Tag: inclusive

Own Voices and Neurodiversity

Own Voices and Neurodiversity

The idea of ‘own voices’ in publishing has been in mainstream thought since at least 2018. It’s a highly controversial and rapidly evolving area of debate. At its core is the question, should stories about minorities only be written by minorities? If you’re interested in reading more, there are lots of articles about it (such as this one). I’m not going to delve into them here. Instead, I’m focusing on why I think the publishing industry needs to give more consideration to ways it can be more inclusive of neurodiverse own voices. What is contained here is personal opinion.

Media and Stereotypes

I have written a book where the central female character is autistic. She was based on me, but I didn’t know I was autistic then. So I didn’t consciously write her as autistic. Now I totally understand she is. But she doesn’t fit the autism stereotype. And there is a very good reason for that. The depiction of autistic people in books, tv and movies is usually done by non-autistics.

The reason I didn’t realise I was autistic for (mumble) years was because when I looked at the criteria they didn’t fit me – but that was because the criteria were not written by autistic people. Neurotypical psychologists wrote them based on their interpretation of autistic behaviour, according to their understanding of ‘normal’ ways of thinking and acting. My knowledge of why I behave in certain ways is entirely different.

The same applies in books and media. Too often neurodiverse characters are written by someone who is on the outside looking in, without a proper understanding of the internal reality. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Good Doctor, Rainman – these all miss the mark for various reasons. But they can lead neurotypical people to think they understand autism, which perpetuates stereotypes. The best depiction I’ve seen of a female with autism is Amelie (the French movie), and no one ever even comments that she’s autistic.

The problem with all of this for the publishing industry is that publishers looking for autistic ‘own voices’ are at risk of missing them. If their understanding of autism is based on the outsider-looking-in stereotypes, they’re not going to understand they’re seeing an insider’s lived experience when they read something written by an autistic writer. So they’re not going to think it’s a good depiction of autism. Which means autistic authors will struggle to have their voices be heard.


People dancing inside a building. Image is blurred, with dim lighting and light flares. Picture aims to depict the sensory overload experience of neurodiverse people.
Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

In the neurotypical world, people often achieve their goals through socialising with people, because you make the right contacts, and people are more inclined to help their friends. As an autistic person this usually feels like a club I’ve never been invited to join. Aspiring and emerging writers are told to network if they want to achieve a writing career. Go to writers’ festivals and talk to people. Have a drink with them at the pub after the formal events. There are a couple of problems with this advice for people on the spectrum.

  1. socialising is extremely difficult – having a drink at the pub is a nightmare for me because of the over-stimulation of the setting. Too much noise – music and conversation. Too many smells and things going on around me. My brain freezes up and I can’t function. And groups of more than about 3 people are impossible for me to manage. My social skills deficit means I can’t catch the flow of the conversation, and I end up being left out.
  2. my experience of groups throughout my life has generally been traumatic – I have often been excluded, or even actively bullied. So group social events are also traumatic. Give me a one on one conversation and I’m fine. Put me at a table with a number of people and I fade into the background. My life experience tells me it’s safer that way.

Being Part of the Writers Community

The other side of the networking advice emphasised since the advent of social media has been to become part of writers’ online communities. Read others’ books and review them. Like others’ Facebook pages.

Being neurodiverse generally comes with a range of executive dysfunctions. I keep my workload as limited as possible because if it becomes too large I hit a wall and I can’t do anything. I can barely manage getting my own writing done on top of being a parent of 2 autistic kids and trying to earn an income – let alone being organised enough to regularly review others’ books or join their Facebook groups and engage.

It’s not that I don’t want to. I’m desperate to be as supportive of other writers as I can. But my brain literally can’t manage too much. If I don’t keep my to do list tiny, my brain crashes. However, if you want a person to talk to when you are struggling, who will listen to your difficulties and give you her time and attention, that’s me.

Neurodiverse Authors are Worth It

Woman in blue glasses lying in a field of daisies, with rainbow light blurs around her. Purpose of image is to depict the different way neurodivergent people see the world.
Photo by Dimitry Zub from Pexels

I’m biased, of course, but I think making room for neurodiverse authors at the table will yield huge benefits. I’ve tackled this previously in my article The Introvert Paradox, which I wrote before I realised I wasn’t just introverted, but actually autistic. So I’d add more points now:

Autistic authors have valuable contributions to make as writers and speakers because think very deeply about things and want to be authentic. Several times when I’ve been on a panel at a writers festival, I’ve had people come up and thank me because I’ve dived into a topic more deeply and openly than sometimes happens at festivals. My books explore complex concepts because those are what interest me.

And because of my/our special interests, we really know our stuff. We can build detailed worlds with every single aspect considered and developed. We will research what we are writing about until someone tells us to stop, and beyond. And we can talk about it in detail – if you will let us.

Thirdly, we do bring a different perspective because we see the world in a different way. Embracing autistic own voices will make the world more interesting. When I finished my creative writing degree, I felt a deep sense of despair because I realised how differently I saw things. I thought I wouldn’t find a home for my writing because my way of seeing the world wasn’t like others. Now I think my different perspective is an asset.

Tips for Own Voices Inclusivity

I’ve had some fabulous experiences of inclusivity since I’ve been a published author. I want to to say a huge thanks particularly to the Historical Novel Society of Australasia and the Bendigo Writers Festival, who have always made me feel valued and included. But other forums have been more challenging. If I was able to talk to publishers and agents, what would I say?

  1. Don’t look for neurodiverse writers through regular networking (being at the bar etc.). We’ll be the ones having a quiet dinner at the restaurant next door with one other person instead.
  2. If you’re running pitch sessions, neurodiverse people need more time due to our executive dysfunctions. We don’t perform well under pressure as our brains freeze. If you throw questions at them, they may not be able to answer them, not because they don’t know the answer, but because they haven’t been given processing time. If you ask them to send you an email with their answer later, you’ll receive a detailed, considered response.
  3. When you’re organising social events at festivals, if possible, have 2 spaces – one with loud music etc. for those who want to ‘party’ and one that is quieter and more chill for the neurodiverse. At the Gold Coast Film Festival this week, drinks were outdoors in the afternoon, which was much more manageable for me as there weren’t neon lights and loud music to shut me down from sensory overload. And Continuum convention always has a quiet room for people who need to go and recharge their energetic batteries – a must for the neurodiverse!
  4. At public events make sure your facilitation is neurodiverse friendly. If you give me questions in advance I’m going to prepare answers for them – so don’t change the questions on the spot when I get there because I don’t cope with change very well.

As with all my blog posts, what I end up saying falls short of what I want to say. That’s because as an autistic person I want to explain everything fully and in detail, covering every single point. But I hope you’ve found something helpful in here on the topic of own voices.