Jessica Wilberforce is a self-diagnosed Dyspraxic, mother to a Dyspraxic son and an author with two novels to her name. We checked in with her during lockdown to learn a bit about her and the books she has written so far and the neurodivergent lead character at the heart of her stories.
1. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are from?
I was raised just north of Leeds; my parents separated when I was young and from the age of 7 I lived with my mum, stepdad and sister. My half-brother was born when I was 10 and I loved him to bits. I now live in Dewsbury, just south of Leeds, with my son, 2 cats called Monkey and Ratbag, and a leopard gecko called Echo.
2. When did the word ‘Dyspraxia’ enter your vocabulary? When you were diagnosed?
I’d never heard of it until a private speech therapist diagnosed verbal dyspraxia in my son when he was 4. He’d been in speech therapy from the age of 2, but the NHS speech therapists had never mentioned it or even thought of it, according to his notes. The private therapist, Linda, became part of our family over the next few years, teaching him how to pronounce consonants, then simple words, then multisyllabic words, sentences and so on. He was diagnosed with general dyspraxia when he was 7, after I pushed for a referral to Occupational Therapy when he complained that, “My hands don’t do what my brain tells them to do.”
At his assessment appointment (which I’d been late to because I’d mixed up my days and not realised that the appointment was that day until I looked at the calendar by chance…) I trapped my finger in the door, knocked over the therapist’s pencil pot (and then her coffee), and walked straight into my son as we cleared up the toys. She gently enquired as to whether I’d ever been assessed; in response to my blank face she said, “It’s just that your son displays quite significant signs of dyspraxia that you haven’t mentioned … I think that’s because to you, they’re ‘normal’?”
I didn’t think that a diagnosis at that point would be helpful – after all, I was familiar with my clumsiness, my poor proprioception, and couldn’t see that a diagnosis would improve them. I was also aware that it would explain my poor executive functioning, but again felt that a diagnosis wouldn’t help to improve those issues (though the knowledge that it was always going to be a weakness – one that was not down to stupidity – was a balm to my self-confidence, and also prompted me to take steps to help myself like setting alarms, writing lists, checking my calendar daily etc.).
I actually went for an autism assessment. It was awful – the consultant was unfamiliar with how autism usually presents in females, and unless I’d been Rain Man or flapping in a corner he wouldn’t have given me a diagnosis. His colleague ran the ADOS and was sympathetic, saying that the ADOS was not really designed for women and that if it were combined with a more “sensitive” background interview I might have been given a diagnosis. But all he could do was prompt me to seek a diagnosis of dyspraxia – he was in no doubt that I am dyspraxic, with or without the autism – and suggest that I arrange a second opinion for autism. At the time of lockdown, I was still awaiting an assessment for dyspraxia through my work’s Occupational Health team, but I consider myself to be dyspraxic.
3. What is your view on ‘labels’?
I think that they serve two functions. One, is to allow one to gain insight into oneself. Knowing that the reason you are x,y or z is because of a diagnosable, neurological difference rather than stupidity, awkwardness or inferiority of some kind is so, so important to one’s self-esteem. You can find your tribe – others who can say, “Me too!!” – and know that you’re not alone. You can learn hints and tips from others about how they cope or what strategies they use day-to-day.
The second is to provide legal protection via the Equalities Act. As an employee, it is exceptionally helpful for me to be able to go to my boss and say, “Actually, I need to do this differently,” or, “I need help with this,” and not feel difficult or inadequate. As it happens, I work in a school and have the most wonderful headteacher who is completely committed to inclusion in her school, which extends to her staff as much as her pupils and I have never, ever had to rely on legal requirements. Adaptations and adjustments are offered without me even having to think about them.
A label is a doorway to understanding and support in my view. I’m still at the self-diagnosed stage but I consider that just as valid – as an adult it’s much harder to find a route to diagnosis and I wish it were easier. Most GPs have never even heard of dyspraxia.
4. You have a new book out. When did you first get into writing?
I’ve always loved writing. My English teachers used to love me! I wrote a crime thriller in my early 20s that I never did anything with, and then kind of lost interest for a while. I read the Harry Potter books, a genre I’d never normally read at the time, and thought how easily the words flowed. I then started reading a new genre after picking up the Twilight books and getting utterly immersed. By the end of the series, I was sure that I could write a decent book, and I wanted to recreate those feelings of intense love you experience in a new relationship, that ideal of ‘true love’. There were a few books that I liked reading (like Lauren Kate’s Fallen) but I soon ran out – so I wrote the book I wanted to read and fell in love with my characters.
5. Have you always been creative and is it something you attribute to being wired differently ?
I’m a very anxious, highly-strung person. I do creative things to relax, to turn off the ‘fretting’ part of my brain for a bit. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in painting, cross-stitching, knitting, crocheting – but always come back to writing. I write for a living, too – I write copy for different companies’ websites on a freelance basis and have tackled everything from dental implants to laying block paving. I do lots of research and pull out the relevant information and weave it into fresh, novel content. I find it easy, and relaxing – even the tough jobs, like the time I had to link the band Haircut 100 to rubber floor covering… It’s as though a different part of my brain is at work, and I feel a literal and figurative buzz when I write.
6. One of your characters is neurodivergent. What made you want to include a ND character?
When I first drafted the overall story, it was before I’d even heard of dyspraxia. I made my protagonist rather like me in many ways, and it wasn’t until returning to the story with the fresh information that I was ND that it dawned on me that Sephy is ND. Anyone who is ND or has an ND loved one will read Sephy’s character and realise that that’s how she’s wired.
Once I realised that, I adapted my story arc and it became two books instead of one.
Without giving away any spoilers, Sephy has always felt strange, out of place and different to her peers. She can do something they can’t, and can’t do things that they find easy. In Sephy’s case, she can see people’s auras, which tell her what people are like inside: good or bad; and what mood they’re in – total wish-fulfilment for an autistic such as myself; far easier to be able to see these things as colours rather than have to crack the code that is nonverbal communication! But she cannot do ‘small talk’, doesn’t really understand all the social rules that we have to navigate to make and maintain most friendships, and is somewhat accident prone. She’s tried so hard to fit in, going so far as to try to mimic her peers as a teenager, but never quite managed to fit in anywhere.
Then one day, she’s told that there’s a reason for all of this. It was the way she was born, and far from being a weakness her difference makes her exceptionally strong and powerful. The reason in the stoy is fantasy, but the story arc echoes my own feelings following my understanding of my ND status. It’s really liberating for her (as it was for me) and makes her call into question all of her memories and her understanding of her life.
8. No spoilers please, but what is your book about and who is it aimed at?
My books are written in the first person and focuses on Sephy, a 24-year-old solicitor who lives in Leeds, West Yorkshire.
The blurb for Enduring Fear (book 1) is:
Quirky 24-year-old Sephy has moved to Yorkshire to escape her troubled past. Now she has a good job, a home and a devoted best friend – all the ingredients she needs to live the drama-free, normal life she craves.
Being normal isn’t easy for someone who can perceive other people’s auras, though. Sephy can tell at a glance whether someone is essentially good or bad and what mood they’re in, but keeping this a secret leaves her feeling isolated and alone.
When she is rescued from impending danger by Joseph, she finally feels a connection with someone. She is intensely drawn to him and is overjoyed when she is offered a job in the legal practice run by his enigmatic family. His father, Thomas, is kind and welcoming, but other family members, and even Joseph himself, are strangely wary of her.
When an old adversary threatens her once more, Sephy is forced to face her demons. In doing so, she learns that there’s more to Joseph and his family than meets the eye – and when she uncovers her own true nature, she realises that they may have every reason to fear her.
Sephy is not weak, and she is far from defenceless.
She has power.
Lots of it.
Now she just has to decide how to use it.
The blurb for Raising Hell (book 2) contains spoilers, so I won’t quote it here, but suffice to say Sephy learns to embrace her power. Here’s my favourite review so far:
“Wow, great sequel to Enduring Fear. We follow Sephy as she figures out how be in a relationship with Joseph and use her powers as she continually faces danger. She experiences self discovery as she explores the limits of her powers and what she’s willing to do for those she loves. She’s a heroine that unapologetically harnesses her dark side for good in moments of danger. I also liked that the fallout from doing whatever it takes is addressed too. Themes like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and insecurities are well presented and explored. Sephy’s quirky humor and the love shared between her, Joseph and the rest of the family keep this book from being too heavy. There’s a wonderful blend of humor, tension, sadness, and healing in this book. I was very pleased with how her future and her relationship with Joseph ended up, but also excited that the ending leaves room for future stories. A great read that I couldn’t put down.”
Both books are available in paperback or on Kindle through Amazon worldwide. They’re aimed at anyone who loved the Paranormalcy series by Kiersten White, Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick, Fallen by Lauren Kate, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead and, of course, the Twilight saga by Stephanie Meyer.
There isn’t a particular age – I suppose it’s classed as New Adult, because its main protagonist is a woman in her early 20s who has to deal with things like work and bills, but who is still young and experiencing much of life for the first time. But my fans range in age from teenagers to retirees of all genders. People usually read the whole book in a day or two, which I find wonderful.
9. Are any of the character’s traits based on first-hand experience?
Many of them!!
10. Are you hoping it gets a message across. If so, what message?
That being different is not a disability per se. Yes, there are things we find blooming difficult, and it can be soul-destroying when the majority of the population seem to be able to do those things without even thinking about them. Walking downstairs, gripping a glass with the correct amount of force, walking through a door instead of into it, forgetting to put the bins down every darn week, managing transitions with nary a hint of anxiety, recognising people’s faces (my prosopagnosia is a whole other story…) … all these things are so easy to most! It can be very hard to see being ND as anything other than a nuisance or a burden.
Yet I have incredible strengths that I wouldn’t have if I were NT. My long-term memory is amazing: my earliest memory is standing up in my cot. I remember things like they’re on a video recording, and I can play back and rewind at will to find things I’ve misplaced or to correct someone in an argument! This can be a blessing … or a curse. Mostly a blessing, especially when it comes to exams.
Book 3 is a separate story: within the same universe, but set in the future. It will be a dystopian of sorts, and I’m looking forward to playing with a setting in which ND-types are the dominant ‘species’. I want to do for NDs what Mallory Blackman has done to confront casual or unrealised racism. I want people to see that most of our struggles are down to the lack of adjustment, or the bald assumptions, by society. I plan to do this by creating a world in which society’s rules are very different, and much more suited to the ND way of life…
11. How many books have you written? When did you start?
Two so far, the third is in the early stages. I started writing the overall story about eight years ago.
12. Writing books must be quite a commitment. Do you have a process of working that you think helps you?
I couldn’t start with chapter 1; it was just too daunting to come up with a really good first line. I had to start with chapter 2 and work from there. I needed to know the characters really well first, and spent a lot of time daydreaming and imagining what they’d say or do – this was helped by the fact that most of my teenage years were spent running through social scenarios in my head and trying to predict what others might do or say, and how I might respond to them, in what I now know to be a coping strategy called ‘scripting’.
13. Any tips for ND who enjoy writing who might be considering writing a novel?
Embrace your long-term memory, if you’re blessed with it – it will make finding sections of your novel and remembering storylines much easier than an NT would. Don’t start with a blank page – pretend you’ve already written the first chapter and take it from there. I prefer writing when I’m listening to music – it unlocks part of my brain, I think – but work wherever you’re comfortable and with whatever background ambience you feel comfortable in. Don’t be afraid of chopping out full chapters if they’re not working – I hate throwing my work away, so cut and paste it into a ‘Not Quite Right’ folder.
14. Awareness of Dyspraxia is slightly improving with the inclusion of a Dyspraxic character in Doctor Who. Why do you people aren’t more aware of what Dyspraxia is?
I know this is going to sound strange, but I think it’s because there isn’t an enemy for Dyspraxics to rally against like there are in the autistic community. There are certain autism organisations out there that in my view, are toxic, depressing organisations that exists to try to ‘cure’ people like me. To me, their aims are akin to gay conversion therapy: repugnant and with an impossible aim. To rally against those views, the Autistic Community has joined together and been very vocal in promoting what it is to be ‘actually autistic’. There’s no similar impetus for Dyspraxics: we can talk til we’re blue in the face separately, but there isn’t a united force behind us to get that message across with well-publicised awareness days, training days or seminars delivered in schools.
The first paediatrician we saw to ask about my son being assessed for dyspraxia said, “It’s just another word for clumsy”… so the medical community needs educating too.
15. You may also be a familiar name to many who frequent various Dyspraxia support Facebook groups and our ZOOM chats. How important are these groups to the people who belong to them do you feel?
They’re hugely important. They’re my tribe. I trust them to offer advice or input, and it gives me huge pleasure to be able to pass to parents of dyspraxic children or to newly-diagnosed dyspraxics all the experience and knowledge I’ve gained over the years. I love it when parents ask people like me for advice to help their children, rather than turning to traditionally NT-dominated groups or advice sources. They want to avoid making the mistakes our parents did, or to replicate the things our parents did that made us feel happy or secure. I love those parents, and I am so happy that their children have them.
For me, it’s great to be able to say to other NDs, “Do you do that too?” and have them say a resounding, “YES!!” or for me to start explaining myself and then stop and say, “Oh, you know this already – you get it, don’t you!”
You can check out Jessica’s two novels that are available on Amazon by clicking on the link below.
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