Lauren Osborne’s unique ability to sweep an ink black pen across a stark white background and illustrate something quite special has led to a demand for her artwork, book commissions and creative skills at workshops, both regionally and nationally.

Inspired by popular fairytales and nature, the 24-year-old’s work is now in such demand thanks to business support from the University of Sunderland, that she has found the confidence to create her own graphic novel, detailing her lived experiences as a neurodiverse person.

Lauren hopes her book, ‘It’s okay to be me’ will be of particular interest to women and girls, whose autism is often overlooked and goes undiagnosed because they don’t fit autism stereotypes and mask their symptoms better than boys do.

Although autism research is slowly catching up to the realities of life for autistic women and girls, there are still barriers to diagnosis and support, according to experts.

Today, on International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023, Lauren believes the messages in her book particularly align with the theme of this year’s celebrations ‘Embracing Equity’, reinforcing why equity and equality are so important.

“My hope for this novel is to spread acceptance of neurodiversity, especially among women and girls” explains Lauren, who graduated with a both a Masters and First Class Bachelor’s degree in Illustration and Design from the University of Sunderland.

She added: “This book is also for those who want to learn a little more about autism from an actual autistic person’s point of view.

“It was important to create ‘It’s Okay To Be Me’. My Master’s dissertation was all about the lack of representation especially of autistic women and girls and I could find only two books that were written by actual autistic women, or from the perspectives of autistic women, others were mainly children’s books, or always written from the friend or family of the autistic person. That’s the distinction I wanted to make.

“Autistic women and girls are often overlooked, there seems to be such a lack of research from their perspective.

“I was lucky that my autism was picked up by a teacher at age 10, but many women are diagnosed much later in life, including my older sister, who was in her 30s.

“Hopefully I can shine a light on this area as we celebrate IWD 2023.”

Lauren’s talent for drawing and doodling started from an early age at her home in South Shields, encouraged by her teachers in secondary school to pursue art as a career. From college, she went on to study a degree.

As the first in her family to go to University, Lauren says: “My family are really proud of what I have achieved.

“Sunderland was the perfect fit for me, I could get an excellent education on my doorstep, with tutors who supported me, and helped me throughout.”

Once she’d graduated, Lauren’s goal was to sell her illustrations and produce a children’s book, but she needed the business skills to develop her brand.

She turned to the University’s Enterprise team in 2021, which provides the next generation of digital and creative freelancers, entrepreneurs and start-up’s with support, through the Enterprise Place and Digital Incubator.

The support, part funded by European Regional Development Fund, provides members with; a physical co-working space within the University, access to academics and regional entrepreneurs for mentoring purposes, a programme of business workshops, one-to-one advice, networking and access to a range of industry technology.

Lauren’s confidence grew through her membership to the Digital Incubator, and she is now a registered sole trader – Blackwork Illustrator – working almost exclusively using pen and ink to create her work.

She has been commissioned to illustrate books for a range of authors, sells her artwork through Etsy, and is a regular on the craft-fair circuit.

There are also ongoing workshops at schools, businesses, and charities across the region.

Lauren says: “The business has really grown and I’ve learned so much with the Digital Incubator, they really set me in the right direction.

“It’s a great place for any graduate to start their business. I haven’t looked back.”

Entrepreneurial Development and ERDF project manager, Laura Foster, said: “Lauren has really made the most of the support available through the Digital Incubator and it’s fantastic to see her confidence and business grow.

“We are delighted to see her hard work pay off with her recent illustration commission for a children’s book, and look forward to seeing what the future brings for Lauren.

“We would encourage any University student or graduate thinking about starting up to get in touch to see how we can help.”