were always frightened. I wish I could have told her all the things I’m learning now. I hope I can listen to myself a bit more often.

You can purchase A Kind of Spark from Round Table Books by clicking here.

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