One of the most difficult parts in processing my late autism identification and diagnosis (at 30 years old) is dealing with a constantly shifting perspective, specifically in comparing how I function in the world and how non-autistic people function in it.
I spent my whole life assuming my way of being was “normal” or neurotypical, but, as it turns out, neurotypical people exist in the world VERY DIFFERENTLY than I do. Every time I identify, process, and peel back a difference, I find a new one beneath. It’s extremely disorienting.
Here’s the latest paradigm shift I’ve been working through.
In my last post (Where Do Novels Go When No Agent Wants Them?), I wrote about my experience querying my novel ECHOES OF THE OLD WORLD and a couple of potential reasons why no agent made me an offer of representation. After publishing that post, a couple of threads on Twitter popped up that helped me realize I have more to say on this topic. Like, a lot more.
When I wrote and queried my novel, I had no idea I was neurodiverse (autistic, ADHD, HSP). I had no idea that the ways I interact with and perceive the world and read books and watch movies are fundamentally different than the majority of the population. I had never heard the terms neurodiverse/neurodivergent and would not have applied them to myself if I had.
I wrote ECHOES in a first-person point of view. In a lot of ways, my protagonist was a version of myself. We have our differences, but as I wrote her story, I put myself inside her head and looked through her eyes while she was simultaneously in my head…looking through my eyes… So a Russian doll kind of situation.
I knew I was putting myself into her. I didn’t know that meant I was imbuing her with autistic qualities. I didn’t know those qualities were autistic. I didn’t know that neurotypical people didn’t have those qualities or might have trouble relating to them.
Then, I self-identified as autistic, underwent assessment, and received a confirmation diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. My basic perceptions are fundamentally autistic. Most other people’s basic perceptions are fundamentally not autistic. I’ve lived 30 years without knowing about that difference.
It’s a huge mind fuck.
For example, I recently realized that I don’t think I read fiction the same way a neurotypical person does. This, because I read Madeleine Ryan’s gorgeous book A Room Called Earth, which is written in first-person stream of consciousness from the point of view of an autistic woman. I related to that character. Like, intensely. Like, to the point that I was shocked and emotional at how many times I related to her on each page. (HIGHLY recommend it. Here’s a review of A Room Called Earth I wrote for The Bookends Review.)
Ryan’s book prompted me to ask myself a new series of questions. Do neurotypical people relate to protagonists in fiction as intensely as I related to this autistic character? Have I been not relating to neurotypical fiction in that way? Have I been observing the characters in neurotypical fiction in the same way that I observe neurotypical people in real life? Is there a difference between observing and analyzing someone and understanding and relating to them?
For better or worse, I think the answer to all of these questions is, Yes.
When I queried ECHOES OF THE OLD WORLD, I received a fair amount of responses along the lines of, “didn’t connect to your character/prose as much as I’d hoped” or, “didn’t find myself relating to your protagonist/voice.” I assumed these were form rejection letters. I think for the most part they were. But as soon as I realized I was autistic and remembered these responses, I got worried. Was my fiction fundamentally incomprehensible or inaccessible to neurotypical (the majority of) readers.
Then, I saw a couple of threads on Twitter that confirmed for me that, yes, the neurotypical gatekeepers of traditionally published fiction misunderstand and reject autistic fiction all the time. Readers critique autistic elements within a novel as “not believable” or “not relatable.”
One hypothesis I take away from this is that neurotypical readers need to feel connected with their characters in a way that I, as an autistic reader, don’t.
Don’t get me wrong; relating to the autistic protagonist of A Room Called Earth was a POWERFUL experience. But I don’t have to relate to all characters to that degree to find them interesting enough to follow.
I study people. It’s a survival mechanism. My whole life, my brain has been asking how I need to act to blend in within any given situation. I absolutely do not need to relate to someone to understand them or their motivations. I do not need to feel I would have the exact same emotional reaction as a character in order to understand why they might be reacting that way.
This might be another fundamental difference between autistic and non-autistic readers: autistic readers are far more empathetic and able to analyze and understand characters within narratives. We’ve been practicing empathetic character/person reading our entire lives. We also tend to be more empathetic in general, and can empathize, even with characters with whom we have nothing in common.
I may not have the same needs in terms of character-relatability that neurotypical readers do, because in general, I don’t relate to the majority of the population. I’m used to that. It’s my normal.
So, if that’s true, the question becomes, do I as a neurodiverse writer need to account for that difference in neurotypical reader perception? How would I account for it? Especially if it’s something I can’t really see or identify? I don’t have answers to those questions, only the beginnings of thought processes that may or may not be valuable.
Another realization I’ve had through all of this is that the querying process is harder for me than for my neurotypical peers. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the querying process is traumatic to neurodiverse people. We tend to be hypersensitive to rejection. We’ve been avoiding it assiduously, consciously or subconsciously, our entire lives. I’ve always known there was something different about me, and because I’ve been consistently misunderstood, I’m sensitive to that. Rejection—especially with the reason of lack of relatability or connection—reads as a misunderstanding and a rejection of my perspective, and even me as a person.
If agents are really using this lack of relatability as a form response, I’d suggest that, in order to make the process less traumatic to neurodiverse people, they use another phrase. A simple no thanks is plenty, if the rejection is going to be a form one anyway.
As I begin to query my second novel, I’ve been experiencing a ton of anxiety. I know going in that my perspective and voice as a neurodiverse writer may not be understood, appreciated, or even wanted. I love this book, and I feel so strongly that it’s enjoyable, valuable, and well written, but going through the querying process feels like the mental equivalent of forcing myself to sit on a chair made of pins. The additional self-revelations that keep happening (will they ever stop??) just add to the emotional difficulty of the process.
This post isn’t a white flag, by any means. Writing is my lifestyle, calling, and passion. I won’t ever stop. But the querying process is starting to feel like an insurmountable obstacle. Just one more of many gates that will never be open to me.
Which is a real shame, because I and so many other neurodiverse writers out there are really, really good at what we do. The publishing industry would benefit from our voices, our dedication, our expertise, our skill, and our stories.
I can’t help but wonder if traditional publishing, and the numerous gatekeepers that maintain it, will ever be ready for us.
I wish I had a happier note to end on, fam, but this is where I’m at today. Take care of yourselves. You and your experiences are of infinite value, no matter who says otherwise.
Here are a few links you might use as starting points for further research on the neurodiverse experience and perspective. I didn’t create any of the below content, nor am I being compensated to promote it. I found it useful for myself and so am including it here.
YouTube channel: Yo Samdy Sam: Neurodiversity, Autism, and Poor Attempts at Humor