They say “write what you know,” and this maxim gave the autistic children’s author Elle McNicoll the inspiration and motivation for her debut novel, A Kind of Spark, which has now been adapted as a 10-part series by the BBC.
The power of the story isn’t just that it puts autism front and centre of the narrative – but that through flashbacks, it looks at the trial of witches in the 16th century and suggests that perhaps what made them different was not magic, but a neurodiversity that simply wasn’t understood at the time.
When she was writing the novel – published in 2020 – she wasn’t thinking about the possibility that it might later be adapted for the screen. “I probably would have been way too scared to write it if I thought it was going to be on television but luckily, it’s on CBBC and we’ve got a very sweet young audience and it’s been very overwhelming but I’d definitely advise not worrying about that when writing a book.”
But what was very much at the forefront of her mind was helping children with cognitive difficulties feel better represented, while ensuring that neuro-typical people understand more about the conditions. “Addie and Keedie, the two sisters who are the main characters in the story, are both autistic and we also have a flashback storyline where we go back into the past to the sixteenth century where there’s also an autistic character, who doesn’t yet know what to call themselves because the diagnosis doesn’t exist yet.”
And the TV adaptation has helped her spread the message further, not just to audiences but also to the broadcast industry. “It’s a neuro-divergent cast and crew and there’s lots of adventure and fun and it’s a happy, positive story about autistic kids, leading the way.”
One of the issues McNicoll hopes to address is the fact that autism is not often seen on screen. Previous generations might know it from Rain Main, or more recently the documentary The Reason I Jump, but the former is very much told from the perspective of Tom Cruise’s neuro-typical character while the latter considers more the way people with the conditions interact with the outside world, rather than what they’re actually experiencing.
McNicoll – who, unusually for a novelist, also took on a writing role on the TV adaptation – used the tools of TV to try to explain what was going on inside the minds of her characters. “We made sure to transfer a lot of the internal feelings that are talked about in the book into the sound design and into the camera work so the camera and the sound design sometimes mimic what it feels like to be autistic, whether it’s a bit of sensory overload, whether it’s over stimulation. We’ve cast authentically so the cast are autistic. They are playing it naturally and authentically as they themselves are. They’re stimming on camera, so we’re showing visually what its like to be autistic and also the show talks about what it’s like to be an autistic person and also advocates for autistic people as being equal to non-autistic people. So I think it’s a very positive introduction to people who maybe don’t know what autism or neurodiversity is.”
Giving the benefit of her experience to new writers at the London Book Fair, McNicoll said that teaching neuro-typical people more about neuro-diversity wasn’t her main goal. “I think more important than education for me is to empower autistic children who watch it, who do know what this reality is like, whether they’ve had a diagnosis or not, and the best thing is we’ve had loads of feedback from autistic kids who’ve said ‘Oh my god – she’s just like me – I do that – that’s me!’ That’s the best kind of reaction from an audience and that’s primarily who I made my story for.”
With many adaptations spawning sequels – even when the original book hasn’t – the novelist acknowledged that TV shows could take on a life of their own. “You definitely, as an author, if your work’s being adapted, have to keep a tight lead on the TV people to stop them going off in weird directions. The good thing is that because it’s quite a short novel, we’ve been able to develop and explore lots of new things without taking anything away from the book, so I think readers of the book will enjoy the show a lot and they won’t feel like anything has been betrayed. But it is a strange process. You do have to accept that there will be brand new things happening and new characters and new storylines.”
Many books for younger children have to work on different levels – for the children who are listening and the parents reading them. Similarly, books for older children often have to work for two separate audiences too – in this case, one is autistic children who have often felt excluded from the entertainment available to them and the other is the wider neuro-typical world, so projects like A Kind of Spark – whether on the page or on screen – work by tackling the problem from both directions.