Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ysabetwordsmith: Autistic People Should Tell Stories

Reprinted here with permission. Ysabetwordsmith posted it here and here.

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 Fishbowlchordatesrock 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.

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