For the most part, school was a painful, lonely experience for Matthew Senn.
He was excluded, bullied, tormented.
But from that experience came a gift to help other people who find themselves – or have found themselves – in similar situations. It’s also for those who want to learn more about people like Senn. Teachers, for instance, or parents or friends.
The gift comes in the form of a graphic novel.
Senn, 22, moved to Salmon Arm from Malakwa when he was eight, where the struggle to make new friends was overwhelming.
“From Grade 3 to Grade 10, that was the hardest. It was pretty difficult… I’d have the occasional person who was nice to me. Every now and then things would be okay. On the whole, things were pretty hard.”
Kids in school knew how to push his buttons and get a reaction, he says.
“They grind your gears and you’re steaming mad.”
Then he might yell or threaten – and get in trouble. And it would start all over again.
“Just all the little things adding up, that was really tough. Not being invited to go somewhere or something like that. Excluded a lot. Being made fun of or whatever. They just egged me on, you know.”
Consequently, he didn’t say much in class or actively participate.
He says his parents tried to help him but no one could figure out exactly why things were the way they were.
Life finally changed for him in the summer of Grade 10. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
“For me, that was like a big sigh of relief. ‘Oh, that’s why I’m like that, that’s why things are the way they are. I can use that to understand, to figure me out.’”
Although he’s intelligent, Senn explains that he’s also very logical – and people are very illogical. One of his biggest challenges is understanding subtexts and subtleties.
“There are so many social things and unwritten rules. ‘Well why do you do that? That doesn’t make sense.”
For the next three years he worked with a therapist who helped him understand social interactions and gave him strategies for dealing with them.
He also made a best friend and, in Grade 11, let his classmates know about Asperger’s.
Although things were still hard, they began to slowly change.
“Eye contact is still something I struggle with today. Where to look and how much. How to keep people happy. These are things I still think about today.”
Relating to people with autism, some with Asperger’s, was helpful.
“I don’t know if we bonded together, but we shared similar interests. Even if I wasn’t interested, I could say, ‘I see where you’re coming from…’ We get each other.”
One activity that’s been an oasis, a steadfast source of enjoyment for Senn since Grade 4, has been drawing.
He’s particularly enjoyed drawing comics and, in Grade 11, started writing more.
The idea for the comic that is now his graphic novel came when he heard about a guy who wrote stories that weren’t for anyone else. He wrote what he would have liked to have read.
Senn decided that he’d like to create a comic for introverted people. He was further inspired when he went to a comic convention in Calgary where he asked a lot of practical questions.
“I got lots of good advice, but probably the best one I got was, ‘just do it. Just start doing it and you’ll learn the most that way.’”
Over the course of three years, with lots of trial and error, he created his graphic novel entitled, Quiet.
With beautiful bright drawings and a striking cover, it’s about a girl named Claire. She is very shy and introverted and is attending her first semester of college in a new town.
“It follows her and her efforts to try and make friends in this environment and try to get through it,” Senn says, explaining it draws from some of his experiences in his two years at Okanagan College.
“It makes it kind of relatable, it’s based on reality.”
Prior to enrolling at the Centre for Arts and Technology in Kelowna where he is now enjoying a 2-D animation course, Senn contacted a publishing company.
Quiet is now available at Bookingham Palace in Salmon Arm, as well as at Mosaic Books and Okanagan Sports Card and Comic Shop, both in Kelowna.
It’s also available online through FriesenPress Bookstore, Mosaic Books and Amazon.
Regarding his current studies, Senn says he’s fitting in.
“It was a long process to get there. Now I can maybe figure out what people are thinking or take a guess. Maybe I’m right; before I had no clue.”
Senn knows he could have used a book like the one he’s created; he’s hopeful it will make a difference for someone else.
“It’s incredible who you’ll connect with when you have something in common and you understand where they’re coming from. That’s what I want this book to be – a connection.”
A Walk for Autism, an awareness and fundraising walk, will be held on Monday, April 2, starting at the Ross Street Plaza in Salmon Arm.
Preregistration is at 12:30, walk starts at 1 p.m. Call 1-888-508-3028, ext. 101 for more details.