Iris is a six year old girl from the UK. Aside from being a spectacular painter, nature and music enthusiast, and cat lover, an important aspect of Iris is that she is on the autistic spectrum. The book Iris Grace, written and photographed by her mother Arabella Carter-Johnson, tells the fanciful tale of how Iris came to be, the trials and triumphs their little family have made it through together. With the help of her father PJ, mother Arabella, and faithful Maine Coon companion Thula (a name meaning ‘Peace’ in Zulu), Iris has made great strides in her few years towards being able to share her captivating view of the world around her.
I initially took an interest in Iris’ story because of my experience growing up with an autistic younger brother. Like Iris, my brother takes in all the sounds, movements, colors, and emotions of life intensely. Details in the environment, like the texture of a leaf, the pattern on a jacket, the sound and motion of moving water, are magnified to the point of becoming consuming at times. This can make processing busy environments extremely difficult and frustrating, even agonizing. Hallmarks of autism usually reveal themselves from a very young age: delayed speech development, avoiding eye contact, intolerant of particular forms of texture and physical contact, nearly exclusive preference of playing alone, unusual ability to concentrate on a single object or task for very long periods of time, high levels of anxiety from small changes in routine or surrounding environment, to name a few.
Much like Arabella did with Iris, I acquired a new way of being with and communicating with a person by living with my brother. Relying on normal modes of speech and body language to communicate were not sufficient; I had to be extra patient and observant, letting him lead me rather than forcing him to follow what I expected of him. At times this method creates difficulty because living in the autistic realm can be deeply isolating if left unguided. The rigid routines and exacting preferences can become totally dominant over all other parts of life, stagnating and suffocating. My family, and Iris’ family as well I’m sure, will forever be grateful to the caring souls that firmly and lovingly expanded those boundaries through therapy. It is an on-going process, often times with slow or even backward progress, but a journey well-worth taking.
The beginning of the book focuses on Arabella’s story. At first I felt annoyance born of not a little bit of envy at the very romantic life she had led: growing up in beautiful English countryside riding horses, meeting a handsome and successful man at a young age to be whisked off on adventures around the world, climbing mountains and exploring deserts, culminating in a fairytale-esque wedding. “I thought this book was about Iris” I would think grumpily, wondering why Arabella had dedicated a good chunk of the book to seemingly gush about how wonderful her life is. But like the talented author she has shown to be, each memory she shared was a necessary set piece on the stage she designed to tell her and Iris’ story.
After reaching where Iris comes into the story, things began sounding familiar; I shared many similar experiences, although through the eyes of a child rather than a parent. The uncertainty, the meltdowns, the judgement, the isolation, wondering why every little thing had to be so much harder for our family than it seemed to be for everyone else’s. And while not all of Arabella’s decisions in the face of these difficulties end up being the right fit for Iris, the way she rededicates herself after each misstep to continue being Iris’ champion is so very authentic and inspiring.
The most important message Arabella shares in this book, I think, is that “Different is brilliant!”. All people, whether “normal” or on the autistic spectrum or any other configuration, have their own unique way of experiencing the world, and taking the time to try tuning in to each uniqueness rather than suppressing and conforming it opens wide the doors to seeing so much beauty in the world. I strongly encourage you to pick up Iris Grace and let the magic of this story show you just how brilliant different can be ~