Barbara Moran

Q&A with Author Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran is a graphic artist from Topeka, Kansas, who was not diagnosed with autism until she was in her early forties. She has spoken at autism conferences, and her artwork has been exhibited by Visionaries + Voices, at Bryn Mawr’s annual Art Ability show, and at the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis. Barbara’s art often focuses on personified objects such as locomotives, stoplights, and cathedrals. Barbara shares her home with her companion of forty years, Rooney, a 1934 Monitor Top GE refrigerator. Her memoir, Hello, Stranger: My Life on the Autism Spectrum, will be published in March 2019.

Barbara MoranWhat inspired you to work with Karl Williams and share your story with the world?

I always wanted to write my life story but lacked the skills or patience to do it. When I met Karl, he gave me the opportunity to write a story. Without Karl’s help, there’d be no story. Karl offered to do the interviews and make a story out of them. And working with those original transcripts must have been like trying to unscramble an egg.

What do you want readers to understand about you after they’ve read Hello, Stranger?

Hello StrangerI want to be validated. And I’d like to hear from people who have had similar struggles with sensory issues: I want to hear someone say, “Me, too.” I spent most of my life without knowing anyone with sensory issues and I felt a lot of shame because of people’s expectations of me—which I learned were unrealistic. No one even knew that sensory issues existed, and that caused people to want me to just stop complaining. It was my sensory issues that made me withdraw in the first place. And so I personified objects because they wouldn’t overwhelm me like people often did.

What do you hope readers learn about autism and people with autism?

I want them to imagine what autism can be like, to understand the emotions that drive a lot of autistic behavior. Autistic people can be hard to live with, but the autistic person does want help. It needs to start with feeling better; anything that helps sensory processing can help behavior. And relationship-based social skills training, which is give-and-take, can help the autistic person in being able to be functional. A person shouldn’t have to squash her personality to merely be tolerated. The more welcome she can feel with people, the more she’ll care. People need to communicate clearly basic social rules and limits, but the autistic person needs to have enough flexibility so they aren’t constantly afraid of being in trouble.

How did your life change after you first were diagnosed with autism in your forties?

Having an autism diagnosis answered my question finally: Why was my life so out of synch with everyone else’s?

At Menninger’s, I was told that people choose to be mentally ill. After that I felt shame—like it was my fault. I felt shame most of my life. Being diagnosed with autism was like being forgiven. My problems weren’t character faults; they were legitimate complaints. It was like the Ugly Duckling learning he was a swan. At conferences, I was treated like a poster child—a celebrity—and people lined up to buy my pictures. It was amazing to me that someone from Kansas would get to attend so many conferences and feel welcome.

As you look back on your life, how has your view of your childhood experiences evolved?

My view of my childhood changed for the better because knowing “why” meant I no longer needed to blame anyone or accept blame myself. My parents hadn’t harmed me; my problem was physical.

How has drawing helped you throughout your life?

I have always liked colorful pictures regardless of who produced them. And I’ve always enjoyed producing images myself. My drawing has allowed me to see what I wanted to see.

How do you perceive your autism today? Do you see it primarily as a challenge? Can it be interpreted as a gift in some way?

Autism can bring gifts to some people like Temple Grandin: She has a LIFE. But unless something changes drastically, autism has few real advantages. I’m better off than most. Only a handful of autistic people live on their own and are able to work. Something needs to be done to help those with autism become more functional so they can tolerate life. Being autistic is often painful and lonely. I don’t think medication is the answer. There needs to be more emphasis on nutrition and relationships and sensory integration, which has been proven to work—and the person needs a say in the treatment plan.

Autistic people need to communicate and be listened to even if what they say sounds like crazy talk. If somebody knows she counts, other people’s wishes will matter more to her.

Karl Williams

Q&A with Author Karl Williams

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?

Barbara MoranBarb’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.

Welcome New Authors: Karl Williams and Barbara Moran

KiCam Projects is delighted to welcome new author Karl Williams and Barbara Moran, whose book will publish in April 2019!

Karl has teamed with Barbara to tell her story of growing up with autism at a time before autism was even beginning to be understood. Barbara, a graphic artist, spent her childhood in a mental institution, improperly labeled as schizophrenic. Only when her sister later became a doctor did Barbara, then in her 40s, finally receive the correct diagnosis.

Barbara, who lives in Topeka, Kansas, has had her artwork displayed at the MIND Institute at the University of California-Davis. She features the objects that speak to her imagination, particularly locomotives, cathedrals, and stoplights.

Karl, a musician and writer, previously has published two books with leaders in the self-advocacy movement, and a portion of the proceeds of his project with Barbara will benefit Breakthrough House, which supports mental health recovery in Topeka.

The forthcoming book, tentatively titled Hello, Stranger, will enable readers to see inside a unique mind to better understand autism and the spectrum of neurodiversity.

It also reminds readers how far society has come in accepting and caring for individuals with autism—and how far we still need to go to empower them and embrace their gifts.

Welcome to the family, Karl and Barbara!