A Different Kind of Normal by Abigail Balfe

Review by Evelyn Hussey

Puffin Canada Publishing, 2022

234 pages, Hardback, $29.99 CAD, 9781774881637

Ages 8-12, grades 4-7

Middle Grade, Graphic Novel, Non-fiction

The awareness of being “different” from other children was an all-too-familiar feeling… a feeling of being overwhelmed by my surroundings but being unable to verbalize it– unable to say it out loud.

From puppet shows to pool parties to school discos and events– I still put myself through all these because that’s what I thought I “should” be doing. Ha!

If only I knew what I know now: I am in charge of my own life, and my own comfort and safety are worth prioritizing. I don’t need to force myself into boxes, trying to fit some sort of “normal” child-shaped mold, I should be free to make the choices that are right for me.

Growing up, Abigail Balfe didn’t feel normal or that she fit in anywhere. She excelled in math and science but wanted to be creative instead. She was bullied at school. She hated loud noises and couldn’t stand certain textures. She had countless phases where she became obsessed and only talked about one topic. As an adult, Abigail learned she was autistic, and this changed her whole view of her childhood experiences.

A Different Kind of Normal is Balfe’s reflection on her experience of being an autistic child before she knew she was autistic. She shares vignettes from her childhood and teen years and uses them as an introduction to things she wants allistic—non-autistic—people to know. Balfe writes about the experiences at school she struggled with, as well as many other domains she navigates as an autistic person: special interests, emotions, friendships, social communication, puberty, and sensory sensitivities are just some of the topics she discussed.

Balfe’s story is well-researched and the information is presented in an engaging way, accompanied by her simple but expressive drawings. Her doodles add emotion and humor to an informative book, sparking interest in the reader. She provides definitions and explanations that allow allistic readers a greater understanding of the language to use regarding autism. Balfe has also included a glossary and a “Really Useful Further Learning” section at the end of the book, allowing readers to learn more about autism and access valuable resources.

Balfe’s voice is unique and she writes from a fresh perspective—a woman who learned she was autistic as an adult. Balfe also uses inclusive language, explaining how autism can “look different across the gender spectrum” and emphasizes that each autistic person’s experience is unique. Woven through the story are life lessons and advice to anyone who has ever felt different, and how to overcome hardships. Balfe also offers tips to allistic people who want to support their autistic friends and family. She wants every reader, whether autistic or not, to feel seen and heard by her words.

Balfe’s words are comforting and compassionate, and readers will empathize with her younger self as well as any child struggling to make themselves appear “normal.” As someone who struggled with social anxiety from a young age and was constantly trying to “fit in,” her story really resonated with me. The personal experiences she shared are meaningful and touched my heart (even causing tears!), but also evoked smiles and laughter.

This memoir encourages readers to embrace what makes them unique and learn more about themselves in the process.

Evelyn Hussey is a BA Psychology student minoring in Creative Writing at UBC. She loves reading memoirs/creative nonfiction as well as realistic fiction. When she is not reading or writing she spends her time rock climbing, binging true crime content, or with her beloved dog, Dipsea.

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