Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
Chris Bonnello is an educator, writer, speaker, and advocate involved with children, adults, and society at large educating on autism-related topics. His experiences in education and writing have helped him connect with people and with creating his well-known Autistic Not Weird website and popular Facebook group. He is also the author of Underdogs (2019), a near-future dystopian novel with neurodiverse characters. Its sequel, Underdogs: Tooth and Nail, is in the works and should be published soon. Chris has learned more and more about himself as he navigates our tricky world, and he strives to live in a way that helps him make best use of his strengths and skills. He lives in the UK.
What does a typical work/regular day look like for you (or, if there isn’t a typical day, describe one that is representative of your work/regular life)?
Half the time, my typical day involves tutoring at an independent school for autistic students. Being an autistic teacher of autistic students is amazing because we’re starting from a position of common ground, even sharing similar senses of humour (and among other things, there’s no pretentiousness or hint-dropping either)! The other half of the time, my typical day involves working from home, either answering messages from followers, writing for Autistic Not Weird, or working on the Underdogs series. Occasionally I drive across the country and deliver a speaking engagement, which is always fun.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your work?
This is a surprisingly tricky question to answer, because most of my hobbies have turned into work! Autism advocacy used to be a hobby but now it’s one of my jobs (thanks largely to my Patreon supporters who enable me to do so part-time). Writing used to be a hobby too, but now being a novelist is another job for me—and thankfully it hasn’t cost me any of the joy I’ve always felt for it. I think the main two hobbies I have these days are chess and cubing. “Cubing” being speedsolving Rubik’s cubes—I learned how to solve them back in August and they became my “autistic obsession,” so now my current record is 19.16 seconds!
How does being autistic help or hinder your work or hobbies?
Being autistic in a school for autistic students means I’m often seen as the one who “just gets it,” which I see as a huge compliment. This personal level of understanding—even if our life experiences differ—often means I find it easier to accommodate those who need it. And in special education, accommodation is everything. My autism does help me a bit with chess and cubing, but honestly I think that’s more of a hyperfocus thing than any kind of intellect. You don’t have to be massively intelligent to do either of those things well, despite the stereotypes!
Of course, there are disadvantages in all of this. My executive functioning leads to bad organisation, and my hyperfocus can even mean forgetting to eat!
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
I learned very early in my adulthood that I only succeed at the things that are done on my own terms. I’ve always struggled with job interviews, finding employment the “traditional” way, getting books published the traditional way (i.e., via a literary agent), and generally matching most people’s social expectations too. The only way I was able to succeed at most tasks was by finding my own way of doing them. (Even the small things—for example, adapting my working hours to match my waking hours.)
“I’ve been very fortunate in finding people who are willing to accommodate me doing things differently, because they understand it helps me play to my strengths.“
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
Who hasn’t? I was bullied at secondary school—not specifically for being autistic since nobody knew what it was back then, but certainly for being “weird” and different. And whereas I wouldn’t say I was literally discriminated against while looking for jobs as an adult, I was clearly the victim of a recruitment process that was designed with non-autistic people in mind.
What advice would you give to a young or teenage autistic person to help them live their best life, or what advice would you give an autistic adult to help them feel supported in their continuing journey?
I go into further details here, but my main advice for autistic young people is:
- Whatever you’re going through, you are not alone.
- The only person who can decide who you are is you.
- Sometimes your pace and methods will be different, and that’s totally fine.
- Once your school days are over, they’re over forever.
- Find the places where you can play to your strengths.
- Don’t blame yourself for things that aren’t your fault.
- If you need help, ask for it.
- Everyone else finds things difficult too.
- I’d rather be happy than normal.
- Remember how much you’re loved.
- (Yes, this one goes up to 11.) Finally, listen to other people’s advice.
What advice would you give parents of autistic kids about the best ways to support their kids in becoming their best selves? What advice from the “experts” do you think parents should ignore?
I’d say the main one is allowing your children to play to their strengths, even if those strengths are unusual or something they’re unlikely to get a career in. When the world is telling you that you’re different or even “faulty,” having something you know you’re good at can do wonders for your self-esteem. In my worst days, my chess club was my weekly reminder that I wasn’t crap at everything.
Besides that, pick and choose advice relating to autism. Autistic people are different from each other for the same reason non-autistic people are, so advice that applies to some autistic children may not apply to yours.
“Oh, and if an “expert” tries to tell you that your nonverbal child doesn’t feel empathy or isn’t impacted by the words of those around them, tell them to bugger off.“
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
When I was fifteen, I was on a writers’ forum talking to other teenagers about the difficulties of having to adapt ourselves to become popular (or just hated less) by classmates who were higher up the social hierarchy. In the midst of this discussion, the forum’s moderator—a man in his fifties with experience on his side—simply asked us “…Would they change for you?”
That sentence stuck with me. It helped me to realise I shouldn’t be swimming oceans to appease people who wouldn’t cross a puddle for me.
Where did you come up with the idea for Underdogs?
Oddly enough, the first draft of Underdogs (“Guerrillas” at the time) was written as a coping mechanism for unemployment as a way of keeping myself busy. I didn’t intend for it to get published—that wasn’t the purpose of it as long as it helped to keep me happy. I suppose I wanted to write a challenge for myself—a story featuring the most unwinnable war possible (almost mathematically unwinnable). A few drafts later I was working in special education and came to realise that there was a huge gap in representation for neurodiverse heroes, especially those attending special schools. The story then became more about the characters and their development than about the ins and outs of the war, which is kind of what I wanted all along.
What are some of the intangible rewards for your Autistic Not Weird online presence? What drove you to “quit your day job” and focus on this endeavor?
At first, running ANW helped me a lot because I knew I was doing something valuable—I had just left teaching “forever” so this was my way of continuing to help young people (and adults too), even if indirectly as a voice on the internet. Eventually it became so big that I had no hours left to spare, so I had to quit my job to give the community the time that it deserved—and thanks again to Patreon, I was able to afford it.
As time has gone by, ANW has helped me with my confidence and self-perception, to the extent that I want to go back in time to the 2013 me who told his therapist he was a failure, and wipe these achievements all over his face. Just because your life and career aren’t going the way you planned in your mid-twenties, it doesn’t mean that you can’t become an award-winning writer, international speaker, and published novelist by your mid-30s. It’s helped me to realise that I was worth more than I thought all along—even back in my worst days, there was value to who I was and what I could do, even if I didn’t recognise it at the time.
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
- Email: [email protected]
- Main site: https://autisticnotweird.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/autisticnotweird
- Twitter: @AutisticNW
- Instagram: @autisticnotweird
- Patreon (for perks and rewards): https://www.patreon.com/autisticnotweird
- And Underdogs on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Underdogsnovel
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