March 22, 2022

“When Something Finally Clicks”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 8:09 pm by chavisory

Hi all! This week I reviewed Mickey Rowe’s debut book, Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage for the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism! You can read it here.

March 4, 2022

What feeling represented feels like

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by chavisory

I actually wrote this a few years ago, and for a long time I thought it was the bones of something else, before realizing it actually was what it was. I’m posting it between the occasions of this year’s coming release of season 4 of Stranger Things, and the recent death of author Gary Paulsen (1939-2021).

*

One day in 2017 I spend a rainy day off watching Stranger Things, and immediately afterwards start obsessively reading reviews and commentary. And I know by now I shouldn’t feel the wind knocked out of me when I read someone say things like “Sometimes she seems like a real person…at others she’s little more than a plot device,” or even “the ultimate in lazy sexist tropification,” but I still do. It happens every time. If I really, really love and identify with a character, and go looking for what other people have said about her.

Like I feel like I should just be used to the fact, by now, that every time I strongly and viscerally identify with a female character, she will be declared nothing like a real girl, and I can’t help but suspect that has some relationship to the frequency with which, growing up, I was told in effect that I had to be mistaken about what I was experiencing, because that’s not how things really are for people. That real people don’t work like that.

But Eleven disguised, in that ill-fitting dress and blond wig, looks the way I felt every time, when I was her age, that someone made me dress up kind of like their idea of a real girl.

I hated the way I looked like a boy in an uncomfortable girl suit with a tight collar, told to keep my hair out of my face.

She looks the way that felt.

And how everyone blames her for not being able to explain what she knows.

And only really value her for what she can do.

The way no one really thinks about what anything costs her.

The way they expect her to know things she couldn’t possibly, and the way she just says “no” to demands she knows she can’t meet.

*

At some point a popular blog publishes an honor roll of books containing examples of good representation of disabled people. It doesn’t make me want to read any of them.

The protagonists all sound like solutions to math problems, and I just don’t care.

*

Eleven has a back story that no one would believe even if she could tell it.

Treadway Blake can’t say “I’m sorry” in words, only in anonymously mailed sheet music and elaborate secret murder plots.

Amy Pond and Olivia Dunham both know what it feels like to exist in two different whole sets of memories.  I feel myself being re-embodied back into the world I belong to as Peter and Olivia do the same—Peter keeps defiantly being a person in a version of the universe he was erased from, Olivia learning how to live with memories of a whole life she wasn’t supposed to have had.

*

There were two books I had to read in 5th grade for the lunchtime book club. One was called On My Honor, and it was by far the more critically acclaimed, and one was There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, and that was the one I loved.

The main character was a boy who was nothing like me in a lot of ways, who was actually more like some of the real-life classmates I found incredibly grating. But he felt like he couldn’t get anything right, and he talked to his stuffed animals.

My mother asked which one I liked more and I told her, and she said “No, really?”  I don’t remember what I said when she tried to make me explain why. Probably “I don’t know.” I had too much alexithymia and not enough abstract language to say something like Bradley behaves in ways other people find immature and aggravating because he feels unheard and alienated by the social expectations of his peers.

“I just did.”

The American Girl dolls and books had become a huge hit around the same time that I had developed an obsession with 19th-century pioneer life. But whenever I got bought any American Girl things, they were Samantha’s.

Kirsten felt shabby and insufficient and alone in her new world, where she struggled to make herself understood or valued in an unfamiliar language.

Samantha was elegant, articulate, polished, at home in her own skin, and seemed to have the world handed to her again and again in a way I found baffling. People listened to her. Adults believed her. She looked more like me, with her dark bangs, but I couldn’t figure out why, otherwise, I was supposed to like her more, why I was supposed to be more like her.

When I first read The Lacuna, I didn’t even like the writing that much right away, but—and I couldn’t put my finger on why at first—Harrison Shepherd felt more like a real person to me than like a character. I actually thought, “I don’t like the writing that much but I like this kid.” I still feel guilty analyzing details of his characterization as if he’s a literary creation; it feels like betraying his privacy. He feels like a person.

And yes, he’s a multiply marginalized person, and yes, that’s significant, but that’s not why.

It’s the way he compares the tactile experiences of mixing plaster and making pastry dough.

“Mrs. Brown,” he says later, “I have an odd impairment.”

*

I’ve been thinking lately about how a lot of the social justice movement often treats people like collections of identities, and not actually like…people. I think those can look like the same thing, but they’re not.

*

I see these lists go around about how to write an autistic character or how to write a disabled character, and I’ve contributed to some, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about them, or where they miss the mark, even when I mostly agree with them.

Almost without exception, they start with “Say their diagnosis.” But we still live in a time when that isn’t the life that a whole lot of us have lived. A lot of our actual lives are going to fail those checklists and I don’t understand why I’m supposed to feel more represented by characters written as if experiences that broadly resemble mine are off-limits, or should be.

I read this list of books being honored for their representation of disabled characters and I can barely make it through some of the synopses.

But near the beginning of Zodiac, I watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s character walk into a conference room of fellow journalists who all act like they can’t hear him speak, and this character wasn’t created to make me feel represented (indeed, he is actually based on a real person), but I have never, ever, ever seen this experience—one of the earliest memories I have, one of the core constants of my whole life—represented on screen from the point of view of the person being targeted by it.

If there is a common thread to my experience of fiction, it’s probably that I fail to identify with the characters I’m supposed to, and do with the ones I’m not.

And sometimes these listicles about how to write an autistic character that I’m supposed to identify with just make my heart sink, because my life doesn’t add up right in this checklist, either.

In a way, it feels like yet another way in which disabled people are held to standards that non-disabled people aren’t in order to be considered good or real.

*

Part of why I think, even with so much guidance that now exists about how to write an autistic character, that I still usually find coded- or accidentally-autistic characters better-written than explicitly-identified ones, is that, when you can’t lean on clinical language or community-approved terminology lists to do your work for you, at all, you have to actually just write the experience. You have to show and not tell. You have to really be in your character’s head, and I’m afraid that a lot of the guidance I see on writing good representation, rather than helping in that regard, is actually just leading writers to believe that they can’t, that they shouldn’t, deeply and viscerally identify with their characters in certain ways if they don’t share a facet of their identity. And, as I’ve said before, I don’t think that prohibition serves either artistry or empathy.

“Write about us, but don’t write our stories.”

Well, I don’t want to read about a character if I’m not reading some facet of their story. What is the point?

*

If I’m thankful in one way for growing up not knowing the word for what I was, it’s that I never really had occasion to ask “What does this have to do with me?” when faced with the stories of people purportedly not like me in fiction or history. Any story might give me some vital clue about how to identify or understand my own experience. I had no basis on which to be picky about who was or wasn’t similar enough to me in some arbitrary way to warrant my attention, especially since a lot of characters with lives that looked like mine didn’t actually make any sense to me. I grew up surrounded by people who looked like me. But nobody was like me.

Attractive and graceful upper-middle class white girls with tight-knit friend groups and lives that added up and adults who were a dependable source of support just didn’t say anything for me. Those weren’t reliable signals.

So there was no real barrier to perceiving something important to me in the stories of Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, or a boy stranded alone in the woods in a plane crash, or an Inuit girl who leaves a home where she’s not welcome to live with a pack of wolves, or the kind and humble daughter of an African king.

I don’t identify with characters because they look like me. I do when they feel like me.

When Jodie Whittaker becomes the 13th Doctor, I read the status of an immensely well-intentioned male friend, who says “Listen guys, for 54 years, we’ve always been able to see ourselves in the Doctor. And now it’s the other half of the population’s turn.”

And don’t get me wrong, I loved the casting choice. I love Jodie Whitaker’s work. I was happy, and I thought it was exciting, and right.

But the other thing is that I’ve never not been able to see myself in the Doctor just because he was a man. (Except, really, he’s a two-hearted humanoid alien masquerading as our preconception of a “man,” but, details.) I’m confused by and then I resent the implication that I never got to see myself in the Doctor when I did.

I agree that it’s ridiculous the way so many men insisted they wouldn’t be able to empathize with a female Doctor. Why is it not absurd to assume that people like me could never have empathized or identified ourselves with a male one?

I love the casting of a woman partly because I think male Whovians should get a chance to have that experience.

But I wasn’t not having it all along.

December 11, 2021

Beacon Broadside’s Top Ten!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

Hi all! I’m working on getting a couple of real posts up pretty soon, but in the meantime, I was recently thrilled to be notified that my column, “Dear Parents: ‘Autistic’ Isn’t a Bad Word” was one of Beacon Press’s top ten blog posts in the Beacon Broadside this year!

If you missed it the first time around, you can find a link to the original post as well as to the Beacon Broadside’s other nine top posts for the year here!

September 7, 2021

Interview with author Elena Taylor!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 12:44 am by chavisory

I was so happy to be able to do this interview recently with my old friend and favorite mystery author Elena Taylor for her own blog, along with my Sincerely, Your Autistic Child co-editors Sharon and Morénike and our contributor Lei Wiley-Mydske! We all talk a bit about disability acceptance, finding places we felt accepted in the world, and what inspired the chapters we wrote for the anthology.

And if you’re into mystery, Elena writes both the Eddie Shoes and Sheriff Bet Rivers series of mysteries! I very strongly recommend both. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, All We Buried kept me up many nights promising myself I would finish just one more chapter….

No, just one more chapter….

Really, just one more….

July 24, 2021

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 12:22 am by chavisory

“Many people, again lay and professional alike, believe that all people with autism are by definition incapable of communicating, that they do not experience emotions, and that they cannot care about other people or the world around them. My experience, both personally and with others like me, is that in many cases quite the opposite is true. A significant number of autistic people who care deeply about all manner of things, and are profoundly emotional about them, share these capabilities in the privacy of their journals, diaries, and poetry. they do not show them to the world, which is too intense and often too destructive or, worse, dismissive. They do not show them to professionals, whose beliefs about the abilities of autistic people and the power they wield over their clients sometimes make them too frightening to challenge. They do not even show them to one another. And so a vast resource of knowledge about the diversity and beauty of autism rests on countless pages, like layers of archaeology, covered with the dust of fear.”

-Dr. Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation

June 13, 2021

Complex Personhood

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 5:56 pm by chavisory

Currently obsessed with this quote from Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, by Avery F. Gordon.

“It has always baffled me why those most interested in understanding and changing the barbaric domination that characterizes our modernity often–not always–withhold from the very people they are most concerned with the right to complex personhood. Complex personhood is the second dimension of the theoretical statement that life is complicated. Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others. Complex personhood means that people suffer graciously and selfishly too, get stuck in the symptoms of their troubles, and also transform themselves. Complex personhood means that those called ‘Other’ are never never that. Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward. Complex personhood means that people get tired and some are just plain lazy. Complex personhood means that groups of people will act together, that they will vehemently disagree with and sometimes harm each other, and that they will do both at the same time and expect the rest of us to figure it out for ourselves, intervening and withdrawing as the situation requires. Complex personhood means that even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of value are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning.”

May 28, 2021

Fiction does affect reality. That’s good.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 6:09 pm by chavisory

Only in the last couple of years, after a couple of decades of being too busy with work and other things, have I started to reconnect with online fan culture.

And it’s not that I expected everything to have just stayed the same since I was in college. I had entirely missed some major events in internet fandom like Strikethrough and Boldthrough and the subsequent establishment of Archive of Our Own.

I was surprised, however, by the emergence of a faction of fans, who seem to be primarily younger and socially left-leaning, sometimes called the “antis” (short for “anti-shippers”), noted for their opposition to the depiction of certain kinds of romantic or sexual relationships and other problematic elements, especially in fanfiction accessible to minors, based on their conviction that “fiction affects reality.”

It isn’t that this position didn’t exist in the 1990’s, or far earlier, or that I’d never encountered it before. But it primarily existed among the socially conservative political right, who believed that access to certain video games risked turning teenagers into murderers and carjackers, that Marilyn Manson’s music was responsible for the Columbine massacre, and that people my age couldn’t be trusted with the books I was assigned to read for AP English, and attempted to legally restrict the distribution of what they considered indecent media on the internet in draconian (and ultimately unconstitutional) ways.

Its prevalence among young, nominally progressive readers feels new and alarming. (And I’m tempted to connect it to illiberal trends in current left-wing activism more generally, but that might be beyond the scope of this post.)

And it’s not that I don’t believe that fiction has the power to affect reality, and to deeply impact people, but it has started to seem to me that even in our defense of problematic and difficult media, there has been a tendency to refute the notion that fiction affects reality in ways as simplistic as these people claim, without challenging the premise that the primary effects of media on reality are dangerous and bad.

Image description: Tumblr post with the name of original poster blurried reads “People really need to realize that “media can affect real life” doesn’t mean “this character does bad things so people will read that and start doing bad things” and actually means “ideas in fiction especially stereotypes about minority groups can affect how the reader views those groups, an authors implicit prejudices can be passed on to readers”

When we talk about how fiction affects reality, I don’t think we should just be talking about how media’s potential for negative or morally insidious impact on our beliefs is nowhere near as one-dimensional as the antis’ and “fiction affects reality” alarmists would have us believe. I think we also need to be unafraid to talk about how fiction affects reality in complex and subtle ways for the better, and not only in ways that are differently or more subtly bad. And I think we need to talk about mental autonomy and how we are not simply automatons of the media we consume, but have the ability and the right to reflect critically on what we read and watch.

One of the things that fiction enables me to do, for instance, when I see a character I like or identify with in some way making what I’d consider to be immoral choices, is to consider the thought process by which they arrived at those decisions, and how even good qualities in a person can become moral weaknesses, and proactively consider how I might do better or differently when faced with a similar situation.

Fiction teaches that you can empathize with someone as a person but not necessarily condone what they do.

Fiction can ask us to consider the value and validity of lives very different from our own. Fiction can further entrench harmful stereotypes of minorities, but it can also challenge those stereotypes and prejudices in readers.

Fiction can show us admirable characters who we can look to as examples of the kind of people we want to be and the kind of behavior we want to emulate.

Fiction inculcates empathy and identification with others to such an extent that I’ve heard it said before that the rise of the novel as a literary form may’ve contributed to the decline in popularity of public executions as family entertainment.

Fiction can ask us to imagine the ways in which the world could be better, and how we might choose to live differently.

Fiction can warn us of dangerous ideologies and the impact of things like fundamentalism and authoritarianism on people in the real world. There is a reason that authority figures bent on control and repression of others’ freedom of conscience, personal autonomy, sexuality and LGBTQ+ acceptance, for instance, so often attempt to restrict children’s access to literature about oppression and about the experiences of marginalized and persecuted people.

Fiction has the power to tell people that they aren’t alone in the world in whatever they’re going through, and to give people ways to articulate their experiences to others, to themselves, and to seek support, clarity, and greater control over their own lives.

It isn’t just that the power of fiction and media isn’t that bad; it’s that it has the capacity to be a powerful force for good—for compassion, self-knowledge, and freedom. And this isn’t only true of works written to be uplifting, un-problematic, or comforting. I think storytelling like that absolutely has its place, but the best of what literature and media can do for us can be equally true of works that are brutally dark or morally complicated, in which people do and believe and experience terrible things.

When I was a teenager, we broadly opposed those who wanted to take access to art and literature away from us. We defended our abilities to watch and read difficult media. We saw and read a lot of things that we were probably too young for, that depicted horrifying things. I honestly think we’re better off for it.

May 5, 2021

“Coming of Age” interview

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:08 pm by chavisory

“For me, anyway, the irony is that a lot of the strengths of autism have to be spent on navigating or compensating for the ways in which our society is still very hostile toward autistic people. And I think a lot about the kinds of things we might be able to create or accomplish if we all had the support that we need or weren’t required to expend a lot of our energy and cognitive bandwidth having to look out for ourselves in ways that non-autistic and non-disabled people don’t, if we didn’t have to leverage our strengths so hard just to survive.”

Photo credit: Charlie Stern

I had a great time doing this interview with with Beacon Press editorial intern Evangelyn Beltran, which is out in the Beacon Broadside this week! In addition to discussing autistic identity, I talk about growing up undiagnosed in the 1980’s, and stage managing while autistic.

It’s the third part of a series, “Coming of Age and Living Authentically on the Autism Spectrum,” with my co-editors Sharon daVanport and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu! Sharon’s interview is here and Morénike’s is here!

April 26, 2021

Dear Parents: On the importance of community language for autistic people

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:31 am by chavisory

I keep forgetting to post this here, but in connection with the publication of Sincerely, Your Autistic Child, I have an op-ed published in the Beacon Broadside about the importance to kids and families of having access to language to talk about autistic identity and our disability communities.

“There’s nothing shameful about being autistic. Nothing about knowing and understanding our linguistic history detracts from your child’s individuality or personhood. And there’s nothing trivial or strange about having discussions about autistic identity.”

You can read the rest of “Dear Parents: ‘Autistic’ Isn’t a Bad Word” here!

March 29, 2021

Sincerely, Your Autistic Child

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:07 pm by chavisory

Well, I’ve got a happy announcement about how I’ve been spending my time this pandemic, in addition to doing a little bit of hiking, and harassing our building management into fixing our apartment, while I wait for my industry to get back on its feet…

A few years ago, the organization I volunteered for, AWN, self-published our first anthology, What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, of seventeen essays by autistic people writing directly to parents about what we wanted them to know as people who had been autistic girls, particularly because at the time, so little information for parents from other autism organizations had much to say about the unique and specific experiences and needs of autistic girls.

Since that time, our name has changed to the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, and our mission and goals have expanded to more fully include people of all gender minorities and not just women and girls, and then last spring we learned that Beacon Press had chosen that book for republication. And so over the last eight months, my co-editors Sharon and Morénike and I have been hard at work with our team at Beacon on giving the book an expansion and update, including a new Letter from the Editors, chapters by six new contributors, new cover design, and perhaps most noticeably, a new title! We’re so happy about how it’s turned out, and that our little book will once again be available, just in time for Autism Acceptance Month this year, this time as Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance, and Identity.

Pre-orders are open now, and it will be available everywhere including Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or from the Beacon Press website on March 31! We hope you’ll check it out or share it with the family of an autistic kid in your life!

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