Writing and Creative License: Knowing an autistic isn’t the same as being autistic

A rose by any other name and with any number of thorns is more pleasant to deal with than this book was

Pink rose being sniffed by the nose of a puppy.
Pink rose being sniffed by chihuahua-dachshund pup

In the community of writers, there is an ongoing debate about ‘#ownvoice’ writing vs. ‘writing as a creative act’, e.g. a writer’s creativity should not be shackled by their lack of personal experience. Knowing that I have little positive to say about a book that someone else labored long and hard on is something I’ve put off for months. But this is also a cautionary tale for writers about why we all need to be careful about trying to tell other peoples’ stories.

A cute puppy – Winnie – that I would rather spend time with:

Chihuahua-dachshund puppy.

There’s a great deal to be said for literary license, that allows us as creatives and writers to explore experiences that might be adjacent to what we’ve lived but aren’t our actual experience. Most writers, for example, will write both male and female point-of-view (pov) characters, while most writers will have lived from only one of those pov. . . and generally we as an audience are fine with that.

A day lily and 4th of July Rose that I would rather look at:

Orange day lily and red and white rose.

At the same time, I personally have read male writers’ women and thought, “They really don’t get it.” We – as writers – should still be allowed to explore different pov characters. And when we do, we also have to accept that we may be criticized for our take, particularly when we are writing from a pov rather far removed from our own. And when that pov represents a historically marginalized community . . . lots of room for trouble.

What is most frustrating for members of that marginalized community though, is when a book featuring ‘their’ pov is written badly by someone who is not a member of the community, yet does very well commercially. That is basically salt in the wound.

Our current case in point, The Maid.

Cover of The Maid by Nita Prose.
The neurotypicals are loving this one . . .

To summarize what at least one person has commented, Publishers and writers seem to think if they don’t name the disability, then when they are called on the inaccurate portrayal they can say, ‘well we never said the person was x’.

There are stereotypical social portrayals of autism which invariably include Obsessive Compulsive behavior, including fascination with a fixed topic; an inability to decode social norms and expectations; naivete, particularly compared to same-age peers. Throw these all onto one character and people are going to read her as autistic.

Someone who is not autistic, writing an autistic pov is fine in theory. But when the portrayal turns the character into a puppet who is manipulated (that’s an autistic reading, not at all what the writer was going for) by the neurotypical characters who are ‘helping’ her – by having her rehearse lines to say, saving her when she’s in legal trouble, and caretaking her because she is portrayed as unable to be truly independent – well, don’t be surprised when autistic readers are offended.

Neurotypical readers, however, seem to generally love this story. They are amused by the ‘quirky’ pov, while being able to identify with her saviors who swoop in at key moments. They are not relegated to being the character who is incapable of orchestrating her own narrative. She’s the woodchip, they’re the waves who move her.

A Collie, whose barking I would rather listen to:

Collie dog standing outside on a summer day.
Close up of collie dog

Note: because this whole endeavor has cost me a lot of spoons (please lookup spoon-theory if this is not a familiar term) I have randomly included images in this post that make me much happier than the topic itself has.

Neurodivergent readers: This is going to be turned into a film. And we all know the likelihood of them choosing a neurodivergent actor to play Molly is as low as it is likely that Ballantine Books will follow this book up with several written by #actuallyautistic writers.

Dr. Christy Oslund: Introduction

As a dyslexic, autistic etc. who wasn’t diagnosed until after graduate school, I’m owning that doctorate; it took a wicked large amount of work, pain, and perseverance. It is possible to overcome tremendous odds to reach a goal, something I like the young people I mentor and teach to remember. Some things are impossible – others are just really, really difficult.

I began writing as a child first and foremost to communicate. Language was often difficult and seldom captured what I was trying to say. I started by writing notes for my mother and leaving them on her bed, trying to explain things that had happened during the day. Then I wrote some stories, to imagine a world where things that I wanted to happen, did happen, even if they only happened for other people. Finally, I began to write books.

From the summer garden

My non-fiction was the first that was published and was directly related to what I live and breathe for my livelihood: disability support, services, and studies.

Succeeding as a Student with a Disability: https://us.jkp.com/products/succeeding-as-a-student-in-the-stem-fields-with-an-invisible-disability?_pos=2&_sid=f54ae7c3c&_ss=r

Supporting College and University Students with Disabilities: https://us.jkp.com/products/supporting-college-and-university-students-with-invisible-disabilities?_pos=1&_sid=f54ae7c3c&_ss=r

Disability Services and Disability Studies in Higher Ed: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9781137502445

While I continued to write fiction off and on for family and friends, three strokes in a year put a damper on my writing for a while. After a couple of years of recovery, I went back to writing, gradually increasing the length of my projects. Then covid hit.

That’s when I decided to start killing people.

Houghton, Michigan. Remote. Isolated. Home to a fantastic STEM research university. A good place to off-victims, while continuing to work my day job.

And so I began writing what I am tentatively calling my Copper Country Mystery Series. Eventually, my investigators will have to branch out and investigate crime in other areas of Michigan and probably the northern-midwest. But we’re always going to come back to solve crime in the area we love.

I have a growing list of ways to do people in but if you have a location that you think is perfect for a crime, or a way of doing someone in that you’ve always wanted to see explored, or a thinly disguised person you’d like to see at least fictionally get theirs, please pass it on!

Adopted by a writer: talk about a reason to kill