Scifipulse recently had the honour of interviewing Chris Bonnello. He’s author of the Underdogs series, as well as being an international speaker on autism issues. Other activism around autism includes running and writing for his multi award-winning website autisticnotweird.com. Chris discusses the future of the Underdogs series, and his thoughts on autism acceptance. Also offered is advice for autistic people and their families.
SFP: What were your 3 favourite books growing up?
Chris Bonnello: First, Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension by “Martin Adams” . Though I was gutted as an adult to find out Martin Adams didn’t actually exist. I discovered it was three people choosing a pseudonym. One that would get them high up in the alphabet! You may have gathered, I was a Sonic fan who loved reading the books. That particular one had some great ideas.
Second, Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl. I loved foxes for Sonic-related reasons (Tails was always my favourite!). It was a great story of good animals versus evil humans.
Finally, anything in the Horrible History series by Terry Deary. It was history with all the bloody detail left in- for kids!
SFP: How would you convince a parent of an autistic person with very high support needs to read the Underdogs series? Could they take something away from the books?
Chris Bonnello: I suppose it depends on the specifics. Whereas the phrasing is so much more helpful than “high/low-functioning”, both Kate and James Arrowsmith, from the books, could be described as having high support needs. Kate because her debilitating anxiety kept her from ever leaving her bedroom. James because of his complex learning difficulties.
For the parents of the Kates out there, I’d say the most important part of the series is meaningful representation. Ewan, Kate, Jack and the rest of the Underdogs are becoming widely seen as characters that neurodiverse readers can relate to and even look up to.
SFP: Can you sum up your advice for autistic people in 25 words or less?
Chris Bonnello: Probably not, but here goes!
“Play to your strengths. Learn what you’re good at, and do it. Oh, and the world’s richer because autistic people like you are in it.”
SFP: Do you think there could be an Underdogs film or TV series? And would this open the door for autistic and Down’s actors?
Chris Bonnello: Not long ago I’d have said an Underdogs film/TV series is far too ambitious to hope for. But after a very near miss with a TV production company earlier this month, I’m far more hopeful now! One of my real hopes for any potential screen production would be characters representation. I’d want them to played by neurodiverse actors. I feel those who share similar (if not the same) diagnoses as their roles would work best. There are plenty of neurodiverse actors out there. Representation is hugely important.
SFP: Speaking as an educator, do you think autism acceptance is heading in the right direction? What challenges to understanding still need to be addressed?
Chris Bonnello: I do believe the tide is turning in the right direction. But that’s the thing with tides- they tend to change slowly! So we need to keep advocating and keep campaigning, and we also need resilience and patience while doing so.
In terms of what challenges we still have- I’d say we still have the tragedy narrative to deal with. That if an autistic person struggles with something, it’s “because of their autism”. If they succeed at something, it’s “despite their autism”. Most of my biggest personal achievements weren’t “despite” anything- they were a direct result of my autistic strengths, singular focus and hard work.
SFP: What can readers expect from books 3 and 4 in the Underdogs series?
Chris Bonnello: I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that the final two books are substantially darker and more desperate.
Desperate, because the war’s coming to its final stages, and cataclysmic things must happen. Dark, because the series matures as it progresses: and the darkness isn’t just in the events that happen, but also the emotional toll on the characters. Ewan’s the lead protagonist. He spends the first three-quarters of the series slowly collapsing as a person. It leads to feeling the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders. He’s also left with fewer and fewer friends to support him, as the war progresses.
The final showdown of book 4 though… wow, I wish I could give even the slightest detail about it. I sometimes read through it for fun, or when I feel like torturing myself.
SFP: Are there any authors autistic or neurotypical that you would like to collaborate with?
Chris Bonnello: Yep! But it wouldn’t be fair to name names, since quite a few of them have become people I’m already in contact with on a social basis.
SFP: And finally, what’s the best piece of life advice you’ve ever received?
Chris Bonnello: I can narrow it down to two options. The first is a quote from Jim Carrey at his honorary graduation speech. He said (I’ll shorten it): “my father could have been a great comedian, but instead he got a safe job as an accountant. I was 12 when he was let go from that “safe” job. My family struggled because of it. I learned many things from my father, not the least of which is you can fail at what you don’t love. So you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” (I first heard it a few months before launching my autism site Autistic Not Weird, which led to five years of crazy events including the Underdogs series. To this day I wonder whether that video pushed me towards doing it.)
The other piece of advice came from an online friend I had in the early 2000s. They’d heard I was changing my personality. I did it as i thought I wouldn’t be bullied, or criticised as much. He simply asked “would they change for you?” That really made me wonder why I was swimming oceans for people who even wouldn’t jump in a puddle for me.
I’ll finish on something Underdogs-related. This is the most well-received piece of advice I feel I’ve ever offered. It’s McCormick’s repeated line, from Underdogs: Tooth and Nail. McCormick states “the pain of missing someone is always worth it for the joy of having known them. Always.” I came to realise that after my last grandparent died in 2010. Some time later I included it in the series. I’m delighted to see how many people claim it’s provided comfort. Not just the neurodiverse either .
Scifipulse would like to extend our most heartfelt thanks and warmest regards to Chris Bonnello for so graciously answering our questions.
Chris’s website is: https://autisticnotweird.com
His Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/autisticnotweird
Chris’s Twitter: @AutisticNW