Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Writing About Neurodiversity

I don’t pretend to tell people how to write, since I’m kind of a failed writer myself and you probably shouldn’t copy me if you want a real writing career.  I do have a certain specialized form of expertise that I can share – I’m familiar with neurodiversity, even though I encountered the word for the first time last year.

It was kind of an “aha!” moment, because I’ve spent much of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has long been renowned as a notorious center of neurodivergence – or eccentricity, which is what we used to call it. One of our most beloved historical characters is a guy named Joshua A.Norton, who declared himself Emperor of the United States (and Protector of Mexico) and printed his own money – which local shopkeepers and restauranteurs honored.

I’ve always been drawn to people with unusual cognitive styles, and in fact probably am one myself, since normal people don’t usually express a desire to be science fiction writers that live in San Francisco. Thank goodness.

I look at “neuroatypical” as including people whose brains don’t function in a typical fashion for any of a myriad of reasons. Bipolar, epileptic, dementia, post-concussion, anxious, phobic, depressed, autistic, Downs, Williams, psychotic, schizophrenic, borderline, ADHD, savant, migraneur, addicted, Aspergerian, eccentric, bohemian, brain injured, neurotic, hysteric, mad – there’s a starter list of tag words describing things that can be innate or acquired which characterize neurological differences.

As for myself, the main atypical quality that I’ll cop to is being a text prodigy. I was reading at three, and able to memorize and recite long pieces like Night Before Christmas. And since I grew up surrounded by people with only a passing interest in books, I mainly perused pulp fiction, comic strip collections, Mad magazine and whatever the library had. Later on I graduated to punk zines, underground comix, banned books, RPG rulebooks and science fiction.  Whatever was cheap, within reach and had words on it. 

In fact, I’ve still got a grudge against Shakespeare. Shakespeare is for effete elitists with helicoptering parents and sweater sleeves tied around their necks who enjoy things like mindless conformity, and suburbia, and being sheltered, and worshipping the status quo.  Yeah, yeah, I know, the actual writings of Shakespeare are actually pretty cool, but when I was growing up he was emblematic of the elite education I craved but couldn’t have.  However, since the education I didn’t have would’ve happened during the Foucault years, it was probably all for the best.

Due to my linguistic precocity I got tracked with the smart kids, which is where my adventures in neurodiversity began. Individual differences in how people think has always been something I’ve found fascinating. Being a person from a small blue island in the middle of nowhere, I grew up with a lot of different coexisting states of normal in the form of cultural diversity, so I kind of drifted in the same direction once I encountered other people with unusual minds. 

An important aspect of neurodiversity has to do with the extent to which people feel disabled by their differences. To use an analogy, being nearsighted is no big deal if you’re a fisherman in a small boat on a perpetually foggy sea. If you’re a watchmaker or a miniature painter or a scribe, it’s an asset. If you’re an archer it’s a disability, and if you’re a trapeze artist it could cost you your life.

A lot of people with severe disabilities in some environments can bloom in others. For instance, I used to be passingly familiar with a subculture of deaf punk rockers (they liked the fashions and vibes even if they couldn’t technically hear the music).  I learned there are some deaf people who hang out exclusively with others, talking with their fingers and customizing their environments so that beeps and chimes are replaced by flashes and colors. They have no need for a cure, or for audio-based people, or for implants which allow the deaf to hear, or for much of the world at large.

I’ve listened to a few YouTube videos about those implants and they remind me of the original Little Mermaid story where she gained the ability to walk but every step felt like she was treading on sharp knives – harsh and grating sounds, with music reduced to staccato machine beeps. I come from a strange audio orientation myself – I like music (and can play several instruments, and run a mixing board and/or ProTools), but I grew up in a family of people who don’t really seem to notice music all that much. Which would probably be the neurotypical mode, with both music afficionados and the non-hearing off in their own separate bubbles of atypicality.

Sometimes different states of cognition aren’t in fact disabilities at all, such as the creative obsessive focus experienced by musicians and programmers. You’ve probably known a few warm and loving people who can’t fathom computers, or their opposites, highly skilled nerds that don’t understand why some people find the joke they just told is offensive, and both those subsets contain plenty of good-hearted people that keep the world running. A lot of the time neuroatypical qualities are things we all possess or sometimes do, except jacked up to a degree where they can interfere with a person’s life. It’s a good thing to check the lights before you leave the house; it can interfere if you need to do it exactly three hundred and thirty-three times or else you stress out.

From a writer’s standpoint, one thing is certain: since more and more people are atypical, atypicality is becoming a new normal, and more and more readers will be familiar with various forms of it. These readers aren’t going to like it one bit if a lazy writer falls back on old stereotypes. 

As for getting it right, there’s a lot of gray area. As a writer of fiction, I make up imaginary people and give them voices, which is not quite the same as being harassed involuntarily by hallucinatory voices stemming from an electrical malfunction in my brain. When making up these people I try to involve a little rational thought by doing research, and I do that by reading what similar people, actual people, real live flesh and blood people are saying on webpages and forums.

For example, I’m aware that people with autism have wild disagreements on The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, and most of them dislike Autism Speaks for reasons that seem valid to me. I know that when you’re hanging around with people who have gender identity issues, it’s a good idea to ask people what pronouns they prefer. I previously mentioned the bionic hearing implants, and I’ve got a passing familiarity with the controversy and have seen several of the videos (and truthfully, given the choice, I’d opt for non-hearing over implant). Some people with anxiety or depression considerations might appreciate a mention before you show them potentially upsetting art. You may have noticed I’m putting the people first, rather than the conditions – that’s the polite way to do it. And an hour or two of informally checking out subreddits or tumblr blogs or whatever your preferred form of communication is can give you a good basic familiarity with people similar to the character you’re trying to write.  

Listening to the people themselves is what’s important. Not authority figures that claim to speak for them, or books that make sweeping generalities.

Writing Neurodiverse Characters – Tips and Tricks

Consider Casting.  Having neuroatypical characters be either crazed killers or poor sweet waifs is certainly easy, but it’s kind of boring (and cliched) (and offensive). Try casting them as the love interest, or the detective, or the sidekick, or even the hero.

I’m a Writer, Not a Doctor. Go ahead and copy the descriptions from the DSM if you like, but don’t build characters around them. Most people don’t have all symptoms associated with a given disorder, and there is no One True Way to experience any given condition. It might even be a good idea to book a therapy session with someone currently providing mental health care just to make sure your plot/characters won’t make actual therapists roll their eyes and groan the way paralegals do when opposing counsel puts an undisclosed expert witness with handfuls of surprise evidence on the stand. 

Modeling Roles and Preserving Dignity. Would the character make an actual person with that condition cringe?  For example, an anxiety-prone character who snivels and whines, or a depressed character that fails suicide attempts. Obviously this can work sometimes, such as when Bean's being especially obsessive, or when Napoleon Dynamite's risking everything by doing his brave awkward little dance. There's a fine line between comedy and tastelessly mocking people for things they can't help -- ride the edge only if you're confident that you know where to find it. 

There are Entire Subcultures That Would Exclude You in a Heartbeat. But they'd accept your neuroatypical characters, and give them a cast of friends to hang out with and possibly clubs or organizations to join. In other words, neuroatypical people have lives and don't spend their evenings gazing wistfully through their windows while wishing they were normal.  Your neuroatypical characters probably chill with like minds, unless being asocial is part of their profile. 

Easy Cures are BS. True love curing major disorders is a dangerous myth that needs to die. Similarly, people whose neurons misfire can’t readily be healed by poetry, walks on the beach, religion, etc. Yes, yes, I know, your religion/diet/philosophy has extra special magical powers where all the others fail – I’d love to talk about it someday but right now I have to wax the cat.

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