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Blazing Trails: Empowering Neurodivergent Narratives in "A Kind of Spark"


When Bridges Graduate School Doctoral Student Marni Kammersell approached us to publish her review of the TV show A Kind of Spark, centered on an autistic teenager and her sisters, we jumped at the chance to work together. Marni not only provides deep insights about the show and how it spotlights the autistic experience; she also offers discussion questions to start a dialogue with autistic children as well as strength-based tips for working with autistic kids and suggested resources. We hope you enjoy Marni's perspective as well as the show, which is streaming on BYUtv.

 

As someone who frequently talks with parents of bright and quirky children, many of whom are gifted, I often find myself recommending books and podcasts to help them better understand both common Autistic traits and the Autistic experience. However, resources that provide insight into Autistic culture and ways of being can be harder to come by, especially ones that will resonate with 2e families (2e, or “twice-exceptional,” refers to individuals who have both exceptional intellectual or creative abilities and disabilities or challenges). In this post, I explore the groundbreaking television show A Kind of Spark and its potential impact on

twice-exceptional Autistic (2eA) children and teens. The show provides much-needed representation and has the potential to empower 2eA individuals through seeing their experiences portrayed positively on film. I also provide guiding questions for parents to facilitate conversations around neurodiversity with their Autistic children.

A Kind of Spark is a BBC television miniseries based on the book of the same name by Autistic author Elle McNicoll (McCleery et al., 2023). The show features an Autistic

thirteen-year-old girl named Addie Darrow, who is delightfully quirky and unapologetically herself. Addie is determined to get a memorial plaque erected in honor of the women who were persecuted as witches in her town centuries ago, simply for being different. The show includes a mystery element as Addie attempts to uncover what happened to a young noblewoman named Margaret (Maggie) Fraser who vanished from Juniper, her small town, after being accused of witchcraft. Throughout the series, Addie finds support from her friends and family, including her two older sisters, Keedie and Nina. The character of Keedie, who is also Autistic, adds depth to the story and showcases the diverse interests, behaviors, and relationships of Autistic teenagers. As the story unfolds, we learn about Keedie's own strengths and challenges, and observe how she protects and advocates for Addie. Nina, who is not Autistic, has a close relationship with her sisters and is fiercely protective of them.


In addition to the main story featuring the Darrow family, A Kind of Spark includes a

historical storyline set in the town of Juniper during the 1500s, exploring the experiences of Maggie and Elinor Fraser during a time of witch-hunting. Elinor, who is Autistic and living in a time without any conception of autism, is concerned that her unique sensory experiences - which she describes as feeling like 'magic' - may mean that she is a witch. Maggie, who is both practical and fiery, denies the existence of witches and fights against the injustice of persecuting women for failing to conform to social norms. This historical storyline serves to normalize the

idea that Autistic people have always existed, even if historical societies had no frame of reference to understand or accept them.


All three Autistic characters (Addie, Keedie, and Elinor) are portrayed by Autistic actors, and Nina is also played by an Autistic actor. In addition, the show had significant representation of neurodivergent individuals in its production crew. The casting of neurodivergent actors in neurodivergent roles on the show is crucial, as it offers much-needed representation and promotes authenticity in the portrayal of Autistic experiences. Autistic actors can fully embody their experiences when playing Autistic characters, without the need to pretend or conceal their natural movements, facial expressions, and ways of being. A Kind of Spark delivers an authentic portrayal of Autistic experiences in a heartwarming and delightful way, with an intriguing storyline. As a late-identified Autistic adult, I can personally attest to the importance of seeing these experiences portrayed on film, especially for teenagers who may be struggling to form their neurodivergent identities.


Throughout A Kind of Spark, Addie is portrayed as a complex character with a range of admirable strengths. One of her most notable qualities is her insatiable curiosity and sharp intelligence, which allow her to learn and retain a wealth of information about a variety of subjects that interest her. Addie's kindness and empathy also shine through in her interactions with others, even those who have hurt her. She consistently sees the best in people and is willing to extend compassion even when others might not reciprocate. While this does leave her open to being taken advantage of, her enduring kindness is truly admirable. In addition to her

interpersonal strengths, Addie is also brave and persistent in her efforts to raise awareness and advocate for the acceptance of neurodivergent people and anyone who is considered "different." She refuses to be silenced or dismissed and her steadfast determination to create positive change is both inspiring and powerful. Overall, Addie is a truly compelling protagonist whose multifaceted strengths make her a role model for viewers of all ages.


In addition to positive Autistic representation, A Kind of Spark does an excellent job of portraying neurodiversity-affirming parenting and relational approaches for neurodivergent youth. Addie’s parents are both kind and supportive, without being overbearing. While they clearly worry about their teenage daughters, they also give them the space to grow and tackle challenges on their own, such as traveling to the city on public transportation without an adult. In one particularly familiar scene for those of us living in neurodivergent families, each Darrow sister is provided with a different kind of special-order pasta: no sauce, smooth sauce, and regular. In

another scene Addie's dad quickly steps in to stop another adult from popping a balloon, stating awkwardly, "Ah, I just love balloons." When Audrey remarks on the strangeness of his action, Addie explains that the noise of a balloon popping is an overwhelming experience for her and Keedie. These authentic touches are what make A Kind of Spark so magical. Parenting neurodivergent children can be challenging, but it is not a tragedy. Seeing these little daily struggles normalized with humor and love is incredibly valuable.


A Kind of Spark offers a heartwarming portrayal of the intimate bond between Addie and Keedie, who in addition to being close because they are sisters, also share a special bond because they are both Autistic. The television adaptation beautifully showcases their mutual understanding and validation of each other's sensory experiences. One noteworthy scene occurs when a smoke alarm goes off in the Darrow home and Keedie instinctively rushes to place noise-dampening headphones on Addie's ears before grabbing a pair for herself. In this moment,

their shared laughter and concern for each other's well-being highlights the power of finding common ground in neurodivergent experiences and demonstrates the unique support that neurodivergent peers can offer each other.


The show features beautiful support from a range of characters, including Nina, who

serves as a confidant and advocate for Addie; the Darrow parents, who advocate for their daughter and seek to understand her needs; Addie's best friend Audrey, who demonstrates empathy and a willingness to learn about Addie's experiences; Nina's boyfriend Frank, who supports Addie in her research; and Mr. Allison, a teacher who shows a commitment to strengths-based education. Through these characters, the show highlights the importance of allyship and the potential for neuronormative individuals to create safe and supportive spaces for those who are neurodivergent.


A Kind of Spark effectively portrays the challenges that neurodivergent students face in the classroom, particularly when teachers fail to embrace their differences. However, the show also emphasizes the many ways in which educators can positively impact the lives of neurodivergent students. For example, Addie finds refuge in the quiet space of the library, where the librarian, Mr. Allison, provides her with unwavering support. He invites Addie to spend her lunch period in the library, shares her sense of humor, and saves new books for her related to her current interests. When Addie struggles to remember her lines in a school play, Mr. Allison

creatively hides her cue sheet among the props so that Addie can succeed in her acting role. These examples show that qualities like unconditional positive regard, curiosity about a student's interests, and understanding of sensory needs are crucial for educators working with neurodivergent students.


Although Elle McNicoll did not explicitly portray Addie and Keedie as twice-exceptional, their experiences will resonate with many 2eA teenagers. McNicoll has shared in interviews that Addie is hyperlexic and favors non-fiction over storybooks. In the television adaptation, Addie is seen creating a detailed diagram to organize the information she gathers about the witches of Juniper, revealing her exceptional ability to understand complex relationships among various elements. Additionally, Addie's struggles with handwriting suggest motor planning challenges or other possible learning disabilities, which can commonly co-occur in 2e individuals. Keedie, on the other hand, exhibits an immense passion for history and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Killiecrankie, alongside her artistic talent.


Dr. Susan Baum, a renowned expert in twice-exceptional education, highlights five crucial elements that underpin successful programs for 2e students (Baum, 2017, p. 142):

  • creating a psychologically safe environment;

  • providing more time – both for long-term growth and also time to process, transition, and produce;

  • accommodating asynchronous development;

  • fostering positive social relationships;

  • and adopting a strength-based and talent-focused philosophy.

Unfortunately, as with many 2e children, Addie's educational environment fails to consistently provide all of these elements. As a result, it falls upon Addie and her family to raise awareness about how teachers can better understand and accommodate the needs of neurodivergent students.


Parents of 2eA students who want to enhance their educational experience can create awareness about the benefits of a strengths-based, talent-focused educational approach, like the one utilized at Bridges Academy, a school specifically designed for twice-exceptional children (Baum, 2017). A strengths-based approach emphasizes the development of each student's strengths and talents rather than focusing on their weaknesses. This method helps neurodivergent students to develop a sense of pride and confidence, leading to higher levels of engagement and achievement. By helping students identify and explore their passions from a young age, we empower them to build their lives on the things they enjoy and excel at.


In the final scene of A Kind of Spark, Addie delivers a poignant speech, highlighting the unique perspective that Autistic individuals bring to the world. She conveys that while being Autistic in a neurotypical world can be challenging, it also enables her to notice details that others may overlook and to find sparks of brilliance in everyday things. Addie's words effectively capture the central theme of the show - the importance of embracing and celebrating neurodiversity. A Kind of Spark offers valuable insights into the experiences of neurodivergent individuals, including strategies for supporting twice-exceptional Autistic children. By creating strengths-based environments, promoting self-advocacy, reducing stressors, and celebrating

neurodivergent strengths and perspectives, we can create a more inclusive society that values and embraces neurodiversity. The show's positive portrayal of Autistic role models and Autistic culture will empower 2eAutistic people to form a healthy neurodivergent identity and will challenge misconceptions about autism.

Discussion Questions to Spark Dialogue with Children

  1. In A Kind of Spark, Addie and Keedie are both Autistic but have different personalities, friends, and interests. Do you relate to either of these characters, and if so, how?

  2. Addie and Audrey become close friends in the show quickly after meeting. Do you think this is realistic? What do you think makes for a good friendship?

  3. Keedie advises Addie to always be open about being Autistic but decides not to share this with her new friends. Do you think it is always a good idea to be open about being Autistic, and why or why not?

  4. The show portrays and discusses masking, where neurodivergent individuals hide their true selves to fit in with others. What are some examples of masking that are portrayed, and do they match up with your own experiences of masking?

  5. Have you ever experienced being treated unfairly by a teacher or classmate because of your neurodivergent traits? How did it make you feel? What would have been a more supportive response from others?

  6. Who in your life are your strongest confidants and advocates?

  7. How can schools and teachers better support and include neurodivergent students in the classroom? What changes would you like to see in your own school or community?

  8. How can we as a family better support your neurodivergent traits and needs? Are there any changes we can make to better accommodate you?

Strengths-Based Approaches for Parenting and Working with Autistic Kids

Suggested Resources


 

About the Author. Marni Kammersell is a neurodiversity educator, specializing in supporting parents and families in creating liberatory, neuro-affirming family and educational cultures. Marni is a neurodivergent parent to three neurodivergent children who are also twice-exceptional. She is passionate about the neurodiversity paradigm, self-directed education, non-coercive relationships, and understanding experience through the lens of the nervous system. Marni is also a doctoral student at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. She has over 15 years experience working in alternative education in a variety of settings, including homeschooling, unschooling, community education, democratic schools, and forest schools.




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