Michael Barton is a student with high functioning autism, and he is currently undertaking a Physics degree at the University of Surrey, UK. He gives talks at conferences and schools about the positive aspects of being on the spectrum, hoping to provide encouragement for both parents and children. Michael is a talented musician, playing jazz piano and the French horn, and he also enjoys judo.

In December 2011, Michael will publish his first book, It’s Raining Cats and Dogs: An Autism Spectrum Guide to the Confusing World of Idioms, Metaphors and Everyday Expressions, which he also illustrated.

Here, Michael talks about his brilliant artwork and why this book will be of interest for everyone, not just those on the autism spectrum.

What made you start doing drawings to help you remember the meanings of different idioms? What was the first drawing you did?

Throughout my time in school I struggled with idioms and metaphors because they simply made absolutely no sense to me. Therefore a technique which my support assistant used to help me understand these expressions was to have an exercise book, in which the confusing phrase would be written at the top of the page. Below I would draw a picture of what first came into my mind and then my support assistant would write down the true meaning underneath. Next time I heard the idiom, a mental image of the picture would pop into my head, which would remind me that this phrase is an idiom and then I’d remember the true meaning written under the picture.

The first drawing I ever did was “He worked his socks off”.

What kind of feedback do you get from other people on the spectrum when you do talks about being on the spectrum, and when you show your drawings to others?

I have done various talks in schools and there has always been a positive reaction from those on the spectrum. Many children on the spectrum may feel that they’re constantly misunderstood by others if they aren’t aware of the child’s autism. However when they’ve heard me speak they realise that they’re not on their own and that I had similar difficulties whilst at school, making such individuals feel more accepting about how they are and more optimistic about their future.

Your drawings are very entertaining, but do you hope the book will convey a more serious message as well?

I never actually drew the pictures to be entertaining! I did the drawings because that’s what I thought when I heard the expression (note that I didn’t know what they meant at the time). However I soon realised that people found my drawings amusing because they then realised how little sense the English language makes!

This book can be used to teach children on the spectrum what many commonly used idioms mean, yet it also teaches neurotypical people how people on the autistic spectrum think.

What challenges has going to university presented in relation to your autism?

I feel that the main problem at university is asking for support when I need it. I regularly think that I am able to do something, however sometimes that extra little bit of support can make all the difference. Generally though, I find it easier at university compared to school because I’m with like minded people, studying a subject I’m good at and enjoy.

Do you still use drawings as a technique to help you memorise new sayings and expressions?

When I hear a new expression I can usually make sense of the whole sentence. Sometimes I can get a good understanding of an expression the first time I hear it if I put it into the context of the sentence. However if I can’t possibly understand what they’re saying I’d usually ask someone.

Do you think your book will be equally useful for people on the spectrum and for neurotypicals?

I believe that my book is useful for anybody – not just people on the spectrum. Around 1 in 100 people are on the autistic spectrum, therefore everybody knows of someone on the spectrum and my book will help such individuals to understand how those on the spectrum interpret such phrases.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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