Tunkhannock author Karl Williams doesn’t mind stepping out of the spotlight to give others a chance to be heard.
With his three published “as told to” autobiographies about noteworthy folks in the self-advocacy movement, he’s done just that. As far as he’s concerned, the subjects of his books are the authors, and his job is to ask questions and piece everything together to tell their stories.
“I mean to be in the background,” Williams said. “I’m just a vehicle to help them get a voice that they otherwise don’t have.”
Williams has been involved with the self-advocacy movement since the 1970s, which is the civil rights movement for people with developmental disabilities.
In 1999, he published his first two “as told to” autobiographies about Roland Johnson and Michael Long, two significant members of the movement.
‘Lost in a Desert World: The Autobiography of Roland Johnson’ and ‘If Your Dreams Aren’t Big Enough, The Facts Don’t Count!’ recount longform interviews with Johnson and Long, which Williams recorded and organized into stories.
This month, ‘Hello, Stranger: My Life on the Autism Spectrum,’ as told to him by Barbara Moran, is finally being published after meeting Moran over two decades ago.
Moran is a graphic design artist from Topeka, Kan., who grew up during a time when autism wasn’t as well-researched as it is today. Similar to the workflow of his other books, Williams learned Moran’s story through interviews.
Rather than paraphrasing, he kept the story in Moran’s exact words and found the best way to organize portions of her life story into her autobiography.
Moran was born in the early 1950s. While she was bright girl, her teachers had trouble keeping her in control, and she was eventually expelled in the second grade, Williams said.
She spent time at the sanitarium Menninger’s in Topeka during her childhood and was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.
“Back then, what was believed was that people with mental health problems had somehow chosen to be mentally ill, so they kept telling Barb she had to get herself out of this situation,” Williams said.
Because of her inability to make social contact, Moran created an imaginary world for herself by personifying things around her, such as traffic signals and buildings. She drew pictures of inanimate objects with faces, arms and legs, but knew this wasn’t reality.
“But the folks at Menninger’s didn’t buy that. They thought she was in fantasy, so they didn’t want her to write about any of this or talk about it, much less draw pictures,” he said. “Eventually to try to get her to toe the line, started trying her on drugs, and that didn’t help at all.”
Moran learned how to “toe the line” by not publicly talking about her fantasies and was eventually allowed to attend a regular school.
She lived in a foster home until her 20s, Williams said, where she was free to embrace her fantasies through drawings. After some time, she left the foster home and began living on her own.
Her sister, Ruth, who was studying to become a doctor, had to read the DSM for a psychology course. She read about schizophrenia and thought “This isn’t Barb.” But while reading about autism, she realized that her sister may have been misdiagnosed.
Barb later received her true diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in her 40s, and through Williams, she had an opportunity to share her story.
Williams and his wife, Nancy, got involved with the self-advocacy movement through their work with developmentally and intellectually delayed children in the 1970s.
During this time, when children received these diagnoses, their parents would often put them away in institutions, which were “hell holes,” Williams said.
Through their work in these institutions in different areas of Pennsylvania, they realized life for these children needed to change. Luckily, like-minded people were getting the self-advocacy movement off the ground. Group homes were an up and coming idea, and the couple served as house parents for children with developmental disabilities.
One of these children was Aaron, who they grew close with and legally adopted.
‘Hello, Stranger’ is set to be released March 19 ahead of Autism Awareness Month in April. The book will be available online and Just One More Page Books on Tioga Street in Tunkhannock will have limited copies available. Owner Laura Wulff said it’s also possible to order more copies.
Williams said that while a lot of people know someone or have a family member with autism, it’s less common for people to understand what it means to be on the autism spectrum.
He hopes readers develop a better understanding of the experiencing of those with autism, who have varying abilities and unique stories.
As a writer, Williams enjoys empowering others to share their stories, but also lets his own voice shine through as a musician with his original songs.
Williams is also in the process of working on his own autobiographical novel set in two institutions and a group home, as well as a set of stories taking place on a dairy farm, based on where his wife grew up in Wyoming County.
“I guess it’s not so much what I like about being a writer. There’s nothing else I’d be happy doing,” he said. “In fact, I’d be miserable doing something else. It took me a long to time to understand that this is what I needed to do.”