Good grief and comic relief: Why comics have the power to transform education for neurodiverse people
Illustrator Ellen Walker says that growing up, Charles Schulz’s Charlie Brown “spoke the language of my neurodiverse brain” and yet teachers said comics weren’t “real books”. Here, she argues why they were so wrong.
- Ellen Walker
- 10 August 2021
Comics have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my most cherished childhood memories is leafing through my Dad’s old Peanuts books, entranced by Charles Schulz’s unparalleled ability to evoke so much with just a simple line to indicate a furrowed scowl or a raised eyebrow. The protagonist, Charlie Brown, is a character for whom everything goes wrong. He struggles to fit in, and is subject to ridicule. He falls into bouts of prolonged depression when efforts to overcome his weaknesses fail miserably. He has become an icon for the persistent underdog. Unlike other examples of the “loser,” literary trope, he never, ever gives up.
Schulz provided me, a child with undiagnosed learning disabilities, not only with a character I could empathise with, but also a form of communication that spoke the language of my neurodiverse brain. Before going further, I should clarify; neurodiversity refers to a variation in the human brain regarding mental functions in a non-pathological sense. This includes learning disabilities, neurodevelopmental disorders and some mental health conditions. There is something quite labyrinthine about it, but for the cartoon companions I became acquainted with, all barriers seemed to diminish.
Unfortunately, they were never welcome in the classroom. I recall having my comics banned by a teacher who dismissed them as “not real books.” This attitude towards comics, more broadly visual communication, in our education system is hardly a recent phenomenon. In his article, Learning To Read From Comics: Comics As Gateways To Literacy, Paul Gravett outlines how comics have been historically demonised in educational spaces, despite there being sufficient evidence to show that they are in fact, “powerful and effective tools for literacy.” Indeed, from my own personal experience, I can tell you that my vocabulary was broadened more from Schulz’s erudite philosophical musings than it was from forcing myself through 600 pages of Harry Potter making stuff levitate using Dog Latin. Comics are viewed as juvenile and asinine, which unfortunately mirrors the way in which disabled children are often labelled in the classroom.
However, those detractors are missing a trick. Visual communication possesses the remarkable ability to not only transcend the jumbled thought patterns of the neurodiverse, but to also aid in absorbing concepts from a comparatively panoramic perspective; a stimulating experience from which new conclusions and ideas can be formed. There is a reason why, when my autistic sister was undergoing speech therapy, flashcards with labelled images and Makaton sign language were used. Why is it acceptable for visuals to be utilised in helping children to speak, but not in helping children to learn and process new information in school?
To make matters worse, subjects neurodiverse students often excel in due to their use of non-linear, visual mediums, are increasingly being marginalised. This year, education secretary Gavin Williamson set out plans for a 50 per cent funding cut to arts subjects at universities. This follows a decade of so-called “reforms” by the UK government to exclude creative subjects from the curriculum, which includes the preposterous decision to exclude creative subjects from the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
Any subject which doesn’t speak to its students through equations and insurmountable paragraphs is being tossed aside. The problem with this is that when you marginalise subjects with alternative forms of communication, you marginalise an entire demographic of students who just so happen to consume information differently. To put it bluntly, being a creative neurodiverse student is akin to being suddenly thrust into a foreign country unable to speak the language, and then being punished for not understanding anybody.
The effects of traversing the British school system as a neurodiverse person can be incredibly difficult, even traumatic. When I was diagnosed with ADHD, Dyspraxia and Dyslexia at the age of 20, the feeling that overwhelmed me, following that of relief, was betrayal. In response I began expelling my thoughts through drawing, compulsively filling up sketchbooks as I tried to process what felt like rewatching a movie in IMAX 3D instead of a pirated VHS. I finally saw my experiences from the perspective of an adult who knew better, rather than a scared little girl whose greatest fear was disappointing her teachers.
My graphic novel, Muses and Demons, is a consolidation of these thoughts, and it comes as no surprise that my fellow neurodiverse creatives have said upon reading certain extracts, “this could easily be me you’re writing about.” This is sobering to consider. Whilst it is cathartic for us to come together and share our grievances without fear of judgement, we shouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
According to the Office for National Statistics, “disabled people’s average ratings are lower than those for non-disabled people for happiness, worthwhile and life satisfaction measures.” We scored highly in comparison to non-disabled people on other factors, such as wellbeing, anxiety and loneliness. It is no secret that neurodiverse people are being failed in this country, and these shortfalls begin where we are most vulnerable – in the classroom.
A trait that many of us neurodivergent creatives can be proud of is our perseverance. It is admirable that despite there being so many systems in place poised to ensure our failure, we have continued to defy the odds stacked against us. Nevertheless, there is far too much at stake for this toil to be extolled as, as one of my own former teachers put it, “character building.” I am reminded of a recurring gag in Peanuts – Charlie Brown’s repeated attempts to kick a football, which is held in position by the comic’s resident fussbudget, Lucy. No matter how many times he tries, she pulls it away at the last minute. It is admirable, as many Schulz scholars point out, that he is willing to go back every time and try again. But I can’t help but wonder – if it were not for Lucy, just imagine how far Charlie could kick that football.
Ellen Walker: Muses and Demons (Copyright © Ellen Walker, 2021)
About the Author
Ellen Walker is an award-winning illustrator and writer based in the UK and a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art. She is currently writing her graphic novel Muses and Demons- A Very Normal Autobiography, and will be continuing her studies through a PhD in Communications at the RCA.