The tattoo is on my left inner arm - each puzzle piece representing a different student who left a particular impact on me. I worked in the world of Autism just as it was gaining the traction of awareness it has in our culture now - I remember reading Temple Grandin's books before Claire Danes won an award for playing her in an HBO film; and I recall when the Autism puzzle ribbon was so uncommon that an elderly man approached my car in a parking lot to ask where he could get one just like the one that sat magnetized to my bumper. I had an extra one in my glove box, and I remember how happy he looked when I handed it to him. I sound like I’m 100, don’t I? I’m only 35, but that’s how quickly Autism has gone from fringe disorder to one of national awareness.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a few author interviews on promotional websites and/or the blogs of people I’ve met online.
The questions in those interviews (as well as those from individual people who have contact me) always pertain to the degree to which Impressions of You was based on any personal experience. I like to joke that, yes, I looked in the mirror and saw Wesley, and just started typing. That’s a lie, of course, but there were aspects of the book based on myth personal experiences. Those who’ve read the blurb (or the book itself – thank you bloggers!) know that Mia is a special needs teacher who works with low functioning, special needs children. The inspiration for that came directly from my own experience, although I was never a teacher. As some may know, I worked in the exact same type of school that I describe Mia working in – a small, private school on Long Island, New York, for speech and language impaired children. Although on paper the school was for any students with speech-language deficits, in reality the vast majority of the population (at least at that time) was children on the autistic spectrum. I worked in classes of non-verbal, aggressive, severely autistic students as a TA and a 1:1 aid for seven years.
In my time doing that work (which I never considered work) I was bitten (like Mia) stabbed numerous times with pencils, scratched almost daily, hit in just about every part of my body with fists, head-buts, and spit at on multiple occasions. Even dealing with all of that, I can honestly say that it was the best job I’ve ever had.
We weren’t there to teach math as much as we were there to teach how to sit at the math table for more than 3 minutes. We had book reading circle time, but the book was secondary to the kids not attacking on another. In short, we had the most hazardous and most rewarding jobs simultaneously, and I saw many people come and go, for all the reasons I allude to in the book. Girls (mostly) coming out of college programs would spend a single afternoon in our class and quit their jobs; those who did come back usually reported sitting in their car and crying after their first day because of the stress. It was the most wild, rewarding, fun, and amazing job I’ve ever had, and I knew that I wanted to make the experience a part of my main character. At the same time I didn’t want to write about special needs at length – it’s a romance novel, after all – so instead I wanted to give only glimpses into the stress of that world, and ascribe Mia those characteristics that I witnessed in so many great women who I got to work with over the years.
What I describe in the book, based on my personal experience, is very specific. It’s called “Autism Spectrum Disorder” for a reason, and my experience was very small and very specific, and what I write is in no way meant to be generalized, but I’m thankful every day for spending my days with those kids, so many years ago now. It was nice to revisit them as I wrote Impressions of You.