A Q&A with Aoife Dooley

A Q&A with Aoife Dooley, author of Frankie’s World, award winning Illustrator and comedian from Dublin, Ireland.

Aoife shares with us her experiences of being diagnosed as Autistic at the age of 27, and how a diagnosis helped her to truly understand herself.

Thank you Aoife for taking the time to answer our questions. 

1) We have many girls and women in our Facebook group (8.9k members) who have been recognised as autistic quite late in their lives, and it has been life-changing for them. What was your experience?

It was definitely life changing for me, too. It felt kind of bizarre in a way – I’d wondered all my life why I struggled with certain things, why I behaved differently to others, and why I found social situations hard. When I got my diagnosis at 27 I could finally begin to understand myself and in turn it helped others close to me to understand me better too. It was a relief to know I was not alone.

2) What gave you the idea for Frankie’s World and why did you decide to create it in this format?

Frankie’s World is loosely based on my own experiences growing up and finding it difficult understanding why I felt so different. I was a reluctant reader but enjoyed reading comic strips in the local paper when I was a kid so I wanted to create something visual for that reason.

3) You have called Frankie’s World ‘a love letter to being different’. How easy has it been for you to embrace being different and how would you help a young person to be able to accept and embrace their differences when it may make them stand out?

I liked being different, I just didn’t like how people treated me for being different so that made it hard. I loved metal music and dressing in all black and even though I stood out in that way, I still tried to blend in. I think when you’re young, it can be quite difficult to be yourself a lot of the time. There’s a part of you that really doesn’t want to care what others think but it is hard to internalise those feelings sometimes. For me, it was learning to love myself and accept who I am. I think one of the big things I learned was that you are not the things others say you are. The only thing that matters is what you think of yourself.

4) Do you wish you had been diagnosed earlier? What things might have been different for you if you had been diagnosed before secondary school, for example?

Yes, I think it would have been helpful to know. In school I was sleeping a lot, and when I wasn’t sleeping I was bored (and when I was bored I would act like the class clown) and that would get me in trouble often. I felt like I was really trying and everyone around me thought I was barely trying. I think I was overlooked and had to find my own ways to cope (and I think drawing was one of those things). It would have been great to be able to understand myself a little better at that age because I definitely blamed myself about things that weren’t my fault and now looking back as an adult I’m proud of those differences or things that I tried to hide that I didn’t understand at the time.

5) How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life and how easy has it been to carve out a career?

Drawing for me was therapeutic and I knew I wanted to do something creative when I was older. I didn’t have an interest in anything else. By the time I got to college I was studying graphic design and created zines and books based on where I grew up. After college, I worked as a freelance illustrator and it wasn’t easy getting started, but putting myself out there and creating work that I enjoyed definitely helped me to gain confidence and enter exhibitions where I would meet people and network.

6) What advice would you give young autistic girls reading Frankie’s World?

To know that you’re not alone and that it’s ok to be different. Also, that being kind can change someone’s life! It feels like a cliché thing to say but I can’t count the number of occasions that someone else’s kindness impacted me immensely and brightened my world. It’s a very simple thing that everyone can do.

7) Finally, is there any advice you would give to adults who are caring for or working with girls?

Speaking from my own experience I think to support special interests. Listen. If you see someone struggling do try to help. I would have really liked an adult to understand how I was feeling in school and reach out to me or my parents at the time. I have been hearing in recent years though this has been happening more which is great. I think that it can only help kids to understand themselves better and those around them too.

Find Frankie’s World alongside many other recommended books, links, Youtube channels and apps on our resources page

The publishers Scholastic have very kindly given us a copy of Frankie’s World to giveaway. In order to be in with a chance of winning, please enter your email address below. 

Giveaway closes March 7th 2022 at 23:59.

Aoife Dooley, Author
Credit Ruth Medjber
Frankie's World

For newly diagnosed Autistic young people

By Emily.

I spent nearly 17 years of my life with no idea that I had a completely different neurotype to the majority of people around me. I thought my brain was ‘typical’. After all, I seemed to blend in with my peers. But ‘blending in’ with your peers does not mean your brain is ‘typical’.

Growing up undiagnosed meant that I had to hide the fact I found a lot of things difficult, because I thought it was my fault that I found stuff hard. I thought I was the failure, not that the system around me was the one failing me.

The system stuck labels on me which were hurtful. Like being told I was ‘dramatic’, ‘sensitive’, ‘hysterical’, and had a personality disorder when I didn’t. It meant my difficulties were viewed through inappropriate lenses and I was given inappropriate support.

It meant that there was never any chance for me to have my needs met, not that having a diagnosis would have necessarily enabled this anyway. But it took that chance away and left me to blame myself for everything I couldn’t seem to do quite like everyone else.

When I opened up about certain things, people replied with “that’s normal”, “we’re all like that” and “you’re just being overdramatic”, leading me to come to the conclusion that everyone must experience things the way that I did, just I was useless in coping with those things.

I grew up believing that there was something fundamentally wrong about me. I knew that I didn’t seem to fit into the world, and because I couldn’t pinpoint why, I believed it was ME. I came to the conclusion that leaving this world was the best option.

It meant I was more vulnerable to mental health problems because of the exhaustion from masking and not understanding what was wrong with me. And so I attempted suicide numerous times, spent months in hospital and was sucked up into a system which didn’t recognise my needs.

Not being diagnosed meant I never had the chance to access support which could help. I wasn’t introduced to my SENCO at school until my final year of sixth form, when I was diagnosed. So within one year she helped me with things I should have had help with from the age of 11.

Of course, those diagnosed young face their own different barriers and difficulties due to being diagnosed. Early diagnosis is not always a privilege for everyone. Support and acceptance often is non-existent.

But in my case, I really do wonder whether 16-year-old me would have been sat in that hospital, terrified and away from everyone and everything she knew, if the reason for her feeling so out of place had been explained to her years before. If those years of developing my own maladaptive coping strategies and harming myself to try to cope with the world I felt so overwhelmed by hadn’t left me so utterly defeated. If instead those years had been spent by me learning the things I can now learn, setting boundaries for myself and realising that I don’t have to function the same way as people with a completely different neurotype do.

My learning began just after my diagnosis. Learning that I can’t hold myself to impossible standards for the rest of my life because I will burn out repeatedly and learning that I have autism-specific needs that I cannot ignore or rock bottom won’t be far away again.

I wish I could have grown up knowing who I was, or at least knowing years before I did. I know it may not have taken the pain away and I’m sure I’d have had a completely different journey with self-acceptance, but still, that bitterness that comes with late diagnosis remains.

To newly diagnosed autistic young people…I want you to know that you were never the failure, you were the one who was let down.

I want you to know that holding yourself to neurotypical standards when you are not neurotypical is impossible.

I want you to know that it’s okay to be angry, sad and upset with the world and at adults for not picking up on it. It is also okay to be upset with your diagnosis, or incredibly relieved. There is no wrong or right way to cope with finding out you are autistic.

You know now. It’s taken a long time, but now you know, and you have all the time in the world to learn what ‘autism’ means for you. You can ignore it for a while, if you like. You can jump straight in and read as much as you want to. You can claim your autistic identity and shout about it. Or you can keep it quiet. How you choose to cope is up to you. You will see lots of people telling you what is best, or what has worked for them, but only you know what is best for you. It might take you a while to get your head around the news that you are autistic, and seeing your whole life suddenly through a different lens can hit hard.

Look after yourself. You can begin to start deconstructing those incorrect labels and the hate you’ve built up towards yourself. You can begin to learn who YOU are, and YOU are an incredible human being.

Emily is a Trustee of Autistic Girls Network and, as a young autistic woman is a passionate mental health activist and autism advocate. You can find her blog here or join her 29k strong Twitter following.