Sarah Firth is a Melbourne based, Eisner Award-winning comic artist, writer, speaker and internationally renowned graphic recorder. Following her appearance on the Library’s Afternoon Tea & Talk series, Sarah talked to us about her experiences as a neurodivergent person and the creativity that flows from her neurodivergence. 

Q: What does neurodivergent mean to you?

A: I like the language neurodivergent and neurodiverse because it feels empowering, inclusive and celebratory to me. It’s shorthand for, my brain, learning, perception and sensory experience is different to what is currently considered normal. I find saying I’m neurodivergent an efficient entry point into discussions with neurotypical people, instead of listing things. It’s also a way around some people’s preconceived notions of what autism, ADHD, dyscalculia and dyslexia look like.

Q: Can you give us some insights into the impact of dyscalculia and dyslexia to your life? Feel free to discuss this in whatever timeframe you’d like – whether that’s in the present moment or growing up.

A: Dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD and autistic sensory sensitivities impact my life in complex ways. Certain things are easier and other things harder for me. In some ways, I have increased focus, in other ways less. I still regularly face prejudice and mocking from people who do not understand these challenges and think I am ‘stupid’, ‘distracted’ or being ‘too sensitive’. In video interviews sometimes, people will ask me to ‘stop looking around, look into the camera’ and ‘stop fidgeting’ and ‘don’t talk with your hands’ which are so hard for me to do and come at a huge cognitive strain. I regularly have to explain that I can’t and why. It still frustrates me, the expectations around this stuff.

That said, these days, I feel much more empowered to be able to navigate these challenges thanks to increased awareness and being better equipped to talk about them. For example, the common LED downlights that seem to be everywhere these days strobe for me, and it is very distressing. As are the open plan styles of offices, cramped public spaces and shops, and the overly noisy architecture of buildings. I manage much of these myself with techniques like earplugs, white noise in my headphones, sunglasses, stimming by chewing gum, or moving into dark or less noisy/busy areas and visiting for shorter periods of time. I also have more confidence now calling restaurants to ask about noise, seating and lighting in advance. And when working with clients on events, asking for a setup that doesn’t have people walking behind me or in my periphery, while explaining my need to be able to take breaks and move, along with a quiet space I can access if needed.

Similarly, with my dyslexia and dyscalculia, I have learned to be upfront about it and partner with people who have great editing and number skills. With graphic recording, I often request that participants help me spell check my work, which is often fun for them, and increases their engagement and involvement with the creation of the work.

Q: You’ve described the disability space as large and inclusive. How has becoming part of this community impacted on your perception of yourself?

A: The diversity and complexity of the disability space is great because it means that you are welcome. There is so much to learn and understand, and there are so many different experiences and points of view. Being part of the community is empowering in the support it can bring you, and the ways in which you can support and advocate for others.

Q: Having come to an understanding of your disability as an adult, does this affect the way you see your childhood and growing up?

A: It has been so empowering and useful to help me make sense of the many things I found extremely distressing and challenging as a young person.

Q: Was submitting a piece to the Growing up disabled in Australia anthology a big deal for you? How did you feel when it was accepted?

A: When I submitted my story I was very nervous as I was still early into understanding my neurodivergence and was worried that clients might read the comic and not want to work with me if they knew I was dyslexic, instead preferencing graphic recorders who don’t make as many spelling mistakes. A lot of it was my own internalised ableism and shame. I have since been able to feel empowered to be upfront about my dyslexia and autistic sensory sensitivities with clients, which makes things easier for me and helps them cater to what I need and allows for more fruitful collaboration. I feel very proud to share my story and have already had so many readers – both young and old – reach out in gratitude as it has helped them make sense of their experiences, those of their children and family, and find support and tools.

Q: Your submission ‘Drawing my way’ is a graphic cartoon. In it you talk about how your mother helped you learn to ‘dance the pen’. Can you talk to us about your relationship to drawing and what it means to you?

A: As I share in the story, my mother didn’t know I was neurodivergent, but knew I ‘wasn’t like the other kids’ and found that drawing was an effective way for me to channel my hyperactive energy. I liked to jiggle and dance, and ‘dancing the pen’ was her way of explaining how to translate moving the body into moving the pen so I was less disruptive in confined spaces such as aeroplanes, and at my school desk. Drawing was and continues to be a tool I use for focusing my attention, listening, digesting information and engaging with the world, in both my comic artwork and my graphic recording work for clients.

Q: Please share some graphic novels and/or graphic artists that have influenced you.

A: Too many to list honestly. There is so much exciting genre busting graphic essay and graphic novel work being done these days. I love the work of Australian comic artists such as Eloise Grills, Mandy Ord, Rachel Ang, Gorkie, and Shaun Tan. And some international comic artists I adore are Kevin Huizenga, Lynda Barry, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Lisa Hannawalt, Nick Sousanis and Brecht Evans. I also love the Graphic Medicine International Collective that looks at the intersection of visual sequential storytelling and medicine. I think finally publishers and general readers are coming to understand that comics and graphic novels are a broad rich, innovative medium just like film, that can be used to explore any genre. 

Q: How do you think telling stories about disability makes a difference – to you or the wider community?

A: I think there are a lot of people out there who are neurodivergent and don’t realise. My hope in sharing my experience, is that they might read it, relate to it and start investigating. My hope is it helps to bust shame and tease apart the tangle of internalised and external ableist limitations that trap people.

Q: It’s been more than a year since you wrote the piece, as the book publication was delayed because of the pandemic. What’s changed for you in that year?

A: My experiences in lockdown as a neurodivergent person helped clarify what work conditions I thrive in, which was incredibly insightful. Which has helped me further tailor my environment, working conditions and approach.

Q: How do you hope the book will be received by the mainstream community?

A: I hope the book helps shift the often patronising attitudes towards disabled and deaf people who are too often used for inspiration, instead of respected as people. There is still so much stigma and prejudice towards disability and disabled people, entangled with a lack of visibility, understanding, empathy and ableist attitudes that all reinforce systemic issues, that urgently need reform. My hope is this book will show the depth and breadth of diverse experience, and the need for having disabled people at the table and embedded within decision making, not just to be consulted.

Q: Where else can we find your work?

A: My website and shop are a good starting point. And you can connect with me on social media: such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and read my longer works on Medium.

Sarah Firth, Afternoon Tea & Talk graphic recording

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