A World Without Mirrors

One of the most powerful comments I’ve heard about the importance of diversity and inclusion in English came from a panel during a VATE conference several years ago. The panel featured a number of speakers, including teacher-librarians and authors.

During the panel, the main speaker echoed Rudine Sims Bishop, stating that growing up and never seeing a character like yourself in a novel is like “living in a world without mirrors”. Books don’t just show us another perspective on the world: they reflect our own experiences back at us. And if there are no images that reflect your own life, it can be an isolating and disheartening experience.

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Last year, in my mid-thirties, I was diagnosed with ASD. The diagnosis itself came as no great shock to me, or anyone that knows me well. It’s what would have been labelled Asperger’s Syndrome until the redefinition in 2013: amongst other characteristics I’m details oriented, sometimes to the point of obsession, I don’t do “social”, and I can appear unempathetic. There’s also the less visible (and less stereotyped) aspects: like my phobia-level aversion to cotton wool. Don’t ask. In fact, don’t even talk about it near me. The diagnosis itself didn’t change anything, but it did act as a catalyst to go looking for “mirrors” in both fiction and nonfiction.

The comprehensive Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood (affiliate link) was a good start. The case studies and profiles within rang a lot of bells, both in terms of my current experience and those of when I was a child. School wasn’t particularly easy. I remember being frustrated, getting into trouble for “disruptive” behaviour, acting out, and problematic relationships with my peers. The Attwood guide held up a mirror to a lot of my behaviours and feelings, and it was gratifying to feel a part of something bigger than myself. The problem is, teenage me wouldn’t have benefitted from the sometimes dense, academic language of a text like this.

When I searched for fiction, however, the landscape was a little bare. I read and write science fiction (badly, sometimes…). Trawling for genre-fiction by or about autistic people, I came across Ada Hoffman’s The Outside (affiliate link). Hoffman has Aspergers Syndrome, and it was interesting to read a novel with an autistic protagonist. While the book didn’t rock my world (I’m not much for Lovecraftian weirdness), it showed the potential for what’s out there. Later, I found this great list from blogger Not An Autism Mom, and have since started working through some of the titles here, though many are children’s books or nonfiction.

Returning to the library, it’s crucial to consider the role of both fiction and nonfiction in holding up mirrors for diverse students. Our own library, nestled right at the centre of our small, Catholic school in regional Western Victoria, is one of the most diverse I’ve come across. Headed up by a passionate and empathetic team of library staff, there are regular rotating collections that showcase works written by and for a diverse range of authors. If I’d had access to that kind of library when I was at school, I might have recognised myself sooner.

The power of books as mirrors cannot be understated. It’s our responsibility at English teachers and educators to make sure every child has the opportunity to see their reflections.

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