Jim Hines is hosting his excellent annual series on why diversity in SFF is important. I’d like to talk about something connected but not quite the same: accidental representation.
But first– apparently there’s an article out about how Aspergers and high-functioning autism are dramatically underdiagnosed in girls. This made me think about my own childhood. I never would have been diagnosed because I wasn’t interested in planes or planets or watches, I was intensely interested in people.
I read a book once in which somebody had literally been Focused on People. She read as autistic until the end, when it’s revealed she’d been damaged instead.
And more often than not, that’s what happens when I find somebody in fiction who thinks so much like me that I instantly identify with them. It turns out the author wasn’t trying to write somebody with autism. They were writing a demon. Or a maladjusted anthropomorphic personification. Or somebody with brain damage.
With all of them there’s a moment of, “Oh my god! It’s somebody like me!” and sure maybe that person is difficult, maybe even a bad guy but that moment of realizing people like me exist in fiction is wonderful– until I discover the connection was accidental. The author is shocked and horrified when somebody points out the parallels with autism. They didn’t mean that, no, not at all!
(And these are all authors I love, too, which is why I was so delighted with the characters. Who doesn’t want to believe that their favorite artist really understands them?
But no. It was an accident.)
So not only do I feel like an alien, but the characters I identify with are quickly pulled away as ‘unintended’. That really, really sucks. It’s also one reason I write about neurodiverse characters. I mean, I didn’t set out to Make A Statement, but I will if I have to. I hate feeling like a freak: like my body is exotic and my brain came from outer space– and having representations yanked away only emphasizes that feeling.
What’s even worse is that reaction of surprise and even horror: because they wrote what they saw as problems to be solved, not natural ways of thinking. The idea that somebody might strongly identify with somebody they think of as basically broken is very upsetting.
But I didn’t read those characters as broken. I just read them as people like me. People who think differently but who are just as interesting and just as capable of being awesome. People who can inspire me to feel like less of an alien and more like me.
Admittedly, that’s a lot easier in a world where people recognize you when they write about you.
It would be foolish of me, I suppose, not to point my own work toward providing fictional companions to the neurodiverse:
in Nightlights, Jehane is a protagonist, she falls in love, she acts heroically. She’s also autistic. She’s not the only neurodiverse character but she’s the most obvious one.
in Matchbox Girls, Marley, the heroine, has an anxiety disorder. She eventually she discovers she has magic, too. It doesn’t help nearly as much as she’d like.
And in Citadel of the Sky, you can find a lot of different acronyms and disorders, along with more complicated, less easily labelled things. There’s also an entire group of people dedicated to providing accommodations for the neurodiverse Royal Family… and a story about what happens when those accommodations are taken away.