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[personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
Today is for activism on the theme of "Autistic people should..." because if you type that phrase into Google it spews back horrifying things like "be killed" and "not have children." So the blog Autistic People Should was created to fix that by filling in the blank with constructive thoughts instead of hate speech. Below is my contribution.


Autistic People Should Tell Stories

Stories are a key part of what makes us people. They describe our lives and imaginations. They let us explore what might happen, or what could never happen but is fun to play with anyhow. They help us remember what has happened and why it's important. I'm saying "stories" here to be concise, but really, this covers all kinds of cultural material -- fiction, poetry, artwork, music, etc. -- all the ways in which we render ourselves and our ideas.

So when somebody's stories go untold, those people have less of a share in society. It's kind of like being a vampire in a hall of mirrors: everyone except you is reflected. That's not a good feeling. Most people like having portrayals of people like them. And it's not good for anyone else either, because then people know less about each other and it's harder for them to treat everyone with respect and kindness if diversity is not well represented.

Autistic people should tell stories. They should tell stories about themselves and each other and how they interact with neurotypical people. They should tell stories about their experiences, how they perceive the world, how they think, how they solve problems, how they dream. They should tell stories in their own words, and also share with neurotypical writers who want to portray autistic characters accurately, because both of those approaches expand the representation out of its current shallow state.

Autistic people should be the heroes of their own stories. They should be something more than a tragedy, a bit part, the comic relief. They should get to save the day. They should celebrate those times when a neurovariant perspective can see a solution that neurotypical folks haven't spotted yet. We should all celebrate differences because those can be useful, and distinctive modes of thought can be as unique and valuable as the difference between super-strength and super-speed. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other, and a good team benefits from both.

Autistic people should ask for stories. They should go into bookstores and libraries and say, "I want to read a book with an autistic hero." They should come to crowdfunding prompt calls and say, "I want to see an autistic person save the day." They should turn to their friends and say, "What autistic stories have you enjoyed lately?" They should say to authors, "I really liked your portrayal of X, but what about Y aspect of autism that isn't covered? I think you'd do a great job with Y. If you wrote some Y, I'd buy it."

Autistic people should support the good stories. Blog about them. Review them. Rate them. Sponsor them in crowdfunding projects. Tell friends about them. Buy them in bookstores. Give them as gifts. Discuss why they are good, what they do right, how it feels to read a story like this.

Autistic people should critique the bad stories too. Ideally, say things like, "This story has medical flaws including X, Y, and Z" or "This story contributes to negative stereotypes about autistic people because..." rather than "This story sucks." In this manner, a list of do's and don'ts will develop for people of whatever mindset who wish to write about autistic characters.

Right now, there are these big gaps, and people fall into those gaps and get hurt. There's the gap this project is directly addressing, that when you start typing "autistic people should..." into Google it spits back hateful things. There's the gap in literature where there are almost no autistic characters, and the ones that do exist are almost never portrayed as positive or important people. No one person can fix a whole society. But one or two people -- a creator and maybe a patron -- absolutely can make a difference in the cultural material by making stuff to chuck into those gaps. At the beginning, even one person can make an enormous difference, because there isn't much competition yet. Every individual piece of work is vital and influential when very few of that type exist. The more we create, though, the more it inspires other folks to do likewise, and the gap fills up faster.

This is a significant part of what I, as a wordsmith, do. I watch for gaps and I fill them. I watch for people complaining, "Nobody tells stories about people like me. I want stories too!" Okay, I can do that. Let's fill this cultural chuckhole so people won't fall in and break their necks.

For my January 8, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl, [personal profile] chordatesrock sent me a prompt asking for autistic separatists forming their own society. So I thought about what kind of situation would lend itself well to that -- how there could be enough autistic people in touch with each other, why they might want to secede, where they could be, what kind of society they might develop on their own. The result was "A Solitary Secession," the first poem in what became the series An Army of One: The Autistic Secession in Space, in which people from two different galactic armies decide not to go their separate ways but to take over the no-man's-land together.

That poem was written in generalities, because it's easier to introduce a large complex topic with the parts that are most common and recognizable. I took the details from introductory references on autism. Then the cool stuff started happening: my audience members who are on the autistic spectrum, or know people who are, started saying, "Okay, that's a good start, but my experience is/my friend's experience is ..." and telling me all kinds of different stuff. New personality traits, new habits, hobbies and professions and passions where autism is an asset. They sent me blog posts and articles written by and about autism at a much finer level of detail; when I realized how scattered those resources are, I pulled them together.

I wrote a bunch more poems in this series, and I'm still writing. As of today there are 14 and I have notes for more. So far we have explored how a bunch of different characters (mostly neurovariant but also a few staunchly loyal neurotypicals) came to secede, the challenges they face living in the Lacuna between the Arms of the galaxy, their relationship with artificial intelligences, how their communication and etiquette develop, how they tackle the need for a food supply, and much more.  Autistic characters are the majority in this series, and the heroes; it's the neurotypical characters who play supporting roles.  

And you know what? These characters are awesome. They don't think or behave like cookie-cutter heroes. They have really different ways of solving problems. That means they lend themselves to highly original plots that people haven't read a zillion times before. This is sociological science fiction, and one complaint about that genre is that aliens are just humans in funny suits who are less alien than some human cultures we've already met. Well, this series is about the flip side of that: humans whose behavior seems alien to more conventional humans. They're people. They have many of the same hopes and needs as usual -- a place to call home, friends with common interests, meaningful life work -- and different ways of pursuing those goals. These are stories growing out of a conversation between me and my (neurovariant and neurotypical alike) audience about what might happen if a bunch of autistic folks built a spacefaring culture.

Me, I'm not autistic. I do consider myself neurovariant in a broader sense: I don't seem to think the same way as mainstream people do, and they are not shy about saying so. My brain works for me and I like it the way it is. I don't believe in trying to force everyone into just one way of thinking. I don't believe in pushing other people around, so "should" is just a part of this project -- it's not a command, just a suggestion of some stuff I think would be helpful. I look around at the world and see that more diversity makes a system more robust. So I like diversity. I want to support and promote and encourage it. I like writing about it, and I aim to attract an audience that likes reading about it.

Autistic people should tell stories. Neurotypical people can tell stories about autistics too, preferably after doing enough research for an accurate and constructive portrayal. Cover the ups and downs, the positives and negatives, the many different ways that people experience autism. Speak and break the silence. Finish the phrase "Autistic people should..." your own way.

Tell ALL the stories.

Autistic Authorship

Date: 2013-02-23 09:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] astrologyisfake.livejournal.com
Autistics need to write more fiction. There is a saying in the autistic community about not letting yourself be a self-narrating zoo exhibit. There are books out there like this, and while they do have a place (I wouldn't be who I am now without Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day), not every autistic person should write one. I'm not going to.

The young woman who blogs as Autistic Hoya has plans to publish her novels, and her friends (including me) are already familiar with her cast of characters. She doesn't blog about them, because issues of social justice and ableism need to come before those of creativity. Personally, I'm good at creating characters, but blank out when coming up with plots.

I hardly ever write in my Livejournal anymore, but I still browse the site on occassion, because reading is so important to my life. I hope to see more books with prominent non-stereotypical autistic characters.

Re: Autistic Authorship

Date: 2013-02-23 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>>Autistics need to write more fiction.<<

Agreed.

>> There is a saying in the autistic community about not letting yourself be a self-narrating zoo exhibit. <<

There's a challenge in any marginalized group between telling your own stories (and maybe sounding like a zoo monologue) or not telling them in which case you're either ignored or narrated by other people who may not have your interests at heart. And there's no easy solution to that.

>>There are books out there like this, and while they do have a place (I wouldn't be who I am now without Daniel Tammet's Born on a Blue Day), not every autistic person should write one. I'm not going to.<<

Also agreed. No one person can or should do everything. Each individual should look at their own abilities and interests, and choose their contributions accordingly.

I just feel that some autistic people should tell their own stories, because having stories only from the perspective of outsiders undercuts clarity and communication.

>>The young woman who blogs as Autistic Hoya has plans to publish her novels, and her friends (including me) are already familiar with her cast of characters. She doesn't blog about them, because issues of social justice and ableism need to come before those of creativity.<<

That's cool.

>> Personally, I'm good at creating characters, but blank out when coming up with plots. <<

Maybe keep an eye out for prompt calls, then. It's perfectly okay to give just one piece, like a character. The cool thing about crowdfunding is that nobody has to do all the work; you can share with other people who are better at the parts you don't do well. Lots of us are happy to get good characters when we post a call for prompts!

>>I hope to see more books with prominent non-stereotypical autistic characters.<<

That would be good, yes.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-23 10:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] meeksp.livejournal.com
Ooh..I must have missed your Army of One series while I was overseas and offline. So much to catch up on...

I tend to shy away from stories that claim to be about autistic characters, since their portrayal is all too often dependent on exaggerated descriptions of externally observable behaviour. If autistic thought processes are addressed at all, the focus is nearly always on how they differ from those of neurotypicals.

Stories that happen to feature characters who display autistic traits without explicit reference to neurotype are usually a lot better. Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Darcy are among my favourite examples of well written aspie-like characters, and they were both created before autism was known to exist! We need more autistic spectrum characters in stories where autism is not the point.

Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-23 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>>Ooh..I must have missed your Army of One series while I was overseas and offline. So much to catch up on...<<

I hope you like it! (I have some other new series too. Also I broke down the main Serial Poetry page so that each of the big series has its own subpage now. It was just getting too long for people to scroll through.)

>>I tend to shy away from stories that claim to be about autistic characters, since their portrayal is all too often dependent on exaggerated descriptions of externally observable behaviour. If autistic thought processes are addressed at all, the focus is nearly always on how they differ from those of neurotypicals.<<

That's understandable. It's challenging to write about a very different mindset from the outside, and get it right. When people first start writing about a group that doesn't have much representation, a lot of crummy examples tend to emerge before there's much worth reading. *ponder* Which is true of most new efforts.

In my series An Army of One, I used a lot of resources written by people on the spectrum, what I could find of their subjective experiences, to focus on the thought processes. There is a lot of attention to the differences, but some poems are about common ground between neurovariant and neurotypical people. The series will make more sense if you start at the beginning and read in order. But you might pay particular attention to poems where the unique perspective is highlighted, such as "Do Wrong to None" and "Invisible Lines." In between is "Backup, Try Again," which features both an autistic perspective and close ties with neurotypical crewmates, mainly about how tightly they've adapted to each other. "Language Bodies" is about cultural differences ... from the perspective of secessionists looking at how some neurotypical people don't fit in with their emergent culture because they won't pick up the local etiquette.

If you find time to read through any of this, I'd love to hear your feedback. You're one of the people I was thinking about when I wrote it. (And yes, I am drawing from more of the spectrum than just autism.)

>>Stories that happen to feature characters who display autistic traits without explicit reference to neurotype are usually a lot better.<<

I've heard that before.

>> Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Darcy are among my favourite examples of well written aspie-like characters, and they were both created before autism was known to exist! <<

Sherlock is a favorite. You might enjoy my renditions of him in "THE Woman" and "Fighting Through the Fog" which show his perspective in different ways.

>> We need more autistic spectrum characters in stories where autism is not the point. <<

That's background parity. Feel free to request it in any of my prompt calls or events where I'm writing.

Hmm, not sure which way An Army of One would fall on this. The neurovariation is a base theme for the series and underlies the reason for secession ... but the individual poems are much less about that than they are about dealing with the bunged-up politics and its fallout. The fact that most of the characters are neurovariant matters deeply to what happens, but the storyline mainly concerns how to survive in deep space with a sudden drop in supply lines, and how to create a new society from scratch.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-24 02:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chordatesrock.livejournal.com
I would say that there's a difference between a series being about autism and a series being About Autism. I would say that having a Very Special Lesson about how People With Autism Are People Too, or a story that endeavors to teach the reader what autism is, would be a problem. A story where autism drives the plot is... well, it's a single story. There should be stories like An Army of One; there should also be stories that are about characters whose autism is incidental to the plot, or which feature secondary or tertiary characters with autism. These should be replacing stories that are About Autism, but not competing with each other.

This is basically what I was saying about disability in general a while ago, but with a specific disability.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-24 02:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>> I would say that there's a difference between a series being about autism and a series being About Autism. <<

Agreed, and well put.

>> I would say that having a Very Special Lesson about how People With Autism Are People Too, or a story that endeavors to teach the reader what autism is, would be a problem. <<

It's really hard to write those well. They tend to suck. Any story that puts the moral as the first priority usually sucks, unless it's in a genre built for that (frex, morality plays or fables) and even some of those suck.

>>A story where autism drives the plot is... well, it's a single story. There should be stories like An Army of One; there should also be stories that are about characters whose autism is incidental to the plot, or which feature secondary or tertiary characters with autism. These should be replacing stories that are About Autism, but not competing with each other.<<

Agreed.

>>This is basically what I was saying about disability in general a while ago, but with a specific disability.<<

Yes.

To me, as a literary scholar, this is all very familiar territory. There's a natural progression that identity literature tends to go through whenever a new genre of it emerges. Happened with things like Jewish lit, black lit, women's lit, queer lit, etc.

More recently, and still toward the beginning of its arc, is asexual lit. It's just far enough for the complaints to begin shifting from "Why isn't there any/more acefic?" to "Okay, enough stories about an ace compromising in a relationship by having sex."

The cool thing is that, if you know what the arc is -- if you understand the concept of archetypes, stereotypes, playing with tropes, subjective vs. objective identity, experience-aspected plot drivers, etc. -- then it's easy to skip over the flood of crud at the beginning and start writing more meaty and thoughtful stories while everyone else is still trying to figure out how to tell their audience that Hero Has a Trait and what that means. Or if you don't make stuff yourself, you can give prompts along those more evolved lines. I've spotted some other folks writing acefic with very astute development that is far ahead of the average, and I'm keeping an eye out for that in neurovariant literature too.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-24 03:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chordatesrock.livejournal.com
Interesting. I would like to hear more about this arc in identity literature.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-27 09:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
Okay. There are variations, but a common progression goes something like this...

Trait is ignored. It's rarely if ever portrayed in entertainment, sometimes not mentioned in nonfiction either. Members may or may not realize they belong to this group, depending on how obvious it is, or that anything meaningful could be derived from acting cohesively as a group. People just don't think it's important. Or, they think it's inferior.

If they haven't already, people make fun of the trait. There are snotty jokes and stereotypes. It begins to leach in from the fringes, often appearing first in the least sophisticated and polite sectors of entertainment.

The trait becomes a little more visible in the form of stock characters. These are stereotypical, usually negative, and usually brief appearances. They are not main characters. They are not dimensional, do not grow or change. On the rare occasions something else happens, it is criticized as implausible, pandering, bad literature, or some other excuse.

Actual people with the trait begin to reach out to each other and talk about doing something regarding all the oppressive bullshit going on. They complain about the crummy representation. They discuss what kind of improvements they'd like to see in their own lives. They are dissatisfied that there are few or no decent reflections of them in entertainment. They want to do something about this.

So they start rocking the boat. This annoys and scares the people in power. That leads to more negative portrayals.

But some creative people think, hey, maybe these folks have a point. They start exploring more diverse portrayals of the trait. Which they then have a hard time selling.

Some folks with the trait also start expressing their own experiences. They may band together to share cultural material that is not acceptable to the mainstream. At this stage, stories with trait-having characters tend to be About Trait. It's so conspicuous that it steals the show from almost anything else, unless you're, say, blowing up the universe. Anything more than a bit player drags the trait into The Theme.

As the social movement gains momentum, so too does the shift in entertainment. More portrayals, now containing a mix of negative, some neutral, and early glimmers of positive characters emerge.

Long about this time, enough data accrues to start identifying patterns, such as plot devices and character types. The first stop-trope complaints arise as people with the trait point out that certain motifs are damaging, repetitively dull, and/or otherwise annoying.

The mainstream catches on to the idea of the trait in a more serious manner. Some real advances are made in social justice. More nuanced portrayals begin to emerge as characters are no longer static and one-dimensional. Enough of a pattern has been established for it to be interesting when something breaks in a different direction.

[To be continued ...]

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-27 09:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
By this point there are likely to be clusters of creativity producing a regular supply of material from inside the trait. At first the mainstream mocks these as lesser quality than conventional material. This may in fact be true. Early writers in a field are often people-with-trait-who-write rather than writers-who-happen-to-have-trait, etc. It can take quite a while to develop a really skilled canon, especially if the trait puts people at a real disadvantage for education and prosperity. Around here is when the first awards are likely to appear.

The stuff gets better over time. Eventually the mainstream decides that this is cool and politically correct and profitable, so starts releasing bunches about it, some of which is worthwhile and much of which is insulting crud. But now there's enough built up that a determined person can actually find a handful or two of great content. This is really helpful for people-with-trait who want to understand it, and how it may affect them, and what some of their options are for dealing with the experiences of trait-having. Because that's what cultural material does, it helps us examine ourselves and think about situations before they actually happen to us.

Presently, the shiny wears off. People have seen enough of trait-having characters that it's no longer such a big deal. They've mostly gotten it through their heads that the trait exists, isn't evil or irrelevant, and doesn't always have to be a big deal. Characters and concepts continue to become more refined, complex, and realistic. And this is where background parity arrives: a character can have the trait, and it can just be there, like hair color or whatnot. The story doesn't have to be about that.

This is frequently the point where some other trait or issue starts gaining a lot of attention, and bigots and activists go haring off after the new target.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-27 06:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] chordatesrock.livejournal.com
That was fascinating. :) Thank you for explaining that.

So, asexuality is at the stage of your first paragraph in the second comment (although I never noticed it moving through the other stages), while autism is around the penultimate paragraph of the first comment, and, depending on their precise race and the work in which they appear, PoC are sometimes in the penultimate paragraph with occasional throwbacks to earlier stages. (Would you say that the Harlem Renaissance is when a specific group of PoC hit the first stage of your second comment for a couple of media?)

This is very helpful. Thank you.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2013-02-27 08:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>>That was fascinating. :) Thank you for explaining that.<<

*bow, flourish* Happy to be of service.

>>So, asexuality is at the stage of your first paragraph in the second comment (although I never noticed it moving through the other stages),<<

The less obvious a trait is, the harder it can be to track, because society is more inclined to ignore it -- and therefore not record its progress. The attacks happen mostly when somebody outs themselves. Think about getting bingoed and look at the earlier steps again. Think about eunuch jokes and the virgin/whore split and the weird ways that sexual people treat folks who aren't interested in sex. Think about attempts to medicate asexuality out of existence when it is noticed as existing.

>>(Would you say that the Harlem Renaissance is when a specific group of PoC hit the first stage of your second comment for a couple of media?)<<

Yes, good example.

Another cluster appeared extremely early, in the slave narratives, because people had a driving reason to record and transmit their experiences. They even developed, very quickly, a consistent format for the introduction, that went something like, "My name is Mary, and I was born on a plantation in ..."

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-24 12:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladymondegreen.livejournal.com
Gwyneth Jones has a good secondary character in her Bold As Love series who's autistic and I like the way she draws both his brilliance and his social shortcomings. It feels true to the autistic and spectrum people I know in real life, without verging into parody.

Cool!

Date: 2013-02-24 01:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
Thanks for sharing.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-25 08:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] natalief.livejournal.com
Autistic people "should" not be told what they "should" do.

Just my 2p. Yes, the word should is triggery for me. Too many years of being told what I "really should just" do by people who had no idea what it was like to be me in that moment. No, I do not have a spectrum diagnosis, but I do wonder whether I live smewhere on that arm of the galaxy.

Yes...

Date: 2013-02-25 09:24 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>>Autistic people "should" not be told what they "should" do.<<

I agree with this too. Actually I feel that way about most things and people.

*sigh*

I thought about this very hard before joining the project. I really don't like to "should" on people. However, the Google search disaster of "Autistic people should ... be killed" etc. just made me furious. I ultimately decided that death threats and other hate speech were doing more damage than another round of "should," so I did my best to help fix that.

>> No, I do not have a spectrum diagnosis, but I do wonder whether I live smewhere on that arm of the galaxy. <<

I don't either -- my linguistic aptitude is a core trait for me, whereas communication difficulty is defined as a core trait for the autistic spectrum. But quite a lot of the features do overlap. I'm sufficiently neurovariant that a great many people have told me I'm not normal, I don't think like other people, etc. (I started saying "If you're normal, then I'm glad I'm not, because you people have fucked up this planet." at a very young age.) There are some other features applying to other conditions that also overlap. I'm not an exact match for anything, which is typical of me. Just, you know, not entirely human. So I can take the common ground and build on it.

And I'm really not okay with picking on people because they're different.

Re: Yes...

Date: 2013-02-25 11:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] natalief.livejournal.com
I agree. I have posted. I apologise for being prickly and making you sigh. *hugs*

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ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)
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