“I’m a human,” stuttered the young boy, as the nurse washed the urine off of his legs and feet. The rest of the room looked on as the confusion of the child turned to panicked tears. This first memory of meeting a child with autism never fails to remind me of the unblemished integrity that is autism.
How to be Human by Florida Frenz (age 16) is one of the first illustrated publications authored by a child with autism. Other notable memoirs are The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida (age 13) and Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. As a doctor, I run a fortnightly column called ‘WordCount’, dedicated to good books on health and well-being. Our patients have joined us in a reading challenge for 2015 in an initiative to look deeper into their lives for more meaning, health and spontaneity. It is my pleasure to review this wonderful book.
This fortnight’s WordCount review is of a singularly unique publication. How to Be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl, written and illustrated by Florida Frenz. It is a memoir of and by a child with autism. Her difficulties in sequential thinking, experiencing and sharing emotion, anxiety attacks and disorientation in speech fuelled the writing and publication of the book (with encouragement from her therapist and family).
In a moving introduction, the author explains her problem in a subjective, yet beautifully objective way. This is considerably rare for a child from this spectrum — it reflects the years of therapeutic effort initiated by the family. In the book, her experience with autism contrasts with her quest to understand the problem from a simplified medical perspective. Born with a combination of symptoms of mild to moderate autism, Florida and her family work systematically with a therapist to maximize her potential to be happy and healthy.
In 23 steps, Florida learns concepts of emotion, conscience, communication and sensitivity through the window of art and writing. She explores self-acceptance. In spite of feeling that one step forward is often followed by two frustrating steps behind, the Frenz family razors forward into the search for ‘human-ness’. 23 steps to the coveted goal — ‘Human or Alien?’ Definitely (and superbly) human.
The illustrations depict an increasingly detailed sense of self, improved reasoning and the ability to ask for assistance. The book, like many people that present with autism, is authentic and inspiring.
One has the opportunity to experience several ‘firsts’ in a lifetime. This publication has been an important ‘first’ in literature by differently-abled children, mainly due to the age of the author, her potential as an artist and her medical history.
We recommend this book as a reminder of the simplicity and courage that lives within each one of us. Florida’s story is an illustration of the fact that happiness can be independent of external resources, physical or psychological disability and even medical illness.
Moving towards new perspectives,
A version of this review was first published here as well as distributed to the writer’s patients.
All illustrations are by Florida Frenz.
Buy How to be Human: Diary of an Autistic Girl by Florida Frenz to support persons with disabilities. You can buy it from Amazon.