Memoirs by mothers of special needs children are a well-stocked sub-category of the genre, with those focusing on children on the autism spectrum making up a sizable portion. Many follow the family from diagnosis and adjusting to a "new normal," to navigating a maze of therapies and special services, offering a window into a unique kind of family life. So does Kim Stagliano's book – but with two big differences: Autism disproportionately afflicts males, but Kim has three autistic daughters. And, she's done something rarely attempted in this subcategory: she puts humor on the page, with gusto. Her book is All I Can Handle: I'm No Mother Teresa – A Life Raising Three Daughters With Autism.
Kim agreed to answer a few of my nosy questions.
Lisa Romeo: You write with such graceful humor, not going for big laughs, but showing the humor even in very difficult situations. Has humor always come naturally to you?
Kim Stagliano: I am a classic middle child and was always a bit of the class clown. I have a wry, biting humor that isn’t always that nice. I didn’t have to work to create the humor in the book; it’s part of my style in general.
LR: When did you realize you could employ humor in accounts of your family's life with three daughters on the autism spectrum?
KS: When I wrote my first Huffington Post piece in 2006 and people laughed and learned, and complimented the (writing) style.
LR: Did you always know you'd want to write a memoir, or did that build slowly as you began to blog and report on autism and your personal experiences? When did you first see yourself as a nonfiction writer, as opposed to a woman who was chronicling her family's journey?
KS: I was dead set against it! How’s that? I wanted to write fiction – still do! I never thought anyone would be interested in our story and I just didn’t want to relive every moment. But as editors asked my agent for a non-fic proposal, the idea grew on me and I decided I could find a way to write our story while staying semi-sane and get a hopeful but realistic (and humorous) message into a book.
LR: You include images and experiences some other writers of autism memoirs often retreat from – parents injured by a child's meltdown, kids' "decorating" with feces, financial wipe-outs that treatment and other issues can cause. When you are writing, do you ever hesitate and think, maybe I shouldn't go there?
KS: Sure. I try to respect my children’s identities and their humanity – and it’s a fine line. Some folks think I cross the line, others appreciate the candor in that they don’t feel so alone. I hit the delete key about a million times while writing!
LR: Your book mixes family stories with your strong views on autism advocacy, the role of vaccines, social services, education, and public perception, as well as flashbacks from your childhood. How did you go about deciding on an organization and structure for the book?
KS: I knew that the autism community has limited time (to read). So I wanted the book to be broken into bite sized chapters that you could read quickly, digest and then either put the book down or continue reading. I made the book a quick read on purpose to accommodate the needs of the autism community first and to make the book super approachable for those outside our world, like teachers, therapists, outside family members. It’s purposefully a fast, funny read so no one will really know “what hit them” when they are finished.
LR: Although you already had a strong following (dare I use that word: platform), did it strike those in publishing – agents, publishing house editor, marketing folks – as an odd sell, a book about raising three autistic daughters which is also humorous, and at times, hilarious?
KS: Yes it did. We had a lot of editors who just did NOT get me, my humor or how to make the story funny. My agent persevered though and he sold the proposal. There were also a lot of comments that the market was already saturated – but no other book offers the raw honesty and humor like mine does. I like to say, “You won’t need a Prozac to read it,” and I mean it!
LR: You are managing editor of Age of Autism, a major news site and online community. Did that work prepare you (or not) for the challenge of pulling together this memoir?
KS: Writing a book is very different from blogging and running Age of Autism. What AofA did for me was to give me a constant reminder of who I was writing for – my audience of parents struggling to get through the day or the night and desperate for laughter and encouragement.
LR: Is there another book in the works?
KS: Yes there is! Fiction (I get to kill people, yay). I’m working on a young adult novel that brings in the sibling issue with autism. That’s all I’ll tell you for now.
Note from Lisa: We're giving away a signed book to one reader. To be entered in the random drawing, leave your comment on this post by midnight Tuesday, April 5. (U.S. postal addresses only.)