Needs More Love: “The World Beyond My Shadow”

[Panel One: Schreiter’s left foot is shown walking into the panel. Her shadow is light and slightly noticeable Panel Two: The text box reads “And one I leave the door…” Schreiter stops walking, her shadow is visible in front of her. Panel Three: Schreiter’s antenna make a “Flopp” sound, as they disappear into her head. These are a visual cue that she uses to identify autistic people, emphasizing the metaphor that autistic people feel like aliens in the neurotypical world Panel Four: The text box reads “…I start.” Schreiter stands alone on the sidewalk in the center of the panel, which is a wide shot, emphasizing how small and insecure she feel when stepping ‘beyond her shadow’. Her eyes are wide and uncertain. Her shadow is at its darkest and most visible]
[Panel One: Daniela Schreiter’s left foot is shown walking into the panel. Her shadow is light and slightly noticeable Panel Two: The text box reads “And one I leave the door…” Both of Schreiter’s feet are present in the panel.  She has stopped walking, her shadow is visible in front of her. Panel Three: Schreiter’s antenna make a “Flopp” sound, as they disappear into her head. These are a visual cue that she uses to identify autistic people, emphasizing the metaphor that autistic people feel like aliens in the neurotypical world. Panel Four: The text box reads “…I start.” Schreiter stands alone on the sidewalk in the center of the panel, which is a wide shot, emphasizing how small and insecure she feel when stepping ‘beyond her shadow’. Her eyes are wide and uncertain. Her shadow is at its darkest and most visible]
Comic books are one of my greatest passions.  I read comics almost every day, and even if I am not reading them I am certainly thinking about them.  I love the versatility that the medium has to tell different types of stories, both fictional and personal, and how they showcase diverse ways of being to the audience before them.  I am especially happy to see more narratives, especially those which have previously been ignored or untold, gaining more interest and attention.  One example of this is the growing number of comics and graphic novels focused on examining and discussing the topic of neurodivergence and mental illness.

Among my favourite examples of a comic that has accomplished this is Daniela Schreiter’s The World Beyond My Shadow, a graphic novel discussing Schreiter’s experiences of being a woman on the autistic spectrum.  Originally published, in German, by Panini Comics Deutschland as Schattenspringer: Wie es ist anders zu sein in 2014, the comic received an official English translation by Panini Comics in 2016.  The book is a graphic memoir detailing Schreiter’s everyday life and childhood experiences as an autistic woman, specifically describing her experiences with sensory overload, navigating the confusing and contradictory social world of neurotypicals, and, most importantly, highlighting how much she loves being an autistic person.

[The first text box reads: “Other children had a very strange way of behaving, they hurt each other, destroyed things they had created, yelled without reason and never seemed to plan a course of action or behave logically. It scared me, children were unpredictable, illogical sources of irritation, which were interested in things that I found completely boring.” The second text box reads: “I much preferred talking to my teachers about the world and the lessons. Grown-ups were much more accessible and calmer when spoken with.” The panel shows a young Schreiter, on the left talking with an elementary school teacher, on the right, while in the middle of a classroom. The speech bubble from Schreiter showcases a picture of the planet Earth, indicating that this is what she is talking about. While the teacher does not have her own speech bubble her body language indicates that she is actively listening and contributing to the conversation with Schreiter.]
The memoir is a mostly linear narrative, specifically focusing on Schreiter’s childhood from her earliest memories in preschool to the start of her high school years.  There are occasional anecdotes from her adult life interjected into the narrative to compare and contrast how she managed various stressful, and confusing, scenarios as a child versus how she approaches them now, such as sensory overload.  While each chapter discusses a different topic (school, swimming, etc.), the reoccurring emphasis is on Schreiter trying to navigate and comprehend the world around her and forge meaningful connections.

Much of what Schreiter writes in this book will feel extremely familiar to the majority of autistic people, since they have either felt similarly to the author, or had an experience almost exactly like her.  For example, when Schreiter details her difficulty socializing with children in her own age and instead found adults easier to talk to, resonated with my own childhood, as I found talking with adults much easier than speaking with my peers.  Even when her experiences are different from my own, such as her fear of water, it wasn’t too difficult to empathize with her and understand why she enjoys specific pastimes, and why others activities are too overwhelming for her.

[The text box reads: “My social skills had leveled up far enough by my senior year and I made my first friends.” Schrieter’s speech bubble says: “Yay, finally!” The ‘game’s’ speech bubble coming off of Schrieter says: “Social skill +5” and makes a “bing” sound effect.  Schreiter is in the middle of the panel, with a huge grin on her face, her antenna perked upwards, and her arms moving inwards towards herself in a self-congratulatory gesture. She is surrounded by video game inspired imagery; such as the image of her avatar in the upper left corner of the panel, which features her current “level”, level sixteen, and an experience points bar to showcase her progress. On the bottom left corner of the panel there is a “life bar”, which shows four full hearts, indicating her energy levels. The bottom right corner of the panel shows her backpack, which is laid out similarly to an inventory in a video game. It includes a fox plush, a CD player, money, a book written by Douglas Adams, and a pencil. In the background there are trees that are drawn in a pixel art style.]
One of the strongest points of this book is that it highlights how much Schreiter loves being autistic, which is showcased both in her own words and also in the imagery of the comic itself.  Throughout the pages the reader can find references, overt and covert, to the author’s many interests.  There are mathematical symbols on her bedroom posters and t-shirts (specifically pi), foxes, space imagery, subtle references to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books, and panels replicating the look of her favourite video games.  These visualize something that I personally love about being autistic; being so knowledgeable, invested, and passionate about the things you love the most and how these interests brighten up our lives.  This is not a simple concept to describe to neurotypical or allistic people, let alone to create an accurate visualization of this experience, which makes Schreiter’s interpretation of this all the more impressive.

Overall the central emotion I felt while reading this graphic novel was one of validation.  Seeing another person put words, and images, to the confusion I felt as an undiagnosed autistic child, as well as specific sets of experiences associated with being an autistic adult, was something so rare and so wonderful to read for myself.  Stories written by autistic people truly provide a sense of belonging to other people on the autistic spectrum, more so than an allistic narrative can.  While this graphic novel could be interpreted as a learning tool for allistics, I believe it is more important that autistic people read this book as it can provide them with a sense comradery and let them know that they are not alone in their experiences.

[The text box reads: “The main criteria I have for clothing these days is whether or not I can stand the feel of it on my skin.” Schreiter’s speech bubble says: “Yay, this feels great, and it’s in such a wonderful color, too. I’ll take five!” Schreiter is in holding up a t-shirt and moving her fingers across the fabric to determine how it feels against her skin. She has a very pleased grin on her face. On the left side of the panel is a clothing rack full of other t-shirts.]
Aside from the importance of representation this book is also a very well presented graphic novel.  While Schreiter’s humans may look cartoony in comparison to most graphic memoirs, the book is still full of gorgeous and impressive imagery.  My favourite of these is the page where images of white swans on a black background gradually transform into black fish on a white background, showcasing both the artist’s vivid imagination, as well as serving as a creative transition into her discussion of her experiences at the pool.  This is also a very accessible comic for those who are unfamiliar with the medium; panels and speech bubbles are easy to follow, and the imagery does not overwhelm the reader’s senses making this a good starting point for those who are still unfamiliar with the language of comics.

My only major concern with the book is the use of ‘person-first’ language to describe Schreiter’s identity, by calling herself a person with autism, rather than using ‘identity-first’ language, i.e. calling herself an autistic person.  I am uncertain whether this was how the author addressed herself in the original German text, or if this was something added for the English translation.  Hopefully it is the former rather than the latter, as allistic people tend to push person-first language, despite many autistic people advocating for identity-first language.

Currently the graphic novel is only available as an e-book via Kindle, Kobo, or Apple Books.  As of this writing, Schreiter has published two more books in the Schattenspringer series, but there is no indication of when, or even if, they will receive an English edition.  Hopefully the sequels will also receive translations at some point, since we are in need of more great comics about, and from the perspective of, actually autistic experiences.

Overall Daniela Schreiter’s The World Beyond My Shadow is a rare treat to enjoy from the perspective of an autistic person, be they a fan of comics or not.  The number of actually autistic writers out there is still very small, and comic writers/artists even smaller, so to read a funny and heartfelt book like this was a truly validating experience.  Hopefully other autistic readers will enjoy, and feel validated, by this book just as much as I did.

[The panel shows a young Schreiter piloting a rocket through space, with a fox as her co-pilot. The rocket makes a “VROOOM” sound effect. In the upper right corner of the panel there is a potted bowl of petunias thinking “Oh no. Not again.” which is a reference to Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.]

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