Revealing The Hidden Lives Of Autistic Women In ‘Camouflage’

by Richard Bruton

In Camouflage, Dr. Sarah Bargiela and Sophie Standing have put together something rather different, specialised, designed to inform and educate rather than entertain, and it’s a comic that does its job particularly well. Camouflage takes its starting point from the awful statistic that a clinical diagnosis of autism is far less likely in women and develops into a look into the reasons why, using research, information, and, crucially, using interviews with three women who have been diagnosed.

As a medical comic, an educational comic, it’s really well done, imparting knowledge with ease, simple, clear, effective. Using comics for this (and make no mistake, this is, definitely, a comic), is a perfect fit, getting factual information through to many who simply either wouldn’t be able to, or more likely, wouldn’t wish to, access it through plain text.

Thankfully, in the world today, we’re more aware of autism, Asperger’s and other differences we find in those around us, whether it’s friends or family, loved ones or colleagues. And, as is mentioned in Camoflage, it should be thought of as a difference, rather than a disorder. We’re increasingly becoming aware that autism is a spectrum, and after reading this, you’ll more than likely find yourself questioning where on that spectrum you would find yourself.

And whilst talking spectrums, let’s address one thing that some might query. Yes, Camouflage is comics. Personally, I love that there’s now, more than ever, a blurring of the lines between comics, illustration, and picture books. Like autism itself, the world of comics has its own spectrum, something this definitely sits on.

When it comes to autism, no matter how aware we think we are, there’s always more to discover. Which is just what Camouflage does very well, breaking down the subject with a clarity and simplicity, yet without sparing any factual details or the personal experiences of women with autism. I guarantee that you’ll finish Camouflage with a better understanding of an important issue. And in that sense, Camouflage is a hugely successful thing.

Structurally, Bargiela presents Camouflage as a paper, rather than a narrative, with major sections on the historical identification of autism, key signifiers of autism, and finally, the lion’s share of the book is taken up with setting out particular aspects of female autism using direct quotes from three interview subjects, using the topics of “You’re not autistic”, “Pretending to be normal”, “From passive to assertive”, “Social identity based on interests”. Each section informs.

All through, as you can, clearly, see from the images in this review, Standing’s artwork, with a perfectly chosen color palette, is both striking and clear, with a great sense of design combined with simple, effective character work. It adds so much to the book, as it should. But, it could have done so much more.

The issue I do have with Camouflage, as good as it is at getting the message across in terms of the facts presented and the experiences shared, it simply felt too dry and matter-of-fact at times. Yes, I know it’s a factual based book, and yes, it definitely does a great job of giving the reader those facts, helped no end by Standings’ simple, clear, stylish artwork. But there’s a part of me thinks that, had there been a little more flow between pages and virtual panels, it would have been a more cohesive read all round, without any need to lose either detail or factual content.

Educational comics don’t need to be dry, they can have a narrative flow, a conversational tone, and it’s that that really is lacking here, sadly. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was a project where the writer wrote and the artist drew and, unfortunately, the writer wasn’t someone versed in comics writing. (If you want an example of something intensely factual and yet having a storyteller’s flow to it, I’d point you in the direction of Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Jules Scheele.)

However, despite that caveat, it’s still a good book, an informative book, on a vitally important subject. Hopefully, this will be something that will be embraced by schools, libraries, medical practices, and should be an essential read for anyone with autism, or anyone affected by autism.

And frankly, given that we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, you will, definitely, know someone affected by autism. Isn’t it time you knew a little more?

Camouflage – The Hidden Lives Of Autistic Women
By Dr. Sarah Bargiela and Sophie Standing, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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