Interview by Jenny Bristol
Illustration by Rebecca Burgess
Rebecca Burgess is a talented and creative illustrator and comic artist who works to both create beautiful things and increase positive dialogue surrounding important issues such as autism and asexuality. She has an exquisite talent to communicate so much emotion through her art, with facial expressions telling at least half the story. Her style is at once familiar, comfortable and fresh. She does freelance work as well as personal projects, and you can peruse much of her work at her website and on Tapas as well as see her autism-related work here at Geek Club Books. Through a lot of reflection, Rebecca has learned what supports she needs to be her most thriving and successful self, creating a life and career that works for her in the process. She 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)?
Because I’m both extremely forgetful and introverted, I have a very scheduled life to make sure I get stuff done, and that forces me to keep up with friends! Even though I freelance from home, I normally get up at the same time every week day and work from 9-5. I like to read books and comics specifically in my lunch hour, and then normally spend my evenings playing video games and working on personal art projects (mostly comics!). Then I make sure I’m out in the evening twice a week to do something with friends, normally playing board games.
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of your work?
Even though I spend all day drawing for work, my main hobby is still drawing in my free time. I really love drawing comics, and I have a gazillion stories in my head, so making comics is my biggest hobby. My other favourite things are Lord of the Rings, nature (going outside and exploring/bird watching), and history; I’ve always in particular been interested in Mozart and Edwardian history. I have lots of fun playing board games and role playing games with friends—I particularly love M:tG and Call of Cthulhu!
How does being autistic help or hinder your work or hobbies?
I would say being autistic both helps and hinders all of these things. The good thing about who I am is that I’m so intensely interested in drawing/comics that I rarely get “art block” or find it hard to be motivated in doing side projects outside of work, so I’m very productive. Because I find socialising tiring I don’t get “cabin fever” and find it really easy to just focus on work, even though I’m working from home and by myself. I think, as well, I tend to have a constant flow of ideas for stories and art projects because my brain doesn’t stop thinking.
“My passion for comics and stories means that I also find it really easy and love to talk about other people’s projects with them, and many creative friends have told me it’s nice to have someone who is really passionate about what they’re doing to help motivate them.”
The downside to being autistic is the social side and my bad executive function skills. I’m the most forgetful person I know for everyday basic tasks, and it means I’m really bad at doing the kind of stuff that you need to do as a freelancer to keep work going and keep yourself on clients’ radars—like following up with e-mails and keeping up with messages on social media, etc. Then there’s the whole networking thing that has always eluded me. A lot of people in my line of work get jobs by going to events, conferences, and comic cons regularly and meeting/socialising with people. But I really struggle with these sorts of things because it’s both very exhausting, and the sensory overload ends up making me feel unwell and I end up having meltdowns or panic attacks in the hotel rooms after it’s over. This also happens with certain hobbies like music gigs and comic conventions. I normally still like to go and just endure the ramifications, but don’t go as often as some of my other friends because of the physical/mental impact it has, and I normally have to rest for a long time afterwards.
What kinds of changes or accommodations do you make in your life to allow you to be successful?
I keep to a schedule and keep a diary where I can plan events and meeting up with people in advance. This allows me to keep track of social and quiet time, so that I don’t end up doing too much “social time” in one week and then feeling overwhelmed. I always make sure I have at least 4 “quiet time” days in a week.
“A diary also helps me keep track of small tasks I normally forget to do, like paying bills on time or contacting friends. I also normally have a day to day routine that has specific time put away for different things, so that I don’t forget to do household chores/tasks.”
I try not to go overboard with this though, because planning every little thing can end up being stressful (and my brain has a tendency to do that). With socialising, I tend to plan things in advance like board game nights or going to see a film; this way NT friends are happy to set aside time rather than be spontaneous, and if I’m tired I can do something that doesn’t always require too much talking (e.g., if you go to a cinema, you don’t have to concentrate on talking too much). I would say all of this has helped stop me from becoming stressed or overtired, and generally keeps me on top of adult life stuff that I otherwise end up forgetting about.
Have you experienced discrimination or bullying because of your autism or autistic traits?
Yes. 🙁 I was bullied so, so much in school just for being “weird” that it became just part of everyday life and I didn’t even realise how much I was being bullied until I went to art college, where everyone was just as weird as me and I suddenly knew how it felt to be part of a group and not face ridicule every single day. I think, realistically, kids just didn’t quite know how to react to someone who was clearly different and who also was very quiet/not good at talking. Kids thought I was stoned I think because my speech is very slurred/slow, haha. They called me “Forrest Gump” because of how I walked/acted. I didn’t like having my hair cut or wearing tight clothes, so the “scruffy” look I had probably didn’t help.
In adult life I wouldn’t say it’s as bad, but I still have difficult situations. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, and the first time I disclosed to a potential client during a work interview, they suddenly started patronising me and saying things like, “Wow, good for you to be doing so much,” and then never called me back for an illustration job they had said they wanted me specifically to do. Because of this, I’m very wary of saying to anyone in the working world that I’m autistic. At the same time, not saying I’m autistic can also be a problem, in that people take some things for granted and then get annoyed or think I’m being annoying on purpose when I, say, misunderstand what someone’s said or need to be told more than once how to do a task in a job before I understand or remember how to do it.
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?
It can be really easy to not stand up for yourself if you’re feeling uncomfortable, tired, or overwhelmed in relationships and social situations. It can be very easy to assume you are the one who needs to work harder or keep up with friends who might be demanding or put up with certain situations. I think that if you’re autistic, you tend to worry more than others about keeping friendships and assuming you are the one that needs to accommodate another person in friendships, school, work, etc.
“My advice is to stand firm in understanding who you are and what your limits are, and trust that you won’t lose friendships if you decide to take life at your own pace, say no to things you’re not comfortable with that others are, or ask for people to give you space or accommodations.”
I hope that’s not too generalised a piece of advice, but that’s the best I can think of to cover a wide range of issues I find myself and other autistic people I know having!
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?
Let your kids take their time in overcoming fears and obstacles, and trust a little bit more that they WILL be okay. There’s a lot of stuff that my parents used to push and push me to do against my will, because they thought that forcing me to do something that was stressing me out would be the only way I would get over the fear and actually do it (e.g., talking to people, going to loud places, eating certain foods). Because we are seemingly set in our ways, it’s possibly hard to see autistic people ever doing new things without the assistance of others. But in my experience, letting me take my time and then get over an obstacle in my own way is HOW I then overcome it.
Unless a stim, behaviour, routine, or attachment is actually hurting a child or someone else, don’t make them stop it or believe it to be “harmful.” Just because a behaviour is unusual or frowned upon by society doesn’t mean that it’s inherently bad for the person doing it. (In example, an “expert” might work on getting a child to stop stimming, or widen their interests, or stop carrying around a baby toy. The only harm being done is that people think this is “weird,” but frankly, I’d say most autistic kids probably care much more about doing the thing that makes them happy than how they might look to other people.)
What was one piece of advice you received that helped you be comfortable with who you are?
This was advised to me before I was diagnosed autistic, but I think at a time when I was really worrying about how I wasn’t keeping up with my peers in terms of “growing up,” it helped to be told that it’s okay to take my time and do things at my own pace. This turned into me not just doing things at my own pace, but also just flat out not doing stuff that other people were doing (like going to parties, dating, or making lots of friends). I spent a long time assuming that I must not be happy if I don’t force myself to do these things that are supposed to be the key to happiness. Learning to be super comfortable with doing everything differently is the best thing I’ve ever done.
How do you choose the topics of your personal comics and illustrations?
With comics, I like to input personal experiences into the stories, or draw things that I really want to see myself but haven’t seen anywhere yet. In example, for my latest comics I’m talking about phobias, asexuality, and fear of change a lot, drawing from my personal experiences. I’m also frustrated with the lack of autistic characters or autism experiences in fictional stories, so my most recent fictional stories all have autistic main characters. In illustration, I really like drawing animals and nature the most; there’s just so much variety and inspiration to be drawn from real life when it comes to nature!
Do you have a favorite comic series or illustration that you’ve done (paid or unpaid)?
It’s really hard to pick a favourite since I really enjoy everything I get a chance to do in the moment of doing it. I’m really enjoying a personal project I’m working on right now called The Song Collector. It combines two different special interests: history and folk music! And because it’s a drama with an autistic main character based partially on myself, I’m getting to draw out lots of personal experiences and issues I’ve never explored before. It’s really fun to draw lots of expressions and conflict too, which is why I decided to draw a drama series.
What do you wish more people in society knew about asexuality?
I think the main thing I want to explain about asexuality is that it’s perfectly normal and waaay more common than people think. The stigma I find with asexuality at the moment is that people assume that having no interest in sex/sexual attraction means that there must be something wrong with you, that it’s something you can control (i.e., asexual people are being wimps, making it up to feel special, need to see a therapist), and basically that it’s not something that’s real. I want to talk about asexuality openly and highlight how many people are ace, in order for it to be more acknowledged and therefore respected by people.
I hear a lot of people say, “Why do you need to make such a big deal out of just not having sex, who cares?” I think these people probably equate the experience of being asexual with their experience of the points in life when they don’t have sex, and so think, “Well, I get on just fine, so why are these people complaining?” My answer to this is that we’re living in a culture where sex education, media, and our peers suggest things like, “no sex in the relationship means the relationship is going wrong,” or, “you don’t fully love someone unless there’s sex involved,” or, “you’re not a real adult and your life is depressing if you’re still a virgin by 30.” Realistically, when you grow up in our culture, the assumption is that you WILL have sex at some point.
If you’re just in between relationships, your experience of this culture will be something like, “Well, it’s fine I’m not having sex because I will soon find someone and my life will fulfil these expectations again.” If you’re asexual however, it’s more along the lines of, “I’m never going to live up to these expectations and never physically can, and I’m tired of family asking why I haven’t found someone yet/being told there’s something wrong with me/being forced into having sex in order to prove that I love my partner.” That’s the difference, and why we need to keep talking about it or put a label on the thing we’re not doing.
What are the best ways for people to connect with you?
Twitter and Instagram! Although I apologise in advance for taking a long time to reply, I follow my own advice and take things at my own pace!
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