Autistic Book Party, Episode 51: Every Mountain Made Low

Today’s Book: “Every Mountain Made Low” by Alex White.

The Plot: Loxley Fiddleback, a disabled woman in a strange dystopian pit of a city who has the ability to see ghosts, sets out to avenge her only friend’s murder.

Autistic Character(s): Loxley, our protagonist.

I want to talk about Loxley first, before I talk about anything else. Loxley is a fascinating character. She also illustrates one of the problems I have with how autistic characters are marketed (or not marketed) to the public. The back cover of “Every Mountain Made Low” says:

Loxley isn’t equipped to solve a murder: she lives near the bottom of a cutthroat, strip-mined metropolis known as “The Hole,” suffers from crippling anxiety and doesn’t cotton to strangers.

“Crippling anxiety” is such an inaccurate description on the publisher’s part that I’m still mad about it. There are some autistic people who could forgivably be mistaken for anxious NTs. People who mostly pass, but are afraid to leave their house or socialize because they don’t know how it works, etc. It is very apparent even from the early pages of the book that Loxley is not one of these people.

Indeed, while nobody in this book seems to know the word “autism,” Loxley doesn’t pass at all. Her movements, speech, and thinking are visibly different from those of the people around her, in ways that result in other characters calling her slurs (including the R-word) with depressing frequency. Under stress, she often stops understanding speech altogether. Loxley is not a “low-functioning” stereotype – she works three jobs! – but all of those jobs would be impossible without informal accommodations made by pitying NTs, and the pitying NTs aren’t usually nice about it. Sensory overload makes functioning in many everyday environments impossible for her, and even carrying on a conversation in the expected way is difficult, let alone making friends.

(At some point a character also calls Loxley a “mongoloid,” which suggests that she might have both Down syndrome and autism; or maybe that character is just an extra special bigot. It’s not clear.)

I’m not even sure I would classify Loxley as having anxiety (in the sense of an anxiety disorder) at all. She is fearful when she encounters new things, overloading things, ghosts who she believes will literally kill her if they get too close (although the reality turns out to be more complex), and things that contradict her worldview. She experiences sensory overload very intensely, but overload and fear are not the same emotion. Otherwise, much of her behavior in the book is actually quite bold.

Loxley’s narrative voice consistently does a thing that I really enjoy. A lot of books from the POV of autistic characters focus on trying to explain to NT readers why the autistic character behaves the way they do. This can be bad (an othering Autism Voice) or good (as in the case of books like On the Edge of Gone, which humanize their narrators by explaining exactly what about a given situation is so stressful for them).

“Every Mountain Made Low” seems to gleefully do the opposite. Loxley’s thought processes are shown the way any narrator’s would be, and there is certainly an internal logic to them, but it is a logic that doesn’t seem to care at all if NT readers will find it logical:

She kept her hands close together, humming and picking at the plastic as quickly as she could. She had to get that tape off. No one should tape stuff to themselves, because now, instead of skin, she had tape there. She had to get her skin back. She wanted to explain, but all that came out were jumbled noises, probably because of the tape.

This kind of thinking feels real and familiar to me, especially from times when I am more overwhelmed, but it’s something I rarely see narrated in this way and I love it.

The Hole where Loxley lives is more or less literally a hellhole, arranged in nine concentric circles of increasing squalor and misery. The misery comes from unfettered capitalism and social inequality, not from any divine source, but the Hole also holds many secrets, and ghosts are not the only supernatural thing Loxley will encounter before the book is done.

The sheer dystopianness of “Every Mountain Made Low” can make it a difficult read, especially in the first few chapters, in which Loxley goes about her daily life and terrible things keep on happening to her – including an attempted sexual assault. The assault at first felt gratuitous to me, but I realized later in the book that it is actually a pivotal moment in Loxley’s character arc. Her mother, long dead when the story begins, gave Loxley many rules about what was and wasn’t safe; when Loxley is assaulted by someone her mother told her to trust, she begins to realize that what her mother told her is not always true. While Loxley has realistic trauma from the assault, it’s also a moment she returns to as she grows: while her previous life crumbles around her, she learns to discard the rules she was taught and make her own. It’s a difficult but important arc to see for an autistic character, when in real life we’re so often given oversimplified social rules that don’t actually keep us safe.

The setting never stops being dystopian as heck, but it begins to feel less oppressive after the first 1/3 or so, as Loxley becomes are more active character who navigates the Hole as she wishes and determines her own destiny.

In fact, it can be startling how active a character Loxley becomes once her friend Nora dies, and once she sets herself to avenging Nora’s murder. In one of the first such moments, trapped in a car with the head villain and his henchmen, Loxley calmly informs the head villain that she is going to kill him. It isn’t bluster, nor even a threat in the usual sense; in Loxley’s mind, it is a fact, and there is no reason not to state facts when asked.

These moments continue throughout the rest of the book. Loxley has an assertiveness, once her mind is set on a course of action, that is entirely and wonderfully autistic; and she has the capacity for violence, when cornered, to back it up. If I refer to her actions as startling, it’s because of how rarely a character like Loxley in fiction is allowed to be violent and assertive. If Loxley were a neurotypical man mourning the death of a woman, her actions would be entirely within the bounds of what action/thriller stories of this type allow. But for someone like Loxley to take on the role of the vengeful, punishing action hero is entirely unexpected and wonderful. It’s an approach that doesn’t win Loxley many friends, but one that ultimately leads to her victory.

Another ability Loxley has is that, as she interacts more with certain ghosts, she starts to have flashes of memory from their point of view, and to be able to call up some of their skills when needed – including social skills. For example, she calls up Nora’s insight in order to ask a favor from her employer more effectively:

She sounded just like Nora. She wasn’t Nora, but she could conjure all the turns of phrase and speech of the dead woman. She could hold her body in such a way as to make it more appealing. It wasn’t as though she could draw forth the ghost’s memories, but she could sense its subtle influence on her mind. She could look at Don’s face without trying to puzzle through the multitude of muscles that created his expression.

It can be dangerous to give autistic characters skills like this – magical abilities that can make them less autistic when the plot requires it. (I previously complained about the use of such an ability in “Mouse.“) Here I think it works a bit better than it did in “Mouse,” for a couple of reasons. Loxley doesn’t overrely on her ability; it’s one tool in her inventory, and one that comes with a heavy, exhausting cost. It also has longer-lasting, subtler consequences. Loxley sometimes behaves, under the ghosts’ influence, in ways that she didn’t expect to. Rather than clarifying everything, the ghosts’ perspective often leaves her with difficult questions about the world that she inhabits and the people she thought she knew in life.

There is one major flaw with this book, however, and it’s to do with the treatment of race.

One of the beliefs Loxley was taught by her mother, and has to eventually discard, is that black people are untrustworthy. Early on in the book she refuses a black man’s help for precisely this reason. Just as with her mother’s other erroneous teachings, she eventually learns better, even ending up with a black friend and a black love interest who are two of the most sympathetic characters in the book. But this doesn’t happen until much later, by which time many readers of color will already have been thrown out of the narrative.

When she does get the chance to interact with a group of black people, Loxley unthinkingly parrots several of her mother’s statements about them. The only pushback she gets is a mild, “Your mother was kind of a racist, wasn’t she?” Loxley learns that her beliefs about black people were incorrect, but she doesn’t learn that they were wrong in any ethical sense, nor does it seem to be important to any of the black characters that she learn this. At another point in the book, Loxley is startled and distressed when she learns that Nora had unspoken ableist attitudes, but she never makes the inference that her racist thoughts, spoken or unspoken, might have been equally distressing to her black friends. Nor, for that matter, does it present any obstacle to her romantic relationship with a black woman who says her own set of casually ableist things.

Even though several black characters in the latter half of the story are quite sympathetic, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that the “good” black people are portrayed as being people who don’t challenge Loxley about her racist statements – and who, incidentally, both end up making immense personal sacrifices for Loxley’s sake.

Loxley’s racism doesn’t feel necessary to the story. It doesn’t seem to be an inherent part of the setting, at least not to the degree that Loxley experiences it (a scene from Nora’s perspective merely neutrally notes that “people of all colors” are present in a room, while Loxley at the beginning of the story appears to be entirely unfamiliar with interacting with black people). And while it serves as an example of an incorrect belief of her mother’s that Loxley needs to unlearn, there are plenty of other examples that already do that job in the narrative.

Readers who like the sound of “Every Mountain Made Low,” but want a better book where race is concerned, might instead try the equally gritty “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon.

Despite these missteps, my overall impression of “Every Mountain Made Low” was positive. It’s a memorable book with a tense and compelling plot which was hard for me to put down once it got going, and it features a strong autistic protagonist of a type I’ve never seen before. The world of autistic SFF characters is richer for having Loxley Fiddleback in it. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Alex White’s books.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

Disclosure: I have briefly corresponded with Alex White online.

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Cool Story, Bro: Things I Loved Reading In November and December

It’s been that time of year, where people are frantically posting lists of everything they wrote in 2018, and everybody who has work coming out in December cries because the lists start in November and 2018 isn’t over yet, dammit.

For me, my best discoveries in November came from reading back over the year’s worth of some of my favorite publications, and some intriguing things I’d bookmarked early in the year, but hadn’t gone thoroughly over yet.

Here are four late-year recommendations from me – three of which are poems.

*

Stefanie Elrick, “Prism” (Apex Magazine, Issue 111, August)

This story is absolutely mesmerizing. Hypnotic and hallucinogenic, tinged with the intensity of both magic and love. The narration manages to evoke some of the best aspects of cosmic horror without feeling anything like Lovecraft at all; it straddles that delicious line of coherence where it’s not clear for much of the story if the narrator is in touch with reality or not, but where their motivation is drawn in such sharp bright lines that you’re rooting for them either way. This author is new to me, and I’ll definitely be looking up more from her.

*

Mary Soon Lee, “How to Betray Sagittarius A*” (Strange Horizons fund drive special)

I really like the alternative take on black holes here – instead of personifying the hole itself, Lee focuses instead on the intense radio signals emitted by Sagittarius A*, viewing them as a scream and a testimony to danger which the rest of the universe may or may not bother to believe. There is no sexual violence here, but it is certainly an appropriate astronomy poem for the #MeToo era.

*

R. Mac Jones, “The Service Agreement Does Not Cover What Happens During Sleep” (Strange Horizons, November 5)

A poem about a couple who have their bodies modified to incorporate birdlike traits – not only physical traits like birds and feathers, but also flocking instincts. I don’t think that this kind of tight, instinctive synchronization is what I would want in my own close relationships, but I love the way it is described.

*

Beth Cato, “smile” (Uncanny, Issue Twenty-Five)

A tiny little revenge fantasy about men who tell strange women they should smile more. Apparently I am juuuust mean enough, as a person, to enjoy things like this.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 50 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord

Corinne Duyvis, “Rule of Threes” (Crossed Genres, 2011)

[Autistic author] Duyvis’s most popular work revolves around the idea of apocalypses –  who is and isn’t left behind in one, and how we can reimagine our survival strategies so as not to sacrifice each other. This story, published several years before any of Duyvis’s novels, deals with the same theme, but from the reverse perspective. It’s a horror story about a woman who is determined to make difficult sacrifices when desert creatures overrun her town, and who arguably goes too far. An interesting early effort which pulls tensely along to an ending that feels both awful and inevitable. [Recommended-2]

*

Lesley L. Smith, “The Number Two Rule” (Daily Science Fiction, October 2012)

[Autistic author] A time traveler stranded in the past is expected to kill herself to avoid accidentally changing the timeline, but she can’t quite bring herself to do it. It’s very interesting to me that the traveler in this story is asked if she has Asperger’s. She doesn’t, but her frantic efforts not to ever interact with anyone, however innocently, strike me as a lovely and sad metaphor for the social anxiety of some depressed autistic people. On the other hand, the relentless focus on suicide will make this a tough read and too close to home for many. [YMMV]

*

A.C. Buchanan, “MAKET, or, Alternative Endings for Ivan Ivanovich” (Unsung Stories, October 2016)

[Autistic author] As part of a test flight during the Soviet space program, a mannequin is launched into space. Buchanan imagines fanciful scenarios that might have happened to the mannequin after its voyage. There is no autism in this story, but it is a wonderful theme to explore from an implicitly autistic perspective. The story resonates partly because of the common autistic tendency towards animism and extending empathy in unusual directions. But its poignance comes from the equally common autistic tendency to be seen as inhuman, as not quite a person, by the NT world, and to long for the possibility of acceptance – or escape. [Recommended-2]

*

Bogi Takács, “A Superordinate Set of Principles” (Ride the Star Wind, October 2017)

[Autistic author] This is more or less an outright parody of Lovecraftian horror, set in the Eren universe. Autistic people don’t appear, at least not explicitly. What does appear is a surprisingly sympathetic race of betentacled, biotech-happy, hive-mind-y aliens, who think of math exclusively in terms of fractals and other organic shapes. They are horrified when they encounter a group of humans brandishing sinister TRIANGLES and RECTANGLES. Anybody who likes math, and who rolls their eyes whenever Lovecraft starts going on about the horrors of “non-Euclidean” shapes, will probably fall over giggling at this story. It is great. [Recommended-2]

*

Yoon Ha Lee, “Obscura” (Strange Horizons, January 2018)

[Autistic author] Eerie and uncharacteristically understated, this is an urban fantasy about a teenage girl and a mysterious stranger with a magical camera. Although the narrative seems simple, there’s a lot to unpack under the surface, about absences and disconnections, and about seeing things as they really are. [Recommended-2]

*

A. Merc Rustad, “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, June 2018)

[Autistic author] A super-creepy fantasy with evil sloths and even eviller sentient plants. Also bees. Merc pulls off their usual trick of coaxing a resolutely hopeful ending out of an intensely grim beginning, middle, and general premise. You will never want to eat soup again, though. [Recommended-2]

*

Sunyi Dean, “John Kills Jenny” (Sub-Q, August 2018)

[Autistic author] Sunyi Dean is a new discovery for me in this issue. She has several stories out, all from 2018, which were all emotionally charged, compactly effective delights. “John Kills Jenny” is a dark and thought-provoking interactive story about a convicted murderer playing a “rehabilitation game.” But what does it mean to be rehabilitated? Is there any choice in any game that can erase the effects of the past? This one will make you uncomfortable, but in a good way. [Recommended-2]

*

Rose Lemberg, “The Fear Tree” (Sycorax Journal, Issue One, November 2018)

[Autistic author] A poem about immigration, living in a world that is actively hostile, fear, and strength. I really like the way the narrator’s fear is honored in this story. Not simply an unwanted emotion, but a toweringly strong instinct for survival and protection in a world that doesn’t especially want for the narrator to have survived. [Recommended-2]

*

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Word of Flesh and Soul” (Tor.com, November 2018)

A lovely, Lovecraftian tale about scholars of an ancient language that transforms those who speak it. Polymede is the first woman to be accepted as a scholar of this topic, and her lover Erishti secretly studies it too, despite being deemed ineligible. Erishti is autistic, and “madmen” – including autistic people – are not considered capable of perceiving the language clearly. Nevertheless, Polymede and Erishti have made a discovery that could overturn some old assumptions in their field. I love the way Erishti is written in this one: a non-neurotypical scholar whose differences are evident and whose intelligence and insight are strong, without falling into exaggeration or stereotype on either point. I especially love the matter-of-fact affection between her and Polymede.

My very, very favorite exchange is this one:

“Rallis wanted to be like his advisor, and for his students to want to be like him.”

Brain still fuzzy, I say, “You must be used to that, huh? People trying to get you to think like them.”

“People do that to each other all the time. I just know it’s impossible.”

This story also functions as a biting critique of many of the traditions of academia; readers who are interested in that angle might try reading it alongside Rose Lemberg’s “The Shape Of Us, Translucent To Your Eye.” [Recommended-1]

INCOMING! – Read the first three chapters of THE OUTSIDE for free!

Are you excited for THE OUTSIDE? Are you impatient to start reading? Then I have good news, because Angry Robot just released its INCOMING! sampler with free previews of all its upcoming 2019 novels, including mine!

INCOMING! contains the first three chapters of THE OUTSIDE, in which you’ll meet Yasira – my #ownvoices autistic protagonist – her adorable girlfriend Tiv, the space station where she is working, a priest conducting a service in honor of the AI gods, some harrowing space station malfunctions, and two rather sinister angels.

This is the first time anywhere that these chapters have been available to read. I am SO PUMPED to be able to share them with you now!

INCOMING! also contains free previews of Wesley Chu’s alien sci-fi THE FALL OF IO; Darius Hinks’ epic fantasy THE INGENIOUS; Dan Moren’s galactic spy thriller THE BAYERN AGENDA; Kameron Hurley’s military sci-fi THE LIGHT BRIGADE; and Anna Kashina’s epic fantasy SHADOWBLADE. Go get ’em!

Knowing Why: An Interview With Elizabeth Bartmess

Elizabeth Bartmess is the editor of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s new anthology, “Knowing Why: Adult-Diagnosed Autistic People on Life and Autism.” The anthology looks great, and I was delighted to be able to sit down with Elizabeth for this interview.

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Ada: What inspired you to put together an anthology of essays by adult-diagnosed autistic people?

Elizabeth: The Autistic Self Advocacy Network contacted me, actually. I had been organizing collaborative Twitter hashtags, including #AutChat (which I’m still doing) and the #AutismMeans hashtag series. Ari Ne’eman (ASAN’s president at the time) was interested in a nonfiction anthology with personal narratives by adult-diagnosed/adult-self-diagnosed autistic people, aimed primarily at an autistic audience. I’m adult-diagnosed myself, and I’d connected with various autistic people on Twitter, many also adult-diagnosed or self-diagnosed. It was very rewarding to see similarities and differences in our experiences. The anthology offered an opportunity to extend that into writing and editing.

Ada: Nine different adult-diagnosed autistic people contributed to this anthology. When you look at the life experiences of adult-diagnosed autistic people, do you find that they are more similar or more different? What would you say is the most common thing that adult-diagnosed autistic people experience, and what is the biggest factor making our life experiences differ? Are there any demographics or intersections that you wish you’d been able to include more of?

Elizabeth: Adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed people have many meaningful similarities, and many meaningful differences. To list just a few common traits and experiences: sensory sensitivities, burnout, stimming, special interests, the need to self-advocate. There are many more, but not everyone has all of them. If you take any two random autistic people, adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed or otherwise, they could have a huge number of things in common with each other, or almost nothing in common beyond the general categories of traits required for a diagnosis—or, more likely, some similarities and some differences. (I mention this because many adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed people are especially sensitive to information that indicates that we don’t belong or aren’t welcome or aren’t really autistic, and so there’s always a risk when talking about shared experiences that someone who doesn’t share particular commonalities will begin doubting they’re autistic.)

I don’t think I could say which we have more of overall, but I think our similarities are the reason it’s valuable to come together, discuss our experiences, do advocacy, or just hang out—with each other, with earlier-diagnosed autistic people, with undiagnosed and questioning autistic people, with people who aren’t autistic but share significant traits and life experiences due to some other disability, and with other disabled people more generally.

Knowing about our differences is essential, though. That helps us make spaces and priorities more inclusive both demographically and in terms of other life experiences. It also brings competing access needs into the open, so we can come up with ways to address them, whether in the same space or by creating separate spaces.

For adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed autistic people in particular, I think the most common shared experience is revelation. There’s a very common process of making sense of your life that happens after learning you’re autistic. Learning something core about yourself, something that pervasively affects how you experience the world, is a big deal when you’ve gone through so much of your life not knowing about it. Revelation doesn’t always happen in the same way; for some people it’s right after learning they’re autistic, for some people it takes longer, and for some people it doesn’t happen at all. But most people who learn they’re autistic have some helpful revelations, and for many people it’s life-changing.

The biggest factor making our life experiences differ: so many things can make big differences! So I’ll just answer with respect to the process of revelation I mentioned above: the biggest factor is getting accurate and relevant information on autism, and that typically means information accumulated from other autistic people. I say “accumulated” because one autistic person’s experience can differ greatly from another’s, no single autistic person is an expert on everything about autism, and all of us have believed some inaccurate information (and all of us have incomplete information). And of course you don’t have to be autistic to know accurate things about autism. But access to autistic people’s collective knowledge makes a big difference.

Related to that, you asked about demographics or intersections I wish I’d been able to include more of. Many! I don’t think it’s possible to be comprehensive in one anthology, or in one list, but there are a couple demographics I wanted to have authors from, and tried to get, but it didn’t work out: intellectually disabled autistic people who were correctly diagnosed with intellectual disability as kids but whose autism went undiagnosed until they were an adult, and autistic people in their sixties or seventies or older.

Ada: Many of the stories in this book are about difficult experiences – depression, discrimination, burnout. If you could change one thing about the world to make it easier for autistic adults, what would it be?

Elizabeth: Universal basic income, or some way that autistic adults can easily access housing, food, and healthcare without gatekeeping (including without a formal diagnosis), and without punitive bureaucracy. Autistic adults have high rates of unemployment, poverty and homelessness, fewer social resources to draw on, and more difficulty navigating paperwork and requirements (often due to executive dysfunction). It’s easier to cope, self-advocate, get your needs met, and do fulfilling things when you’re not struggling to survive, at risk of losing needed resources, and/or dealing with the effects of stress, fear, masking, sensory overload, unrealistic social demands, in interpersonal situations you can’t leave for financial reasons, etc. A minority of autistic people work, and some work in jobs that pay enough to support them and have job requirements or adequate accommodations and understanding co-workers. But most of us don’t.

Ada: Western culture seems to have grown more and more fascinated with autism in recent years, but that fascination often comes with misinformation or fear. How have media and cultural narratives about autism affected the way that autistic adults without a diagnosis see themselves?

Elizabeth: Media and cultural narratives are often created by non-autistic people who describe and define us based on their own experiences of being a non-autistic person who’s interacted with autistic people (or sometimes just read descriptions of autistic people by non-autistic people). There are accurate portrayals, often created by autistic people, but those don’t get as much exposure. So the ones that take up the most space in mainstream Western culture often aren’t accurate.

Autistic people don’t always express ourselves in the same way neurotypical people do—our emotional expressions might differ, or our body language, or our spoken or written communication. We’re also pressured heavily to mask: to suppress autistic characteristics and simulate more neurotypical ones, even though it’s effortful and does long-term damage. Not everyone can mask, but people who can are frequently doing it to some degree in some or most situations. People who don’t understand how our expressions differ or how masking works misinterpret us and portray our experiences in inaccurate or incomplete ways. Sometimes they don’t portray us as having experiences at all.

When portrayals of autistic people suggest our internal experiences don’t exist or don’t matter or aren’t as meaningful as those of our family members, or suggest we’re not disabled but merely quirky, we don’t see ourselves. And of course most of us are not (to give a couple common stereotypes) white cishet male detectives/programmers/scientist abrasive jerks, or nonverbal white boys with violent meltdowns (and those of us who either of those are still have meaningful internal experiences and are still disabled!).

I think the main effect of inaccurate portrayals is to make autistic people think they’re not autistic. When we see realistic media and cultural narratives, those generally include a wide array of demographics, and internal experiences: sensory overstimulation, burnout, trying to decipher a confusing and sometimes hostile social world, attempts we make at communication that are misunderstood or rejected, as well as good things—sensory enjoyment, experiences of stimming, special interests, connecting with each other. There are good media and cultural representations out there, and I’ve seen more in recent years, especially on women and female-presenting kids and adults, and on non-cis autistic people, and nonwhite autistic people (and people who are more than one of the above). But they aren’t yet being given the share of public attention that they deserve.

Ada: What’s one thing that autistic people who were diagnosed as children – especially very young children – often don’t “get” about adult-diagnosed autistics? Do you find that both groups are equally included in autistic culture?

Elizabeth: The autistic spaces I’ve been in all include adult-diagnosed people (if they didn’t, I wouldn’t be there!) and have (less consistently, unfortunately) include self-diagnosed and questioning people, and the autistic culture(s) they draw on and contribute to generally do too. If anything, the spaces I’ve been in have more adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed people and overrepresent our interests (and since I’ve been the primary organizer of the space I’ve been most present in—Twitter’s weekly #AutChat chats—some of that’s my fault; I try not to bias the chats too much toward my own interests, partly by taking topic requests from attendees and inviting them to write questions, but I also fill in topics and questions where needed, and those are inevitably more focused on things I know something about). There are also a lot of spaces I’m not in, especially in-person spaces, blogging scenes, and Facebook groups.

I don’t have a strong sense of what child-diagnosed autistic people don’t connect with about adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed autistic people. I do think a higher proportion of younger-diagnosed autistic people are puzzled by the extent to which we often find autistic identity positive and useful. Child-diagnosed autistic people are more likely to have authority figures and peers use an autism diagnosis to justify mistreatment, sometimes including harmful therapies like ABA or quack “cures.” Undiagnosed autistic kids are still mistreated for having autistic traits, but other people don’t attribute it to being autistic. We also don’t have access to accommodations or support, and we don’t have a diagnosis to help frame out experiences. When we learn we’re autistic we’re more likely to be able to choose who we disclose to and we’ve had years or decades of having insufficient explanations for our experiences. We’re more likely to have more access to other autistic people, and to resources created by and for autistic people, at the time we learn we’re autistic. And because adults often have to actively seek out a diagnosis, or come to a self-diagnosis after looking for something to explain what’s going on, the subset of autistic adults who get diagnosed/self-diagnosed includes more people who think knowing they’re autistic will be helpful.  

This doesn’t mean it’s better to wait for diagnosis until adulthood, and it’s never better to wait until a burnout or crisis. It means that learning you’re autistic should happen in a setting where it brings brings needed support and self-knowledge, should never be used to harm, and should happen as early as possible. This is basically what we all want.

I want to add that age at diagnosis doesn’t neatly define separate groups of people, since people (including autistic people) sometimes misunderstand that. Some people aren’t identified as autistic in childhood solely due to the stereotype that only white boys are autistic, or that being autistic means you can’t be interested in other people or have friends or speak, none of which are criteria for excluding people from a diagnosis. Some people aren’t identified because their parents are neglectful or abusive. Sometimes people diagnosed as children and people diagnosed/self-diagnosed as adults literally the same people; their parents hid their diagnosis from them and they only found out after they learned they were autistic as an adult.

Ada: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while putting together “Knowing Why”?

Elizabeth: It was surprisingly hard to find adult-diagnosed/self-diagnosed cis men to contribute, probably partly because cis men are more likely to be diagnosed in childhood. It’s also possible that girls, women, and other autistic people who are female-presenting or grew up female-presenting have to self-advocate more strongly. We have more executive function impairments and more difficulty managing tasks of daily living (see https://www.thecut.com/2017/08/a-new-look-at-how-autism-affects-girls.html) and are put under pressure to meet gender role expectations for neurotypical cis women, who are expected to do more executive function and caretaking than neurotypical cis men. So we’re less likely to get diagnosed as kids, pushed harder to do things we’re already less able to do, and consequently may wind up thinking and talking and writing more about how being autistic affects our lives (though this doesn’t mean that cis men and male-presenting autistic people have it easy!). That’s speculation, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable speculation.

I suspect women and female-presenting autistic people also have greater rates of unemployment and unemployment, both due to more difficulty working and to gender role expectations, especially for childcare, that result in our staying at home or working part-time, and that results in more of us being writers because other options are less accessible to us. But that’s even more of a guess.

Ada: What do you hope neurotypical readers will take away from this book?

Elizabeth: That our experiences are meaningfully autistic ones. Being autistic influences many aspects of our lives, and knowing we’re autistic is important, often helpful, and sometimes essential. Sometimes people (including sometimes autistic people) think that if we’ve grown up without being recognized as autistic, it’s because it doesn’t affect us much, but that’s not accurate. When we look superficially neurotypical, it’s because we’re doing a lot of effortful and tiring work behind the scenes.

That other aspects of our identities interact with our being autistic, and lead to our having different experiences from each other.

Most of the pieces offer practical tips for coping or self-discovery, and it’s possible some of those will be useful to neurotypical readers as well.

Ada: What’s next for you as an editor? Are there more projects on the horizon?

Elizabeth: I’m writing a humor fantasy novel set in a malfunctioning magical theme park (which includes, among other characters, an autistic character). It’s pretty far along in revisions, and I’m also working on a sequel for this year’s NaNoWriMo. I’ve committed to finishing at least the first one and getting it out on submission before taking on any other writing- or editing-related projects. I’m also maintaining a system I developed for ASAN to make legislative advocacy more accessible, as a secondary project.

If I did take on another major editing project, I’d love to do a nonfiction anthology exploring autistic people’s experiences with gender identity, or a fiction and nonfiction anthology with autistic authors writing on changeling tropes. I’ve also thought about starting a speculative fiction humor magazine.

*

If you liked this interview, you can check out “Knowing Why” for yourself here on ASAN’s website!

New Poem: How I Knew My Professor Was a Faerie in Disguise

Here’s another announcement I have been late making! Augur Issue #1.3 is out, and my poem “How I Knew My Professor Was a Faerie in Disguise” is in it.

Augur is a Canadian magazine of literary fantasy and fabulism. The tagline of this issue is “From dragons to swans to Tim Horton’s.” Without giving spoilers, I’m pretty sure my poem is where the Tim Horton’s part comes from. 😀

You can read the poem by purchasing the issue or subscribing on Augur’s website.

Czech rights for THE OUTSIDE!

Last week, Angry Robot and the Czech publisher Triton agreed that THE OUTSIDE will be published in a Czech translation in the next 18 months.

This is my first foreign book sale, and I’m very excited!

Full story here: https://www.angryrobotbooks.com/2018/11/the-outside-heads-to-czech-republic/

Autistic Book Party, Episode 50: Conservation of Shadows

Today’s Book: “Conservation of Shadows,” a short story collection by Yoon Ha Lee

People who have read my reviews of Ninefox Gambit, Raven Strategem, and Revenant Gun will not be surprised that I am a big fan of Yoon Ha Lee’s writing, or that this fandom extends to his short stories as well.

“Conservation of Shadows” is an excellent collection which shows off Lee’s strengths as a writer while also displaying surprising breadth.

Lee is most famous for war-torn space operas full of wildly imaginative, magic-like technology, and these types of stories are certainly on display throughout the collection. Folded, origami-like papers come to life as battle drones (Ghostweight); a group of exiles compose music in honor of ships that have flown into a black hole (Swanwatch); a gun exists that will leave the person shot unharmed but erase all their ancestors from existence (Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain); a book contains the souls of the dead and can be opened to draw on those souls’ abilities (The Book of Locked Doors).

But Lee also strays skillfully out of that genre, from stories of pure high fantasy in which necromancers or demons battle, to the urban sci-fi fantasy of the story “Blue Ink,” in which an ordinary modern-day child is summoned to the end of the world.

My personal favorite stories include “Iseul’s Lexicon,” a longer tale involving strange, cruel, fey-like aliens, in which linguistics are applied defensively to a magical language; and the title story, closing out the collection, in which the myth of the Descent of Inanna is repeated again and again by artificial, far-future entities.

Fans of Shuos Jedao (and, let’s face it, who isn’t a fan of Jedao?) will also enjoy “The Battle of Candle Arc,” his first published appearance, in which we watch him win a space battle using clever tactics against ridiculous odds, and get a hint of the motivation that drives him all through the Machineries of Empire trilogy.

There is a hint of non-neurotypicality in some stories, including “The Shadow Postulates,” in which the protagonist briefly mentions wanting to stim by unraveling the tassels of a carpet, but refrains so as not to disturb her roommate.

But for the most part, non-neurotypicality isn’t highlighted in this collection. It’s simply a very good group of stories by a very good autistic author, and that should be reason enough to go check it out.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Disclosure: I have interacted very occasionally with Yoon Ha Lee online.

If Autistic Book Party is valuable to you, consider becoming a backer; for as little as $1, you can help choose the next autistic book.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.

Some new fall releases!

With all of the things going on, I’ve neglected to promote some of my new short work this fall.

STORY REPRINT: Minor Heresies

“Minor Heresies,” which first appeared in Ride the Star Wind, has been reprinted in Transcendent 3: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction. I was surprised that Bogi thought the story was “trans enough,” to be honest – but I am definitely not complaining about this lineup. (I am TOC-mates with Yoon Ha Lee, Shweta Narayan, Rose Lemberg, Rivers Solomon, AND Charlie Jane Anders! Among others. *heart eyes*)

“Minor Heresies” is set in the same universe as THE OUTSIDE, but occurs about 200 years earlier.

NEW POEM: singing teeth

In September I posted “singing teeth,” a new poem, on Patreon. It was exclusive to $5+ backers for a month, but now it’s free to everyone. This one is about finding one’s voice and having it be a more difficult voice to manage than one thought. Read it here.

NEW POEM: Held Tongue

A brand new Patreon poem for November, “Held Tongue” is still in its exclusive phase, but if you’re a $5+ backer (or want to become one) you can find it here. I’ll post again when it becomes open to everyone. Cheers!