Book Review: On the Spectrum (Daniel Bowman, Jr.)

Although I’m not especially fond of nonfiction (by which I mean, I usually avoid it), I decided to request On the Spectrum by Daniel Bowman Jr., from NetGalley. The publisher provided me a free Advanced Reader ebook in exchange for this review.

The book interested me because of its description, which had to do with viewing the gift of autism through a Christian lens. I am a Christian who has recently been (self) diagnosed with Autism— specifically, Aspergers, which is now identified, instead as being “on the spectrum.” Like the author and others referenced in the book, the diagnosis has brought a lot of clarity for me.

When I began the book, I was intrigued to learn that Bowman, like myself, was diagnosed in adulthood. He self-diagnosed and then received a professional diagnosis, while in his thirties. Bowman’s description of this process, which was often uncomfortable for him, reminds me of my own discomfort speaking with a psychiatry grad student (as part of a Psychology course when I was an undergrad). Indeed, one of the aspects of the book that I most enjoyed was its relatability. Bowman places strong emphasis on the need for #ownvoices in Autistic representation and, as an Aspie, myself, I was able to commiserate with many of his recountings of personal experience. Because I’m new to the diagnosis, I also enjoyed one or two personal “aha” moments, where I realized that certain personality traits of mine (which I hadn’t yet connected with Autism), were linked to autism.

At the same time, Bowman emphasizes throughout that his experience is not the autism experience. Repeatedly, Bowman writes, “If you’ve met one autistic person… you’ve met one autistic person,” bucking flat stereotypes of what it means to be autistic.

When he does reference traits shared by those with the autistic “operating system” (I really liked this analogy), he advocates for a shift away from the pathology paradigm, which describes autistic traits as deficits. Bowman acknowledges the many differences between neurotypicals and neurodivergents (a term which encompasses other learning differences, such as ADHD), but emphasizes that autists aren’t lacking.

This is a major theme throughout the text, which is comprised of essays: The idea that neurodivergents have unique skill sets to share with the world, and shouldn’t be expected to play by the rules of the neurotypical system. Referencing eye contact, for instance, Bowman mentions instances when people have shut him out of conversations because of his lack of eye contact. Bowman argues that this treatment is unfair because it penalizes autistic people who are unable to pick up/ demonstrate these basic social skills. As an autist, I feel that it is important to think about how our social cues, or lack thereof, are affecting the other person. While social situations may present additional challenges, I believe I am accountable for how my actions affect another person.

Bowman references the tension between the need to adapt to one’s environment (in the context of neurotypical society), while also seeking to be understood, writing, “I’m drawn to this balanced view.” Throughout the text, Bowman does address both sides of the scale, leaning more heavily toward the adaptation angle in the introduction and emphasizing grace and understanding throughout the majority of the text. For this reason, passages pertaining to the challenges (and potential pitfalls) of autism particularly resonated with me. For instance, Bowman notes that, in his interactions with his wife, his need for safety and stability may overreach to the point of attempting to control her. Insights like these were very important, to me, in the reading, because, even as I embrace the ways that God has made me beautifully unique (even my brain looks different than a neurotypical brain!), I also do not want to use autism as an excuse for bad behavior. At the same time, I find that it is valuable for me to recognize that I am dealing with challenges that others are not facing, and to give myself grace for that. With that said, as an autist, I think I would have liked to have seen a little bit more emphasis placed on how our tendencies affect others. HOWEVER, I do not think this was the author’s purpose, given that (I suspect) there is a lot of material already written on this topic. Plus, I think that this book was written more for neurotypicals than for those on the spectrum.

In that sense, I believe Bowman accomplished what he set out to do: to “make some sense of” his life, in a way that is “useful” to the audience. Bowman does not claim to have “arrived,” and provides personal narrative that is vulnerable and (in my case) relatable. His transparency is truly commendable, as well as empowering. Having read this work, I feel that I can lend my voice and experiences to the autistic community, without being afraid of misrepresenting it. I am “one” autistic person, and like Bowman says, do not claim to represent the entire community.

Highlights

• I especially related to Bowman’s descriptions of the challenges of fellowship in a church setting. This was one of my favorite essays

• Likewise, the essay on serving in the body of Christ, which touched on feelings of guilt as a Christian, was relatable and helpful for me.

• My other favorite essay was about the parable of the tares. Bowman quotes commentary about the Lord being the one to pull our weeds, which was a powerful statement for me. I think this may be my biggest takeaway from the book

Overall Impression:

The book was not what I expected it to be. Based on the subtitle, I thought that the book would be geared more toward autists, rather than neurotypicals. I was expecting to read more about how autistic people bring specific contributions to society. Instead, the book seemed geared toward neurotypicals who are seeking greater insight into the life of an autistic person. However, this is made pretty clear in the introductory material, and I believe that the book does achieve its stated end. I do really like that this is packaged as reflections from one person in the community, providing insight into the community without claiming to speak for everyone.

The author described autists as a marginalized people group, likening us to persons of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Bowman is progressive in his opinions and advocacy and I resonated with his comparison between autism and race. At the same time, Conservative Christians may not resonate with all of the opinions expressed. I recommend this book for its insight into what autism looks like, particularly with reference to creativity. I do not, however, agree with every belief the author espouses.

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