commentary and current events, neurodivergence, writing

Notes From My Upcoming AWP Panel Presentation(‘s Recording Session, Because COVID)

Tomorrow, I’ll be recording a panel for AWP on “Neurodivergence in Literature,” along with colleagues and dear friends Nick Walker, Alyssa Gonzalez, and Mike Jung.

I’m a co-founder of Autonomous Press; I’ve published multiple works through Neuroqueer Books; I was the managing editor of Neuroqueer; my MA thesis was on poetry as a neurodivergent/neurotypical common language; and my current project is a paper outlining what is is we mean by “neuroqueer,” in which I’m relying heavily not only on the writings of the three originators of the term but also on being able to text them memes at 2 am.

So I guess I’m qualified to pontificate on neurodivergence in literature, lol.

The panel will include specific questions aimed at each of the participants, plus a half-dozen or so general questions. I have already forgotten what the me-specific question is, and I have no idea what my co-panelists will say, so the panel itself is worth seeing. I will insert the day/time/etc. info here when I have it.

Here’s a sneak preview at what’s banging around in my head in response to the questions for the panel.

Blog post title image featuring a typewriter and journal in the background.

Opening Remarks on Neurodivergence in Literature

I fully expect to riff off whatever everyone else says at this point in the actual panel presentation. For the purposes of this blog post, which has a somewhat different audience, I’ll start by defining some terms:

“Neurodivergence” is commonly used to refer to everyone whose brain isn’t “normal” (a term with its own problems that I’ll get to in a second). Currently, it’s often a catch-all term for things like autism, ADHD, and PTSD, as well as things like traumatic brain injuries or the effects on the brain from drug use. In disability activism, it sometimes gets tagged “our minds are not fine,” a play on early activists’ claims that physical disability should not preclude them from full social participation because “our minds are fine.”

When I discuss “neurodivergence in literature” for the sake of this blog post, I’m primarily interested in the ways in which author and narrator perspectives diverge from what we think of as “typical” cognition. I’m interested in divergences from both our idea of “normal,” or what already-is common and expected, and from “normative,” or what we believe should be common and expected.

The difference between “normal” and “normative” is one I don’t see addressed in the vast majority of conversations about neurodiversity/neurodivergence, to our detriment. Those two ideas interplay in ways that hugely impact how we understand cognitive, emotional and neurological differences, yet we rarely if ever tease them apart.

For instance: When we say a person is “neurodivergent,” we mean they differ or diverge in some way from some other reference point – typically referred to as the “neurotypical.” What we often don’t do is distinguish whether the “neurotypical” reference point is “normal,” i.e. common or expected, or “normative,” i.e. someone we think should be normal or expected.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a lot.

Also, I personally make a distinction between talking about “neurodiversity in literature” and “neurodivergence in literature,” as well as between either of those ideas and “neuroqueering” as a practice. To me, “neurodiversity in literature” speaks more to who gets to be represented or do the representing, while “neurodivergence in literature” is more about what and how non-normal or non-normative bodyminds get represented. “Neuroqueering” is a specific species of “how,” and it’s not actually the topic here, which is a shame because I’m currently obsessed with it.

What is the Current State of Neurodivergence in Literature?

In three words: “New, but not.”

Literature has always been a way that people explore neurodivergence, just as neurodivergence has always existed within the human population. Humans as a whole have always been neurodiverse.

Right now we seem to be at an inflection point. The #ownvoices movement and similar changes to how we think about who gets to tell stories and who gets to star in them have made publishing more accessible to people, including neurodivergent people, not only to get published but to do so without having to mask their own neurodivergence.

Yet this inflection point comes with its own risks. Every time we define a set as separate from or different to another, we risk balkanizing it. That’s a risk we face with neurodivergent authors and characters currently: That we’ll reach a place where #ownvoices neurodivergent literature becomes a gimmick.

What Are Some Successful Instances of Neurodivergence in Literature (as an author or reader), and What Makes Them Successful?

Some of the most successful examples of neurodivergence in literature do not deal with authors, characters or readers with diagnosable conditions. Often they succeed because no one involved is diagnosable. Rather, the story moves the reader into the position of experiencing neurodivergence without getting to label it “oh, this is what it’s like to be autistic” or “this is what it’s like to have hallucinations” or whatever.

A few mainstream releases that come to mind include Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Each book/series takes the reader on a rather intense departure from what we think of as normal/normative, rational cognition.

Yet in each case, there’s no tidy DSM diagnosis to slap on that experience. What’s the ICD-10 code for “becoming an eldritch being” or “eating a dead murderer’s memories” or “conversing with one’s heart as it walks around outside one’s body”? These authors and their works take readers into that experience without categorizing or defining it, and it leaves a lingering effect on the reader.

What Are Some Examples of Unsuccessful Works?

Nearly every book that tries to present neurodivergence by means of labels ends up reading as a failure to me. Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, for instance, is split directly down the middle as a success/failure, and the moment it makes the turn is the moment Oates outs the protagonist as autistic.

Prior to that point, the reader is immersed in the experience of being a depressed autistic woman in a claustrophobic small town. Oates actually captures that very well (I speak from experience, having been this person). Cressida’s decisions make sense in the context of that claustrophobia and her depression and her deeply rooted sense of being irrevocably different yet unable to explain it to anyone.

But the moment we’re told “Cressida has autism,” suddenly the entire story is about that diagnostic label. Suddenly Cressida is not relatable. The reader gets yanked out of the experience of neurodivergence and back into a world where “normal” is a very tight, specific set of feelings and behaviors.

Labels have such a powerful effect on neurodivergence in art, and it’s rarely a good effect. I have always appreciated, for instance, that Bill Watterson staunchly refused to respond to questions about whether Hobbes was a “real” tiger or a “stuffed” tiger or “just a product of Calvin’s imagination.” The truth of Hobbes, of course, is that he is any/all of the above, all at the same time. To carve off any of those facets in the name of “understanding” Hobbes is to murder him.

Incidentally, this is also why none of the characters in my own novels get diagnostic labels in the text. Several of the humans have diagnosable neurodivergences. But the one time I revealed one to a reviewer, the reviewer managed to miss every other neurodivergent experience in the text – and even to miss some of the labeled character’s most obvious symptoms!

What Do You Hope Will Not Happen Regarding Neurodivergence In Literature?

I really hope the entire concept of “neurodivergence in literature” doesn’t get reduced to a gimmick or a sales pitch.

I do think there’s an incredibly important role for #ownvoices authors and books. But I want to avoid a world where we start requiring authors to out themselves as some kind of diagnostic-label neurodivergent in order for their depictions of divergence to be taken seriously. Conversely, I want to avoid a world where we assume that every author who writes neurodivergence well can be reduced to a diagnostic label.

“No label, no divergence” is just neurotypicality under another name.

What Do You Hope Will Happen Regarding Neurodivergence in Literature?

I hope we move away from the “normal,” “rational,” “common,” “typical,” “expected,” etc. as the default expectation, in reading and in life. I want readers to be ready for anything when they open a book, and willing to go wherever the book does.

My undergraduate class in Short Fiction was taught by a man who insisted that if a protagonist’s actions didn’t make sense, either the protagonist was mad or the writer was a hack. This, to me, is a prime example of neurotypical-as-normative dominating the conversation. There is no room from such a perspective to explore the myriad worlds of the human mind – to expand ourselves via reading as well as to expand the spectrum of human representations in text. There’s only “this has to make sense to me” or “it’s crap.”

I want to see labeling fade away. I want to see neurodivergence expressed in literature as actions and experiences, rather than lists of symptoms. I’d like to see readers get so used to experiencing characters’ mental/emotional states that they stop asking for diagnostic labels and actually find them jarring.

Authors don’t need to prove themselves or their characters by sharing diagnoses. They need to provide an experience that changes the reader. Readers, in turn, need to be open to that experience as one that can change them, rather than pushing it away with “oh, well, if this character doesn’t have these symptoms or that diagnosis then they can’t be neurodivergent.”

And I don’t think the road to that world is as long as it might be. I don’t think it was ever as long as folks like my Short Fiction professor want us to believe. Literature is a malleable medium; it’s always had room for the weird and often delighted in it.


Have Opinions? Leave a comment, share this post on social media, or fuel me with coffee.

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Study: 1 in 40 Autistic People Surprised You’re Surprised That 1 in 40 People are Autistic

A study announcing that the autism rate among children has risen to 1 in 40, higher than the 1 in 58 previously estimated by the CDC, is making headlines. Despite the fact that the study authors themselves admitted they were not surprised (a South Korean study put the number at 1 in 38), we’re seeing the usual uptick in “crisis” rhetoric, along with the usual new spate of bizarre woo-based memes.

fancy-chicken-close-up

Chicken Little.

Since leaving activism several months ago, I’ve scarcely kept up with autism news and I’ve commented on autism-related subjects even less. This one, however, stands out to me because of its parallels with a Quora A2A I received a few days ago: “Have you ever shared a bathroom with a transwoman [sic] and what happened?”

The answer to this question is, of course, “I have been in a public bathroom with a trans person before and so have you, and neither of us probably realized it at the time.” Trans people make up 0.6 to 1 percent of the U.S. population, after all. That’s about two million people. Evenly divided by state (which the population overall is not, so neither are trans people), that’s 40,000 trans people per state, or an entire Big Ten university.

The response to the Chicken Littles scurrying in response to the study results is the same: “Autistic people have always made up about 2.5 percent of the population, you just didn’t realize it before now.” That’s about 8 million autistic people, or about 160,000 per state – a midsize metropolitan area.

Natural redheads, incidentally, also make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Have you met more than one natural redhead in your life? Statistically, you’ve met that many autistic people as well.

Of course, this answer seems to placate no one. In fact, it most often appears to entrench the speaker further in their anxiety that Things Are Getting Worse All The Time.

Granted, “things have actually been as bad as you think for a while now” isn’t exactly comfort food. For someone whose anxiety is driven by a sense of lost control, “it’s been out of control” doesn’t help and can actually make the anxiety worse.

And questions like “why are all the kids turning autistic?!” or “are there trans people in our bathrooms?!” are very much about a sense of lost control. Autistic people and trans people are seen as threats because of their status as Other. When more of those scary Others start to pop up, many people experience a sense of disturbance to their internal order, their sense of how things should be: Men are men, women are women, everyone communicates in a certain way, and all is right with the world.

Reminders that the world has never actually been that way aren’t great. In fact, they’re kinda horrible.

Of course, not everyone reacts to new information in this fashion. Research indicates that our brains can be structured in ways that correlate with our willingness to embrace difference (and with our political views). The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset explores similar differences from another angle.

For the less-fixed types, “Autistic/trans folks have always been in your life” actually can be comforting. Oh, the world isn’t changing at all; it’s always been like this, and I’ve done just fine so far. For those more comfortable with embracing ambiguity and difference, this statement may even be delivered with an edge of annoyance: We’re here, we’re (neuro)queer, please get used to it so we can stop teaching 101-level classes about how we do in fact exist.

But how do we get past the Chickens Little, for whom “hey, we’ve always been here” is a reason to avoid the 101 classroom instead of entering it? I don’t know. I just know that a lot of our modern anxieties aren’t as diverse as we think.

 

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I Want to Believe (In Myself): The X-Files, Star Trek, and (More Than) Autistic Special Interests

There’s a post at Chavisory’s Notebook today that I recommend you read before reading this, because context.  Also so I don’t have to repeat it.  Picture it cut and pasted in this space (except with more citing and less plagiarism).

I was obsessed with The X-Files as a teenager.  Obsessed enough that, unlike any of my prior so-called “special interests,” my family actually knew about this one* and, to a certain extent, supported it.**  Enough that I actually made a couple friends, the first friends my own age I’d had since elementary school, based on our shared interest in the show.

But even to my friends and family, I concealed the depth of my absorption.  I didn’t really understand it myself.  It lasted from a few weeks after the series’ premiere (“Ice,” actually) until just after the first movie- the second-longest-running special interest I’d had until that time.  The first one was Star Trek.

Watching the new episodes has been hard for me.  For one thing, they’re intensely triggering.  It took me three and a half weeks after they began running to convince myself to watch them at all – merely thinking about The X-Files was stirring up all kinds of amorphous emotional crap I thought I had resolved in my teen years but had in fact simply left behind.  Watching the new episodes themselves stirred up more amorphous emotional crap.

I almost didn’t watch “Home Again” at all.  I’m tired, tired of having spent the entire past week in a PTSD fog, tired of trying to figure out how it is that I’ve rewatched all of The Next Generation and Voyager since my teen years without my PTSD making a peep, tired of carrying, always carrying, this trauma.  I can forget about it at times but I cannot put it down.

But of course, the scariest questions are the ones that most need an answer.  And the answer to this one – why Star Trek still excites me to the point that I literally taught a class about the Borg in Voyager last year but why The X-Files is an emotional minefield – is becoming a way in for me to start to unravel the trauma of my teenage years.

I didn’t have the word “trauma” when I started watching The X-Files.  In fact, I didn’t have any words at all for what was happening to me – for what it’s like to go through puberty, without friends, with a mother who insists you pull a perfect Elsa, while autistic but without the word “autistic.”  If I’d had words like “trauma” or “autistic,” I don’t think I could have accepted them.  Not on my own; not without help.  And the help I would have needed to accept them would itself have greatly reduced the trauma.

The words I had were words like weird.  Wrong.  Secretly insane – literally; I believed for a long time that I had what my parents’ 1970s psych textbooks called “childhood schizophrenia”***.  Crazy.  And, yes, spooky.

Both Star Trek and The X-Files stick with me because each of them gave me a vocabulary for who and what I was, at a time in my life when I desperately needed a vocabulary.  They are two very different shows; they generated two very different vocabularies.

Star Trek was (as it has always been) an aspirational vocabulary.  It gave me hope for a world run by and for the benefit of humans in which I, markedly “other,” could be accepted and valued nevertheless – valued for my otherness, even.  This, I think, is why I don’t find rewatching Star Trek triggering.  The Star Trek universe in general, and Deep Space Nine and Voyager in particular, are about places I could belong.  I don’t identify with Barclay but I get Barclay.

The vocabulary The X-Files gave me was more realistic.  The X-Files was, for me, a show about the dangers of being different and the impossibility of being anything else.  It was a show about my reality: about the obliviousness with which most people go through their lives until you scratch the surface of that life, and about the incredible risks that boil out when you do.

As a Facebook friend of mine recently pointed out, autism is not an invisible disability.  It shows in our movement, our behavior, our use of language in various ways.  Difference frightens the human brain, especially when it is close enough to be “just like us” but…not quite.  Freud’s word for it was “unheimlich,” or uncanny.  Star Trek made aliens just like us; The X-Files made them….not quite.

To be uncanny is dangerous.  And we know it.  This is why parents of autistic kids spend tens of thousands on therapies whose only goal is to make the kid appear less uncanny.  Those parents are terrified.  That terror is a survival mechanism.  It arises pre-conscious thought, and so its presence, itself, is not cause for judgment.  It’s what people do once that terror becomes conscious that is a cause for judgment.

Star Trek presumed that humans would “grow out” of that pre-conscious terror of the uncanny, essentially rendering it canny.  The X-Files disagrees.  It does not have a particularly optimistic view of how people will react when faced with the uncanny – or, indeed, how they will react when faced with the idea of the uncanny.  Sure, there are moments, like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” or Season 10’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” that can be remarkably accepting.  But this is largely a show about danger.

It’s also a show about the importance of being right – even when you are wrong.

The X-Files was my anti-ABA.  It taught me that one could get away with being weird or crazy or spooky, as long as one was, at least, not wrong for being so.  It taught me that “weird and crazy and spooky” and “wrong” are not synonyms – that there is a way to be right even while being uncanny.  It taught me that pursuing that sense of being right, even when it made me uncanny as hell, was good.  And it taught me that it was okay to believe that I was maybe not wrong even when the whole world was telling me I was.

That was my fascination with The X-Files, and with Mulder in particular.  I could sound completely crazy but maybe I was not wrong.  

It took over twenty years and four new episodes for that message to sink in.  Like Mulder, I wanted to believe.  But it was not the same thing as believing.

And maybe there would be someone – someone who wasn’t uncanny, who spoke the language that in my wrongness I didn’t speak, someone ordinarily human – who would back me up on this.

*(and still gives me shit about it, as if it were nothing but a garden-variety crush which of course had to have been on David Duchovny and could not possibly have been on Gillian Anderson – but I digress)

**By which I mean “they let me commandeer the VCR to tape episodes and rewatch them until the tapes wore out, and also bought me the show guides, several of the novels, and both “Songs in the Key of X” and the Mark Snow soundtrack,” and also “they did not actively try to stop me being interested.”  They would have said “Oh, The X-Files is her favorite TV show,” as if “favorite” could begin to adequately encompass what that show did for me.

***Turns out I was right: “childhood schizophrenia” was the diagnosis given to a great many people in the mid-twentieth century who actually had – you guessed it – autism.

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