Working While Autistic: Sometimes Good Things Come from Misunderstandings
A major challenge in the workplace — or in any social situation — for autistic people and those around them is misunderstanding. It goes both ways. Say something, and it’s likely to be interpreted in ways that are logical to the person receiving the message, but not what you expected when you said it.
As a classroom teacher, I always rejoiced when students offered a fresh interpretation or a historical event or a passage in a book, as long as they could back it up with evidence. In the humanities, there is usually no one right answer, and nothing can kill a lively discussion faster than a teacher who is clearly fishing for that answer. When that happens, open inquiry turns into a guessing game.
So, bosses and co-workers, autistic people and neurotypical people, take a step back! Embrace the different interpretation! Find out what led to it. No matter what, you will become more informed and prepared to work together. You may also discover a different way of looking at problems and working toward their solution.
I recently experienced this kind of misunderstanding, the different interpretation, that led to an innovative solution, of benefit to everyone involved. I answered a Twitter call from Alaina Leary, the social media manager of We Need Diverse Books and an editor with Gold Standard Press, who was looking for people to interview about LGBTQ+ and/or disability representation. When I received the interview questions, they were formatted as in a series of author interviews on a blog, and I answered them the same way I answered all author interviews, researching links and topics I didn’t know directly. My background is more in disability studies than LGBTQ+, so that’s mainly what I focused on, along with general issues of intersectionality that included race and ethnicity.
But when Alaina linked the piece on Twitter, it turned out to be an article for Bustle, “How YA Literature Is Leading the Queer Disabled Media Revolution,” incorporating quotes from a handful of interviewees, not including me. Nothing I said was directly included either. I’d once again misinterpreted something, and in this case felt as if I’d wasted all my time and effort. I also wondered if what I said was somehow lacking — after all, my background is disability, not LGBTQ+. So I contacted Alaina with an idea. Assuming I hadn’t made a fool of myself with my responses, should I post my interview with her on my own site — which gets a fair amount of traffic, if not the traffic of Bustle — and link my interview with her piece. She thought that was an excellent idea (and reassured me that I hadn’t made a fool of myself in the interview), as it would deepen and enhance the points she made in a piece that had a word limit. She said she’d interviewed dozens of people in the end and was sorry all their excellent contributions could not be incorporated.
So with Alaina’s permission, here’s what I’m calling the satellite interview, my effort to create something useful and original from what started as an autistic person’s (or perhaps two autistic persons’) misunderstanding of each other:
Why do you think we need more LGBTQIA+ disability representation (and overall, multiply marginalized characters) in children’s and YA literature? Why is this particularly important for this age group?
There’s a tendency for gatekeepers to want to narrow us and our characters down to one marginalization at a time; otherwise it’s “too many issues.” But real people don’t fit neatly into one category, and teens especially don’t fit into one category because this is a time when they’re coming to terms with multiple identities and experiences of marginalization. Requiring writers to choose between LGBTQIA+ and disability representation is a way of denying the complex identities of our teen readers, of making them choose.
Authors and illustrators should read books by every Own Voices author they can. One book isn’t enough because that leads to the privileging of the single story, and, besides, we need to get to know and support the work of authors of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled authors, and authors from other marginalized identities. While it’s important to use sensitivity readers and pay them, using one (or more readers) doesn’t release the writer from the responsibility to do thorough research and use primary, Own Voices sources.
Tell me about any LGBTQ+ disabled characters (particularly in kidlit or YA, but if you have others from different media such as TV shows, that works too) that you love and who you feel are well-rounded.
As far as TV, I’m at a loss because a year ago I had a dispute with a monopoly cable company that jacked up my rates, so I canceled my cable and got rid of my TV. But I do read a lot as a result, and some of the LGBTQ+ disabled characters that I’ve appreciated are Aaron Soto in Adam Silvera’s More Happy than Not and Sophie in Tess Sharpe’s Far From You. And a little bit of the topic of kidlit, but as a travel blogger among other things, I’d like to make people aware of the work of Bani Amor, who has written extensively on the politics of travel from a LGBTQ+ disabled Latinx perspective. https://baniamor.com/.
Most stories about disabled people are still focused on their disability, and that’s often their entire story. Stories about LGBTQ+ characters are improving, though many still end in tragedy or are centered solely around coming out. Why is it important to have LGBTQ+ and disabled characters who just live—who have fully fleshed out stories about their dreams, fears, careers, relationships, and identity outside of these characteristics?
Although being disabled and/or LGBTQ+ is a large part of who we are, it’s not the entire story. And there isn’t a single story, much as publishing likes the tropes, the stereotypes, the easily recognizable characters, plot twists, and outcomes. Many books featuring disabled characters are still mired in the tragic endings (especially with secondary characters) or the opposite, the miracle cure. There’s an assumption that we’re little more than our disabilities, and within that, a collection of traits downloaded from the internet. That’s a major argument for #ownvoices. Own Voices writers know intimately of our full lives, hopes and dreams, relationships, identities, and ways of seeing the world.
What stories about LGBTQ+ disabled people do you hope to see in kidlit and YA in the future?
I’d like to see more historical fiction with autistic characters and characters with other disabilities. As an autistic writer who has been obsessed with history all my life, I like to know how we got to the point where we are now, what models in the past can illuminate our present and future, and whether or not things have really changed in terms of ending the marginalization of disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color. There are a lot of stories from the past of successful resistance, and we need them right now to know what to do and expect, and so we don’t reinvent the wheel. I’d also like to see more books from around the world, including books in translation, so that we have other models and we don’t become isolated the way our current authoritarian regime would like us to be.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about LGBTQ+ disabled rep?
Yes, I don’t think enough attention has been given to the economic justice aspect of Own Voices rep, not just LGBTQ+ and disabled but also regarding writers of color. There’s a long history of Own Voices creators having their work essentially stolen and then distorted and abused by outsiders. Those creators have received no compensation for their work and in the past have suffered dispossession, incarceration/institutionalization, and extermination while powerful outsiders have profited from their creations.