Book review: Untypical: How The World Isn’t Built For Autistic People And What We Should All Do About It by Pete Wharmby

Untypical: How The World Isn’t Built For Autistic People And What We Should All Do About It by Pete Wharmby. Reviewed by Dr Katie Cebula

Date published: March 2023

Price: £13.41

Link to book on Amazon

Reviewer: Dr Katie Cebula, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Edinburgh

Reviewer expertise: PhD in autism and involved in family and school-focused neurodiversity research

What is the book about and who is the book aimed at?

Pete Warmby was diagnosed as autistic in adulthood. This book explores his experiences of socialising, relationships, school, university, work, travel and leisure – and in doing so, illustrates how stressful, unjust, and sometimes just plain illogical neurotypical society can be. This book is a beautiful manifesto for how we can “remake the world” to make it a better place for autistic children and adults. The book is aimed at adults and has a very broad potential audience – from those new to autism to those who are more familiar or are themselves autistic. I think it would be particularly helpful for parents of autistic children and for teachers, but really I’d just like everyone to read it.

A brief description of the content of the book

“Nothing will change until the neurotypicals do”

Fundamentally, this book is about how society needs to change to be more inclusive of, and compassionate towards, autistic individuals. This is explored by way of a journey through the author’s own personal experiences - understanding what it means to be autistic; what might be supportive, and what definitely is not. From the anxiety of small talk, to the joy and importance of special interests, this book perfectly explains how stressful, exhausting, and wonderful being autistic can be. The book paints a heartfelt picture of both the better-known aspects of autism (like stimming) and some aspects (like autistic inertia) that readers might be less familiar with. Examples from the author’s own life – always beautifully expressed (for example, making eye contact is described as “like staring at the sun, but without the warmth”) – helps the reader more fully understand these aspects. But the book goes well beyond the author’s own experiences – it also incorporates the experiences of other autistic individuals, alongside some accessible discussion of autism theory and research. Ultimately, the message of this book is that “the status quo is no good” – there is a clear need for action to ensure that we develop a world in which autistic individuals can thrive.

Is the content in line with best practice/research evidence?

The book is refreshingly up to date, with some information on both classic and recent theories/research. It perfectly balances this with discussion of personal experiences – neither too academically dry, nor too anecdotal – definitely in the Goldilocks ‘just right’ zone. A strength of the book is how robustly it deals with the myths and “stale old stereotypes” of autism (for example around empathy), and then guides the reader to more relevant areas of theory and research. The work of a number of key autistic scholars is also introduced. I also appreciated that the author recognises that his experiences are in some ways privileged, and that he emphasises the importance of recognising intersectionality: he helpfully signposts community networks and resources, helping the reader to explore these areas.

Would the book be helpful to its target reader? If so, how? Would it be helpful to anyone else?

The book is a ‘guide for all neurotypicals’ - packed with advice about how to create a more compassionate and equitable society. This ranges from quick and cheap ‘easy fixes’ (GPs – stop with the need to telephone!) to more fundamental societal changes needed. Chapters include practical advice on how to better support autistic individuals in relationships, the classroom, and the workplace. The author makes the important point that many of these adjustments would improve the experiences of neurotypical individuals too. It’s worth pointing out that the book will likely be helpful to both those who are new to autism and those who are more experienced: although I’m familiar with autism already, the book helped me to mentally revisit past events with autistic friends and see them in a new light, thinking about what I could have done differently.

What is your final, overall opinion of the book?

Ultimately this book is a call to arms – to change the world in which we live. Importantly, I think that the book makes the reader want to take that action. Further, it is difficult to express just how beautifully written this book is. I found myself bookmarking eloquent and impactful quotes every few minutes. I finished with an urge to go and buy a copy for every student teacher I know. Overall, a beautiful and important book.