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 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.
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.
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.