Bath-based author, Elizabeth Jade, talks about her life and books.
Despite being diagnosed with Aspergers when she was 18 and struggling with depression and anxiety, Elizabeth Jade published her first children' book in 2017. Here is her story.
Tell us a little about you and life growing up in Somerset.
I was born in North Yorkshire in 1998, but moved to Somerset before I started pre-school. As my older brother is disabled and special needs, my parents felt it was important for me to go to school and spend time with children who weren’t facing additional challenges. Needless to say, things did not go well. By the time I was in year 2, the kids were bullying me; the teachers said I needed to pay more attention; and I would go home and relate what everyone had been doing in detail, but hadn’t a clue what the lessons were about. I waited a term and a half for the teaching assistant I was told I needed, but was only offered one when my older brother was moving on to high school. By this stage, the stress from being at school was making me physically unwell and my parents decided to keep me at home.
I struggled with depression and anxiety in my teens, and was referred to the children’s mental health team. While I found this an unpleasant experience, it was here that the possibility of Aspergers was suggested. As anxiety and depression are often found alongside Aspergers, it’s difficult to say if they are related to my autism or the result of my struggles in school; perhaps it’s a little of both.
Your parents home-schooled you from the age of 7 and noticed your unique slant on life. Do you think their encouragement and allowing you to follow your passions helped you develop your writing skills?
Absolutely! I used to read a lot, and as I got a bit older, I started to research things too. Writing was more of a problem. When I was younger, I could do spelling, punctuation or handwriting as individual exercises, but when I tried to combine these into a story, it all fell apart. So, one day, my mum said they didn’t matter anymore. She just wanted me to use the imagination I had shown in other areas to write a story. The only condition was it needed to legible. She even promised not to correct the spelling and punctuation, which was probably the hardest thing she has ever agreed to do. After a while, the ideas started to flow, and in the end, the problem was getting them to stop. I have folders full of story ideas and half written stories to prove it.
You suffered with anxiety and depression at the age of 14. How important did books and writing become to you, and how much did they help you cope with your anxiety?
Anxiety and depression are hard enough as individual challenges, but when these opposites collide, it can be overwhelming. When my writing really started to flow, it was like fitting blinkers to a horse – my mental health issues were no longer the focus of my attention, but the story was. When you are creating you are immersed in the moment, and it becomes a form of escape from the real world. Writing became so much of a focus that I found it hard to switch it off to allow for the important things like food and sleep. I was often late for dinner or struggling to sleep at night. My brain just refused to switch off. Fortunately, I have tolerant parents who made allowances for my ‘eccentricities’.
At the time, I didn’t realise the stories I was creating weren’t just a way of escaping from my life, but a way of making sense of it. After I had published the first book in the Akea series in 2017, several people commented on the parallel between Akea’s journey of discovery and my own. This made me revisit the story, and now I can see it for myself.
I’ve really struggled with my mental health this year, but then 2020 has been a difficult year for many people. This has made it hard for me to write, so I’ve been using other forms of creativity to distract myself for a while. However, I am hopeful that I can turn this situation around and finish writing the third book in the Akea series, ready for publication next year.
At 18, you found out you suffer with Aspergers Syndrome (an autistic spectrum disorder). How did you feel when you found out the news?
Initially, I think I was relieved to know there was a reason for the struggles I had experienced in my life. I had spent a long time trying to fit in and measure up to what behaviour is expected of you by society. You wonder what’s the matter with you, why everything you do always seems to be wrong, and if you will ever achieve anything with your life, etc. I was relieved that I wasn’t alone in experiencing these struggles and spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos made by others with autism. Sometimes I would share these with my parents too.
I also resented the fact that the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator didn’t spot my Aspergers. My school life may have been easier, and I may not have struggled so much with my mental health if I had received an earlier diagnosis and the support that goes with it. I still suffer from the effects of this as I can’t set foot inside a school building and I buckle under any kind of pressure.
How, if at all, does this affect you from day-to-day?
I find interacting and communicating with others a real challenge. So much so, that I will avoid contact with anyone outside my household if at all possible. I have loved working with rescue animals in the past, but it has always been my lack of people skills that have made things so stressful that I’ve had to give it up. I started volunteering with Cats Protection after my diagnosis, and this was probably the best experience I’ve had. They tried really hard to support me, especially as I was able to use my skills to work with problem cats. Sadly, my mental health started to interfere with this too. The responsibility of a regular commitment, trying to push myself to go in on days when I felt bad, and worry about letting people down when I couldn’t, got the better of me again.
I struggle with sensory overload. I can’t cope with sudden loud noises, certain pitches, hissy speech, or too many noises at once. I can hear cat detectors and certain close circuit TV which, among other things, makes walking down the street or going in certain shops challenging. I’m also extremely sensitive to smells and can often detect things that others can’t. I can’t go in the soap and scented candle section of a shop, and can’t go in the bathroom at home just after it’s cleaned, etc. On the plus side, I can smell colours – this may not be very useful, but it’s certainly interesting when you say you can smell something green and people are trying to work out what you are talking about.
Tell us about your love of animals.
People have never made sense to me. In fact, I’ve made a habit of avoiding contact with them as much as possible. On the other hand, I love animals; and what’s more, they love me. We understand each other on an almost telepathic level. As well as using body language and scent, I believe animals also communicate with energy, and this is what I pick up on. With dogs, I feel how they feel; with cats, it’s more a sharing of the energy from memories; with horses, it’s almost like pictures. I can pick up on stronger energies just by being in the same room. Other times, it’s easier to pick up on how they are feeling by touching them.
Understanding how the animals feel allows me to adjust my energy and behaviour to help them. I can also absorb some of their energy. This helps them to become calmer, but is very tiring. A naturalness with animals led me into volunteering; first at Conquest Riding Centre, then at St Giles Animal Rescue, and finally at the Cats Protection Rehoming Centre just outside Wellington, where they dubbed me the Cat Whisperer. I have a special bond with my own dog, Kizzy; except that she senses what I need more than the other way round. She will tuck herself in tightly next to me, sometimes with her head on my leg, and give off calm energy with the scent of cheesy Doritos or freshly baked buns. I’m not sure how she does it, but it works.
I believe it’s my naturalness with animals that helps me to see the world from their perspective; to step inside their minds, as it were. This is probably why the Akea series is told through the eyes of the huskies and wolves.
Your first book ‘Akea - The Power of Destiny’, was released in 2017. Tell us a little about the book and how it shows the importance of acceptance and overcoming obstacles.
When Akea is born into a family of sled dogs, her father senses something different about her. She felt special, even though he didn’t know why. Soon Akea senses it too, and when she sees a lone wolf by the name of Kazakh, she understands that her true destiny lies beyond the relative safety of her sled dog family.
Kazakh’s role is to help her discover her place in the world, but doing so goes against the rules and norms of wolf society and could even cost him his life. Each obstacle that Akea overcomes makes her stronger and brings her closer to her goal, until she finally ends up fitting in where she physically stands out the most, and is accepted by both the wolves and the family she left behind.
What message will the follow-up book ‘Akea - His Mother’s Son’ teach readers?
Akea’s wolf-dog son, Salvador, is captured by humans and taken to a wildlife park where he is shunned as a ‘mongrel’ by the first wolf he meets there. On learning of a threat to his family (I won’t tell you how – that would spoil it) he must convince her and the other wolves to accept his leadership, escape with him, and return in time to save his pack. So essentially, you have the same issues of acceptance and overcoming obstacles, particularly as, like his mother, Salvador has some unique qualities of his own.
But, of course, it’s not just Salvador that has to adjust to being separated from his family. Akea and the rest of the wolf pack have to come to terms with the loss of Salvador, too. So this second book has a dual narrative which allows the reader to see both sides of this experience of loss and change.
Your work has been recognised by Oldfield Park Junior School, naming a class (Elizabeth Jade class) after you, as well as using your books as a base for discussion on what makes children different and how they can celebrate their differences. How does that make you feel?
To begin with, I didn’t understand why my parents were so excited by this. I struggle with self-worth and couldn’t see why anyone would want to name something after me, especially when the email said I would be an inspiration to the class. I really couldn’t see why that would be the case. But we looked up some of the other names that had been chosen, which helped a bit. Several struggled with issues like dyslexia and some were former Children’s Laureates. So we were all being used as positive examples for the children. It also helped me to learn that several members of the class are autistic like me, and I liked the fact that learning about me would be a source of encouragement to them.
I never imagined my books being used as a basis for classroom discussions. But then, I hadn’t realised my stories contained such important lessons until some of my readers pointed this out to me. It’s amazing what your subconscious can do, isn’t it? The thought that my stories can help make life easier for those with additional challenges, so they don’t have to struggle the way I did, does make me happy, and I plan to keep in touch with Elizabeth Jade class over the coming school year, so I can encourage them further.
Finally, how can readers keep up to date with your books and other activities?
I do have a website – www.elizabethjade.org – where people can find out a bit more about me and follow my blog. They can also listen to some dramatic readings from the first Akea adventure, or download a sample from one of my books to read. There are also purchase links to Amazon for those who want to buy the books, but they can just as easily be ordered from a bookshop or even borrowed from a library. Several libraries in Devon and Somerset already have copies. You can click on the book cover to visit Elizabeth Jade's website, plus social media channels.