Karl Williams is an author and songwriter with a special passion for the self-advocacy movement. After meeting Barbara Moran at a conference years ago, Karl felt compelled to help Barbara share her story with the world, both because of the uniqueness of Barbara and her experiences with autism and also because of the universality of the need to be understood and appreciated.
In March, ahead of Autism Awareness Month, Karl and Barbara will release Hello, Stranger: My Life on the Autism Spectrum. Here’s a look at how the book came to be, as well as Karl’s goals for how the book will affect readers.
What inspired you to work with Barbara Moran and share her story with the world?
Barb is compelling. You can feel an intensity of purpose that has enabled her to survive experiences that could have destroyed who she is. But they did not; she did not allow them to. When we agreed to work together, I was, as a writer, excited. She’d come out of a lifetime of everyone she encountered completely misunderstanding her and trying to change her into someone else. What a story! I was honored to be able to help her tell what had happened to her and how she came through it
How did you and Barbara go about working together?
We started by recording long conversations in person. Once they were transcribed, I took out all my words and went to work with “the material”—what Barb had told me, her own words—to create a coherent whole. But as I worked, I had more questions for her. And so next there were phone calls and more transcription. … We learned to communicate so that she could feel understood and so I could help her tell her story. And along the way, we got to be friends.
What was most challenging and what was most rewarding about working with a neurodiverse person?
Working with anyone requires understanding, reconciling points of view and preferences, and accepting each other’s idiosyncrasies. What was most rewarding about working with Barb was learning how much of what we call preferences and idiosyncrasies are actually neurology. We all have neurological quirks—sensitivities to sights and sounds, a need to do things in a certain order, anxiety, etc. We’re all neurodiverse, of course; it’s just that many (most) of us are what could be called “neurotypical.” Barb, then, is part of a “neurominority”—not inferior, just different. I was privileged to come to understand that more completely.
What aspect of Barbara’s life experience resonates most deeply with you?
Barb’s ability to retain her sense of self no matter how many people were telling her she had to change. This is just one amazing aspect of her story. From her earliest years, she was told she shouldn’t draw traffic signals, she shouldn’t talk to buildings, she shouldn’t continue to pursue her own extremely creative method of dealing with the isolation life had dealt her. She resisted that pressure and held on to who she is. It cost her emotionally (and in other ways because of the drugs she was given as a child), but she did not lose who she is. And then, at the same time, she was constantly struggling with primary overarching questions: Why am I like I am? Why am I so different from everyone else that they refuse to accept me? And she never allowed that struggle to get the better of her.
Please tell us a bit about the self-advocacy movement and why it’s something you’re passionate about.
Self-advocacy, the struggle of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, is part of the larger social justice movement which seeks to make the world fair for people who have no power because they are poor, because of their gender, or because of their racial or sexual identity. People with disabilities are the most recent ones to join the fray. They too, for the most part, have no power because of social discrimination and, too often, poverty. The first step to achieving social justice is for people to find their voices. And to find one’s voice, a person needs to be with others who share his or her life experiences. Self-advocacy results from people with disabilities getting together, sharing their stories, and through that process finding their voice and the power of speaking out together.
What is the primary takeaway you hope readers get from Hello, Stranger?
I hope that after reading Barb’s story, people will approach every child they work with, every child they meet, with openness and acceptance and respect. Difference is not really difference; it’s just identity. The most sacred thing a child has is his or her uniqueness, his or her sense of self, and that must be honored.