To Know the Self
Rilie Saba
Senior, LSA

Digital comic


“To Know The Self” is a 4 page, 35 panel comic that depicts my experience with growing up autistic and not knowing it until early adulthood. Anxiety and depression are common comorbidities for those with autism spectrum disorder, and sometimes only those conditions are caught in childhood, while the root cause is never truly discovered. The cause for autism spectrum disorder is not known, and this comic also discusses whether we should be looking for a cure or for something else.

“To Know the Self” uses microscopy to describe the experience of living as a high-functioning autistic person. The microscope and what it can reveal became an intense interest for me early in life. These interests, dubbed “special interests,” can feel almost like a possession: everything else fades away. 

I struggled to determine how I was going to accurately portray my experience without acting as an overarching authority figure for ASD: writing or drawings alone felt like it could leave too much room for misinterpretation. I figured that if I appealed to multiple senses, then maybe I could connect with the reader more. 

I tried to illustrate common traits and experiences of those living with “mild” autism: the sensory difficulties, hyperfocusing on specific topics, observing and researching others in an attempt to emulate them, and creating an internal script. The DNA ropes are a way of showing how one on the spectrum can feel trapped by something written into their genome. 

I am not the first or the last person to use glass as an allegory for the struggles of connecting with other people. Those on the spectrum, those who are depressed, etc., have described feeling as if there is a barrier between them and the rest of the world. I wanted to elaborate on those feelings further: not only do I feel that there is a barrier sometimes, but I am painfully aware of when people are watching me. I am aware enough of my own social misgivings and their consequences, but I do not know how and even if I can remedy them. Sometimes I feel like I am being observed, not seen, by those around me. 

The comic reaches what might be seen as a controversial conclusion: this comic is not anti-research (I am a scientist myself). The answer, in my opinion, is more nuanced. The last page comes from a place of frustration: I see so many papers about scientists trying to find the genes that cause autistic traits, but I don’t see as much work being done to accommodate those who are on the spectrum. Yes, autism is disabling in a variety of ways, depending on where you fall on the spectrum. But there are many people who must carry this gene and are not deemed “autistic.” It is much too complicated of a disorder to try and “cure” on a genetic level. And while I cannot speak for the entire autistic community, my discontents mostly stem from how the world is structured against me, not that I have this condition. 

This work was created using the program Procreate, my tools being an apple pencil and iPad pro. The pen that I used mimics a sharpie fineliner pen, as I wanted the comic to have an organic, hand drawn quality to it. I stuck to a mostly monochrome color palette, with color being used to emphasize specific details or key motifs, such as the DNA and the initial pond water microscope slide.