Review of Invisible Differences by Julie Dachez, illustrated by Mademoiselle Caroline
One of the most valuable moments for many, on their journey to realising that they’re autistic, is recognising themselves through reading biographies and seeing other representations of autistic experiences. Autistic representations can provide such an important sense of validation and community, for those of us who may have never experienced much of either before.
As more works emerge by actually autistic creators, we are also seeing greater range, nuance, authenticity, and celebration of our diversity and differences, rather than pathology-based models or crude caricatures. In this context, Invisible Differences is an excellent addition to the growing body of autistic autobiographies, and stories about autistic self-identification and transformation.
So much of autistic experience is often tied in with communication and the sensory environment, and artist Mademoiselle Caroline does a great job of capturing those difficult-to-describe moments and feelings through her drawing and panel design. I can actively feel and viscerally recognise the sensory overwhelm of protagonist Marguerite’s office, the stressful disorienting chatter of her colleagues, her sense of calm in nature, the loops of anxiety when she worries that she has said something wrong.
There is also increasing (and more joyful) experimentation with colour as the story progresses, mirroring Marguerite’s growing sense of self, experimentation with more confident and authentic ways of being—indeed: starting to live “a life in full colour.” There’s something really nice here, to me, about how realising that one is autistic could bring so much more colour into a world that might previously have been dominated by anxiety, and a sense that being oneself isn’t OK. There can be such a sense of relief and possibility to realising that “normal for me is to be “abnormal,” which Dachez celebrates throughout this story of realisation.
I am quite curious about how this reads to readers who know very little about autism, and perhaps, like some of the other characters in the book, might otherwise have responded to Marguerite's revelation of her diagnosis with worry, disbelief, or pity. This book is for them too—not just to learn more about the experience of being autistic, but about the importance of finding one’s community and realising that being yourself is OK, and that being different can be hard—but in itself is nothing like a tragedy (and can actually be really important).
There is a lot in there about revelation and gradual self understanding and acceptance that is illustrated in a way that I think is much more accessible, through following Marguerite's story, how she changes, and the decisions she makes, than just being told that this process happens and is important. It is a very nice example of the power of showing, rather than telling.
On the theme of education however, something that did jar uncomfortably was in the back pages, designed as a sort of simple informational fact file on autism. It read oddly to me, changing between first and third person. After such an intimate, humane, and personal story, putting information about autism in the third person, describing us as an ‘other’—“they tend to prefer rituals,” “they might be clumsy,” felt really quite uncomfortable. Moreover, while on the whole the information was reasonably good, it still felt somewhat unfounded and unhelpfully generalised in some of its assertions, such as the claim that “non-autistic people recharge in the company of others” and autistic people the opposite, or “they have few prejudices and are less likely to judge others.”
I felt that it was a shame that the back section did not instead focus more on differences in communication (and perhaps ‘culture’) between autistic and non-autistic people, and the impact of having a minority or, as Dachez might put it, “deviant” experience compared to the majority. It felt like a shame and rather a surprise that the book should end on such an ‘othering’ experience and go back, however slightly, to some of the tired tropes and generalisations (“condition,” “symptoms”... though maybe there is a translation issue also at play here). Perhaps on its own I would’ve been less critical of this section, but the quality and thoughtfulness of the story greatly raised the bar for what I was expecting.
That said, the final section did also contain a very direct and critical section on France’s problematic psychoanalytic approaches to autism, stating it is “40 years behind when it comes to autism,” and perhaps in this context one can forgive a little the shortcomings of the final section. There was also a very generous and excellent list of resources for further reading, with a range of autistic voices represented, in a range of media, so perhaps keen readers will seek out further challenging and diverse perspectives and ideas.
But maybe it is best that we focus back on the main story, which after all is the main reason that readers might pick up this book. As the narrative takes us through Marguerite's diagnosis process, and her discovery of autistic community, we hear accounts from a range of autistic people she meets (which read like quotations, so I assume they may be from real people) hinting at a broader range of experiences and stories than we are presented with through Marguerite—something that hints towards a real sense of community and culture. She goes further, however: Marguerite's realisation doesn’t just bring her into a community of autistic people, it brings her into a much broader community of neurodivergence and celebration of diversity—there is so much solidarity in the experience of difference, and realising that we may all have (often invisible) differences from the majority can be so important, and feels like the most valuable message for the book to leave us with. As Dachez writes on the cover page:
“By embracing your truest self, making peace with your uniqueness, you become an example to follow. You thus have the power to shatter the normative shackles that hold us all back and keep us from living together in mutual respect and acceptance. Your difference isn’t part of the problem, it’s part of the solution. It is a cure for our society, a society obsessed with normality.”