From Ordinary to Extraordinary
By Carin Chea
Writer and Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner said: "You cannot swim to new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore."
For one man, John Richmond, losing sight of the shore happened approximately two years ago when his 5-year-old son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Richmond personifies All-American. He was a popular football player who was successful in academics.
After graduating from college, he earned a master's degree and was on his way to a PhD. Richmond is articulate, eloquent, and a masterful storyteller. Up until his son's diagnosis, life had been satisfyingly linear.
So, when his son was diagnosed with autism, life's linear pathway veered off-track an into territory Richmond and his family had never journeyed through before. Initially stunned and devastated, Richmond was able to eventually convert his paralyzing fear into the ultimate transformative tool: Hope.
A few years (and a few books) later, Richmond has become a prolific and popular writer whose aim is to entertain, but also educate his readers on autism. We spoke candidly about Richmond's journey as a father to a special-needs child, and his newest mystery thriller, Savant, whose protagonist is autistic.
You have an MBA and a career in higher education. Tell us how writing came about.
My son turned 7 in March. After his 5th birthday he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I was grieving personally and slipped a little bit into a depression because I didn't know how to handle the situation. I started writing and memorializing it. That's how I came to publish my first book, Totally Lost: A Brutally Honest Assessment of Raising a Child on the Autism Spectrum.
After publishing my first book, I got great feedback. I thought: "I can entertain and inform at the same time." I started writing Savant and wrote it in 6 weeks. I wanted to portray autism as superpower. I wanted to give people hope that, yes, this is a challenging situation, but the rewards far outweigh that.
In what ways has your life changed since finding out about your son's diagnosis?
In every conceivable way I can think of.
I graduated high school from a small town in west Texas. I went to college not far away. I graduated, landed a job, and was my way to a PhD. My life had been very linear. I prided myself on being a very good communicator. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I realized: All the things I'm good at, my son will always struggle with.
All of a sudden, I got thrown this curveball. I never saw myself as the parent of a special-needs child. I was a football player. I was popular. I drew a crowd whenever I spoke. I thought I'd have a son who would grow up to be the prom king who would solve cold fusion. And, he may still do that, but in his way.
My approach with my son has changed drastically. The way I discipline him has changed. We sold our house and moved out onto some acreage. We used to live in the suburbs, but children with autism tend to easily get lost in a crowd. Every decision we make now has a different flavor because of him.
Your mystery thriller, Savant, is your newest release, but it's actually not your first book. Tell us about Totally Lost.
Totally Lost is a memoir. When I sat down and started, I wasn't planning on writing a book. I was sitting down just to put thoughts on paper. Writing has always been very cathartic for me. Totally Lost is set up to where every chapter is a different experience we've had. We'd have different experiences that'd occur that (for most people) are not a problem, but are relatively life-changing.
For example: Going to the movies. That's not conducive for a child with severe sensory issues. We took him to a movie one day and it was a completely different experience than it is for others.
Totally Lost will forever be my favorite book no matter how much I write because it was so personal to me. In that moment, when you get that diagnosis, you want to hear from someone whose been through it and has come out from the other side, better. This was something I didn't find when our son was diagnosed.
Are the characters in Savant based on people in your real life?
The short answer is: Kind of.
My point in Savant is to take my readers and put them in the shoes of someone who deals with these issues [of autism] every day. I used some of the experiences I had with my son. I knew my protagonist had to be very high-functioning. Savant means "genius" basically. They think in ways that you and I can't even fathom. Albert Einstein was considered a savant.
Tell us about Michael Avery, the protagonist in Savant.
He's a combination of Sean Murphy from The Good Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, and Jason Bourne. That's a wide spectrum there. I knew I needed someone who would be almost a superhero. He'd be able to do things that you and I can't understand. That's what Michael is. He's basically my son in the experiences he has, but Michael is his own person.
Savant follows Michael through different situations that he may not deal with well. He has a love interest who's introduced in the middle part of the book, and he doesn't know how to handle that situation at all. She ends up taking the lead in that relationship. Michael freaks out at times because he doesn't know how to handle it.
There are a few characters in the book that I fashion after a few people in my life. Like Michael's father - he's like my father. My dad always worked long hours, but we knew he would be there. Every night he'd come home and spend time with us; he never chose his job over us.
It was also very important to me to stay completely plausible in everything. It was important to stay as close to the truth as possible.
What do you want your readers to glean from Savant?
I would like readers to see Michael as somebody who lives life in a different way, but is very successful at it. On a personal level, I want people to see that those with autism can have very fulfilling lives. They're just going to go about it different. I want readers to be put in Michael's shoes so that, next time they're in public and see someone like Michael, they can identify that.
I also want readers to be entertained. I want them to feel the same emotions Michael does as he journeys through the book. Those with autism don't process emotions the same way. Again, I'm here to inform and entertain. I think we need more of this. Entertainment can be used for many things, and we should use it to put ourselves in other people's shoes. That would make this a better world.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first found out your son was autistic? What is some advice you'd give to those who may be in the position you were in two years ago?
It's going to be okay.
It's going to be hard. It's going to be difficult, but it's going to be okay. It'll take some time to come to this. Quite frankly, I didn't think that at first.
When we got that diagnosis, make no mistake: One person may be diagnosed with autism, but the whole family is affected. Your life will never be the same, but: You will be okay.
Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like our readers to know about?
I am a prolific writer, so yes! I have the sequel to Savant already written. I don't want to give away any spoilers. It's called Closure, in which Michael tries to solve another murder that is tied to a character in the first book that's decades old.
I have the 3rd book in the Michael Avery series written. It's called Cabal. I focus on Michael as a very sought-after detective. It's got a conspiracy flair to it. It veers a little from the first 2 books.
I just got a third idea for another series, and it's called Conveyance. The protagonist is female and her brother is autistic, non-verbal.
In all of my books, no matter how many I write, will always have a character that has autism.
If Michael Avery's story were to be made into a limited-run mini-series, who would play Michael?
Henry Cavil. I describe Michael as being very tall, handsome, and physically fit. I think Henry Cavil has that kind of stand-offish personality to him, even in Superman.
To keep up to date on Mr. Richmond's latest projects and speaking engagements, please visit JohnDRichmond.com. You can also follow him on Facebook.
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