If You Want An Extremely Inadequate Introduction To How Ableism Works In Fiction

Today’s question is from Joyousmenma93.

What are considered ableist portrayals of disabled people in media, like having all people hate them just for being there, making them into geniuses, etc. I’d love to see your thoughts on what portrayals of disabled people (autism or not) are considered ableist. I got some backlash similar to this and would love to see something like this covered.


If you want me to sit down in the length of one blog post and explain to you everything about how ableism in the media works in one sitting, it’s not gonna happen. Not because I don’t want to or don’t care, or because I’m one of those people who hates explaining 101-level stuff, but because it’s just too big a topic. I can’t put everything in one blog post, and frankly, I don’t even understand everything that could be put in one blog post.

The other reason I can’t explain all of ableism to you in one blog post is because writing a laundry list of Bad Things You Should Never, Ever Write is not actually the best way to explain how ableism works. On any such list, however carefully crafted, there will be some things with exceptions, and some things that get left out, and some things that disabled people are legitimately going to disagree on (even within the same disability). Some things are pretty crappy however you look at them, but some things will horribly offend some disabled people while others consider them true and important. And that’s just scratching the surface of the ways in which people can disagree.

When you’re talking about ableism, or any -ism, you’re talking about people’s lives. People’s lives are fucking complicated and full of nuance, and it’s hard to get that nuance across in a list of rules.

That’s why there’s really no substitute for learning to think about these things for yourself, to research them very carefully, and to form your own opinions.

But learning to do that is hard. It takes a lot of work. It’s ok to be confused while you are learning to do that.

Here’s one principle which might help you to think about things, and to make sense of what people have told you.

Ableism – any -ism, for that matter – is about narratives. Abled people treat disabled people poorly because they have a narrative in their head about how disabled people should be treated, or what disability means, or how valuable (or not valuable) disabled people are. And those narratives come from somewhere.

Fiction isn’t the only place where we get our narratives, but it’s an important one, especially for people who haven’t had informative personal experiences in reality. If you’ve never seen a person with X Condition, but you’ve read a book about a person with X Condition, then your thoughts about what X Condition is like will mostly come from that book, even if you know that the book is fiction and the person isn’t real.

That’s why it’s really important for fiction writers to ask ourselves some difficult questions about narratives. To be able to write disability responsibly, you have to be able to at least begin to think about the following questions:

1. What are the major narratives that are told about people with this disability today?

2. What are the effects of these narratives? Which ones cause harm and which ones are helpful?

3. Which of these narratives does my story reinforce, and why? Are these good narratives to reinforce, or harmful ones?

4. Which of these narratives does my story subvert, and why?

A narrative that encourages people to hurt disabled people is ableist. So a story that reinforces one of these narratives is also ableist.

In other words, it’s not about “you can never write a character who does X” or “you can never write a story where Y happens”. It’s about context, and the larger picture, and about what you expect your readers to come away thinking and feeling.

Let’s go through an example. In the real world, one of the narratives that causes a lot of problems for autistic people goes something like this:

“Autism is awful. It is super incredibly terrible to be autistic. Autistic people are always miserable and so are their families for having to take care of them and this awful misery is an inherent part of how autism works, so we have to get rid of autism as soon as possible – there is no other way to stop the awfulness.”

This is a narrative that real people believe in the real world. Autism Speaks is famous for throwing it around a lot, but not to single them out – there are a lot of people who believe this. It is also a narrative that has effects, usually negative effects, on autistic people in the real world.

People put autistic children into intensive and abusive therapies for many hours a week, or give them chelation and other physically harmful quack treatments, because Autism Is Awful and so it makes sense to try to get rid of it by any means necessary.

People hurt or kill their autistic children and everybody feels sorry for them because Autism Is So Awful, it’s no wonder they snapped.

Autism treatments focus on teaching autistic people to look normal, even if that’s the opposite of what they need in order to thrive and be happy and productive, because Autism Is Awful and the only way to treat something awful is to try to make it go away.

(Also people are dying of diseases that should have been eradicated through vaccination by now, because a scientist made up a fake story and pretended that vaccines sometimes caused autism, and Autism Is So Awful that a fake risk of getting autism is worse than a real risk of dying from a virulent infectious disease.)

Autistic people learn to hate themselves and be ashamed all the time because they have learned that Autism Is Awful and whenever someone around them reacts badly to them, it must be the autism’s fault.

Ironically, some of the people who are worst affected by this narrative are autistic people who are miserable and are having a terrible time. They are not miserable because misery is an inherent part of how autism works. They are miserable because things aren’t set up properly and no one around them is able to meet their needs. And believing the Autism Is Awful narrative makes it harder, not easier, for people to figure out how to do that.

So let’s say you are writing a story about an autistic person. You need to be aware that the Autism Is Awful narrative exists in the world and has these effects on people.

And you need to ask, “Is my story going to help people believe that Autism Is Awful? Or is it going to help them believe something else?”

If your story is full of autistic people being miserable burdens on their miserable families, then it’s very likely to be reinforcing the Autism Is Awful narrative.

But if your story shows autistic people and their families not being miserable, or if your story questions where the misery comes from and shows it coming from societal attitudes or some other outside source, then people can come away from your story being less likely to believe that Autism Is Awful.

People learn from what they read, and your story can teach them good lessons or bad ones.

Now, the hard part, of course, is that Autism Is Awful isn’t the only narrative out there. It’s not even the only bad narrative out there. Here are some other bad narratives about autism that you’ll frequently encounter:

  • “Autistic people have no empathy or feelings.”
  • “Autistic people can’t understand art, love, religion, etc.”
  • “People who say they’re autistic are just faking.”
  • “‘High-functioning’ people are completely different from ‘low-functioning’ ones, and if you can communicate at all in any way then you’re ‘high-functioning’, so if you are caring for a ‘low-functioning’ person you don’t have to listen to anything any autistic person says about it.”
  • “All autistic people are rude and annoying.”
  • “In order to have real, meaningful connections with others, you need to do specific social things in ways that are painful and upsetting to most autistic people.”
  • “If an autistic person is bullied, it’s because they lack social skills, not because the bullies are being mean and unreasonable.”

This is just a few and I am missing many. All of them are hurtful in different ways.

The only way to get a feel for these narratives and how they work, apart from being autistic yourself (and even an autistic person will likely miss a few on their own) is to do a lot of research. Look up the writing of autistic people, or people with whatever disability you are researching – not just the writing of doctors who study it. Read lots of it by lots of different people. Find commonalities in their experience and listen to their explanations of why these commonalities happen. If possible, read their reviews of other people’s stories; find out what makes them mad when they read it, and what makes many of them go “YES, THIS.” Read this stuff and think about it until you can understand the principles behind how it works.

All of this will take time, but if you can do it, you’ll have something much more valuable than a laundry list of What Not To Do. You’ll have a deep and nuanced understanding of the subject matter.

And then you’ll be able to form your own opinions about what’s ableist, and about what you want to do and not do in your stories.

Some stories that I liked in 2014

I really, really fell off the fandom wagon in 2014. I haven’t even tried to keep up with things (even the thing I like!) in a fair or balanced manner.

But not all of 2014 was doom and gloom, and I did read a few things here and there that I really, really liked. Especially in the first 1/3 or so of the year.

So here’s a totally-incomplete-and-biased list of these things, in case you want more story recs. πŸ˜€

Seth Dickinson, “Morrigan in the Sunglare
Barry King, “Something In Our Minds Will Always Stay
Yoon Ha Lee, “The Bonedrake’s Penance
Yoon Ha Lee, “Wine
Rose Lemberg, “Stalemate
An Owomoyela, “And Wash Out by Tides of War
Merc Rustad, “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps
Benjanun Sriduangkaew, “Golden Daughter, Stone Wife
Bogi TakΓ‘cs, “This Shall Serve as a Demarcation
Ursula Vernon, “Jackalope Wives

Of these, I am especially fond of Merc’s story and I think it should be nominated for things. So, y’know, those of you who have actual nomination privileges at various places should get on that or something. πŸ˜€

(I managed to keep up a little bit better with poems than stories, so poems will get their own separate post, later.)

Speaking and Non-Speaking Characters

Today’s question is from Chordatesrock:

The reasons why someone writing a fictional autistic character would write the character as being able to speak or not being able to speak, and how that ends up forced into being a political decision in a way that the actual division of ability in real life is obviously not. Or… manifestations of disability in fiction, within specific diagnostic categories.

This is a good question! But I actually don’t see authors as being forced to make their characters’ speech abilities a political decision. (Except in the sense that the personal is political, everything is political, etc. You can’t avoid that one.) What I do see is that there are trends in how these decisions are made, and these trends have political implications.

The speaking / not speaking dichotomy is very strongly tied to the “high-functioning” / “low-functioning” binary. It’s more useful than functioning labels, because being able to speak or not speak is an actual thing that exists, not an artificial diagnostic category. Still, in practice, people often get diagnosed as “high” or “low” functioning based on whether or not they can speak. And so presenting someone as able or unable to speak often carries implicitly a lot of the same baggage as a functioning label.

As a result, what we see in most media is pretty predictable. Characters who can speak get written with all of the “high-functioning” stereotypes: clever, quirky, callous, annoying, and basically able to take care of themselves but failing comically in social situations. Characters who can’t speak are written as helpless, pitiable, disturbing, or at best the focus of inspiration porn.

Stories that break these stereotypes are often very explicitly political, as in “Difference of Opinion” by Meda Kahn, in which an autonomous but non-speaking character’s struggle against ableism is the whole point.

Writing a speaking or non-speaking character can be a political choice for other reasons too. In the worst case, non-speaking characters can be the focus of Autism Speaks-esque anti-autism propaganda. The character is portrayed as completely helpless, burdensome, and miserable in every possible area – which, of course, includes a lack of speech – and the message is, “See, this is what autism is REALLY like.”In cure decision stories, speech becomes kind of a big deal. A character can be portrayed as speaking in order to make it more credible that they’d be happy the way they are, or as non-speaking for the opposite reason – to make the message come across that much more strongly. (Both of these are pretty problematic, as are cure decision stories in general, but they are the actions of authors who are at least trying.)

Of course, in reality, there aren’t just two categories. Functional speech is made up of a number of receptive and expressive sub-skills. Many of us (including myself) appear to speak normally but have partial or intermittent problems with one or more of these sub-skills. And many are genuinely in the middle somewhere, having some speech ability but not enough to perform all the speech tasks that are routinely expected of us.

The stories I’ve seen that deal with these subtleties are usually by autistic people. “Meltdown in Freezer Three” by Luna Lindsey has a protagonist whose speech is extant, but visibly (audibly?) different. Draz from “Kea’s Flight” has specific speech differences including difficulties with word finding.

Here are some speech related things that I’d like to see more of in fiction:

  • Echolalia, scripting, and other specifically non-neurotypical forms of speech
  • Non-speaking protagonists who are cool and have agency
  • Characters who are minimally or moderately verbal
  • Use of AAC by both speaking and non-speaking characters
  • Characters who can both speak at a similar level of ability, but are wildly different from each other in some other area(s). Or, even better, a character who can speak articulately (by NT definitions of the term) but has more trouble in another important area than the non-speaking character. In other words, speech very blatantly NOT being used as a proxy for one’s level of ability in every other area, ever.

(You can still pick your own January blogging topic here!)

New Poem and Notes: “The Pyromancer”

For those of you who missed it, Goblin Fruit ended 2014 in style by posting their last issue with one minute to go before the year ended.

It is a beautiful issue as usual; I particularly adore the poems from Rose Lemberg, Alena Sullivan, and Neile Graham, but everything is scrumptious.

And one of the poems is mine!

“The Pyromancer” was inspired by me watching 4th of July fireworks with my family at Boldt Castle in, oh, 2012? 2011? A while ago now. (We’re Canadian, but at that time we lived just next to the American border, and my mother’s side of the family is American.) The whole “lights of boats on the water” thing was a thing I didn’t have to make up; I’ve always loved the look of many small lights in darkness, whether that’s the stars, a bunch of tourist cruise boats, or even just the street lights and porch lights of nighttime suburbia. That was where the poem started. Any statements in the poem that may be construed as being about magic, perception, resilience, etc, came afterwards. πŸ™‚

(“Turning to Stone“, published earlier this year, was conceived at the same time and on the same excursion. I was in a busy holiday city and had a bad meltdown… You win some, you lose some, I guess! And then you can write about both.)

Signal boost

Those of you who enjoyed Luna Lindsey’s “Meltdown in Freezer Three” might be interested in her Unlikely Interview here.

Autism News, 2014/12/24

Stuff about race and #freeneli:

Stuff involving the Vatican and Autism Speaks:

  • Pope Francis talked to a bunch of children/teens with autism and their families, in order to raise awareness about autism and autism stigmas within the Catholic Church
  • Unfortunately, Autism Speaks was also there.
  • Jess from A Diary of a Mom and M Kelter point out problems with Suzanne Wright’s Autism Speaks speech at the Vatican
  • John Elder Robinson also gives a measured and constructive critique of Autism Speaks’ latest Twitter campaign, #MSSNG.


Sad Things:

  • Lisa D. on what it’s like to maintain an autism memorial
  • Amanda Forest Vivian on autistic people abusing other autistic people
  • Samantha Crane on how ASAN got directly involved in the Issy Stapleton case (This is happy, but the Issy Stapleton case is sad.)
  • Carly Fleischmann, an autistic teenager famous for learning to type while nonverbal, posted to Facebook and Twitter early this month saying “needdc fdocttor helphgfi”. Her father posted an hour later saying everything was fine. The autism community in general is not sure what’s going on.

2014 in review

All the cool kids seem to be making year-in-review posts right about now.

I guess that means it’s time for mine.

I am thinking about 2014. You may have noticed a relative dearth of posting in the second half of this year. I did not publish much, especially compared to the epic publishing year which was 2013. A lot of other stuff happened. A lot of things changed in my life this year, some good, some stressful, many both. I appeared at a convention as a panelist for the first time, which was really wonderful. I learned a lot. I did interesting research at school. I picked up a really addictive LARP habit and made wonderful, geeky LARP friends. I let go of some personal connections that had been hurting me for a long time, began to repair holes in others, and learned to embrace some new ones.

And then.

Some of you know that I have been on a low dose of an atypical antipsychotic since I was 14. I was not psychotic when I was 14, but someone with a degree in psychiatry decided this was a good idea anyway. I know there is a lot of controversy about antipsychotics and other drugs as a remedy for autism symptoms. I don’t want to rehash that controversy here. Let’s just say I’ve been on the drugs for a long time and felt ambivalent about them for a long time. I’d talked to doctors before about methods of being weaned off of them (there was a brief false alarm several years ago when we thought I would have to do this under supervision for physical reasons) and had successfully reduced my own dosage in the past without large problems.

So, in June this year, I did one of the stupidest things I have ever done. Without informing a doctor, I tried to go off of them entirely.

Advice to everyone who is reading: DO NOT DO THIS. DO NOT. FUCKING. DO. THIS. Not even if you truly believe that you shouldn’t be on them, and are being “careful” and “intelligent” and weaning yourself off of them slowly in the way that the doctors have always recommended. I do not have enough caps lock to express this. DON’T. Antipsychotic withdrawal is horrifying. It can be worse than the thing they originally put you on the medicine for. This is well-documented.

I was psychotic for about a week before I figured out what was going on, had a headdesk of truly violent proportions, went back on the medicine, and called a doctor.

I do not say this in order to worry anybody or elicit pity or plead for help. This was June. It is December now. I am more or less okay and am caring for myself, and I have been more or less okay for quite some time. I have good health insurance (remember this is Canada) and a very friendly health team at school who are quietly and unobtrusively making sure that I continue to be okay.

I was psychotic for only a week, but it took me two months to feel like I was back in something resembling my usual brain, and three before I could get anything even remotely useful out of it. If not for my partner’s assistance and the support of my amazing supervisors at school during that time, I do not know where I would be.

This blog is supposed to be about writing, but for some reason, my writing is that one last thing that’s still hurt, and still refusing to be the way it was. I am getting a little bit out of it, but only very intermittently, and for a thing that I loved and defined myself by less than a year ago, it is confusing to see it become so elusive and difficult.

(Though I finally did finish the novel draft that I ought to have finished a year ago. I probably have another year’s worth of editing and research to do before I can even consider doing anything with it, but it’s there.)

And that was my year, and that was why most of you haven’t seen much of me. Also it’s why I may not be doing a list of my work, or of what I thought were the best works from other people this year, in the usual manner. I will probably be making some form of list but it will be perfunctory at best. I feel that I aged a year, but lived only half of one. I definitely was not keeping up with things professionally and I have officially released myself from any feeling of obligation to do so.

I am not completely sure why I am posting this, except that it happened, and it had an impact on things that the people who read this care about, and I am not sure what is the point, exactly, of keeping it a secret any longer. Stigma? But this blog is all about mental ableism anyway. I know that there exist things in the world that are too dangerous or personal to talk about for whatever reason, and that the decision of what goes and doesn’t go on that list is an extremely personal one. But for me, at this stage, I really don’t feel that this is one of those things.

And if I wanted to talk all about my autism, but failed to admit to this, what a hypocrite I would be!

I love all of you who have continued reading even while I wasn’t really here, and I am full of hope for 2015. Thank you for your support.

Tests and some rambling about tests

The other day on Twitter, Bogi TakΓ‘cs said:

the @bogiperson test of non-tokenized QUILTBAG representation: more than one QUILTBAG character. um that’s it?

Which of course got me thinking of Bechdel variants of all sorts. I actually went in and counted up the number of autistic books/stories that passed an autism version of the Bechdel test.

If you go with the simplest version – more than one autistic character, full stop – then a bunch of good stuff by autistic people passes but some of it doesn’t, and “The House of Idiot Children” passes even though it’s about as horrible as you would think from the title, because the story is set in a special school for autistic children and there happens to be more than one autistic child there.

If you start adding more criteria – more than one autistic character and both of them talk to each other – then everything actually gets even more problematic because:

  1. Both of Meda Kahn’s amazing short stories fail this version of the test, even though both of them show awareness of a multiplicity of autistic people and an autistic community, but people in the community who are not the protagonist don’t actually end up getting speaking roles, and any test that Meda Kahn keeps failing at is clearly the wrong test
  2. How exactly do we define “talking” here? Typing something meaningful is “talking”, right? Sign language is “talking”, right? AAC in general is talking and behaviour is communication RIGHT YOU GUYS? *stares meaningfully*
  3. No, actually, I take back 2 because with a disability defined at least partly by communication difficulties THERE IS NO NON-PROBLEMATIC WAY TO INTERPRET THIS RULE. Really. No. Back away slowly, please.

(Also: You know what definitely does pass an autistic Bechdel? The Big Bang Theory. But only because I read Amy as autistic and I am constantly confused and frustrated at how nobody else appears to read her this way. I mean GUYS, everyone on that show is ridiculous and offensive anyway but in my opinion, Amy is actually a slightly MORE realistic ridiculous depiction of an autistic person than Sheldon. She tries very hard to be socially acceptable to the normal people and just can’t quite get it, but she is completely on Sheldon’s wavelength and knows exactly how to deal with him, even though he treats her like crap. Seriously. I hardly even watch this show anymore and this still bugs me.)


Maybe we need an autistic Mako Mori test instead. This accords a lot more strongly with my general intuitions about which stories suck and which ones don’t. But then, that’s me.

(And oh hey it turns out there are actually even more feminism tests besides these two, although it looks like many of them are specific to the issue of sexism and wouldn’t translate well to judging ableism without a LOT of adjustment.)

I wonder how many autistic people, in real life, have talked to other autistic people? I have heard people saying that they are surrounded by the autistic community, that autistic people are their family and their peeps, etc, that they feel close to other autistic people even when meeting them for the first time and separated by what NTs would classify as a large difference in functioning or other symptoms. I have also heard people saying the opposite, or saying that they simply haven’t ever had the opportunity to meet other autistic people in the first place.

I keep running into autistic people these days (gee, I wonder why? *stares at blog which is all about autism*) and that’s cool and all and I like them, but there was a time earlier in my life when I didn’t know anyone autistic outside my family. I got put in a high school social skills group for a while but I had approximately zero interest in any of the other people there. I know it’s probably internalized ableism but I still kind of roll my eyes when I get emails about ASAN fundraising galas because, seriously, a gala? I think if I went to a gala for autistic people I would just stand in the corner awkwardly the way I do with everything else. I don’t think being around other autistic people would actually help all that much for that purpose. But on the Internet, on my Internet turf… Well, that’s different.

Just because you share a diagnosis with someone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get along. Just because you have no autistic friends doesn’t mean your story as an autistic person isn’t worth telling. Being in the “autism community” (which is actually a lot of different communities if you look at it closely) doesn’t somehow make you more autistic.

By the same token, just because you have a diagnosis associated with social skills difficulties, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be isolated or the only one, and I think NTs don’t realize how common it is for us to “get” each other and become strong friends.

It’s hard to get across this complexity in just one story.

I don’t know.

What do you think?

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Adrienne J. Odasso, “Letters to Lost Friends & Imaginary Lovers” (Strong Verse, November 2012)

[Autistic author.] A poem. Not about autism, but about connections and the loss of the same. Given that we are so often accused of being unable to form or desire connections in the first place, this is important. It is also very pretty, and very sharp with its evocation of specific emotions. [Recommended]


Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Thin Slats of Metal, Painted” (Crossed Genres, Issue #1, January 2013)

Jess is a young girl with a strong interest in measuring things, who interacts with paintings as though they have feelings and agency. I read her as autistic, though I don’t know if that was the author’s intent. I’m not entirely happy with the way her imaginary life is handled, for reasons that are somewhat idiosyncratic to me and have very little to do with autism per se. But MacFarlane does an excellent job of showing that Jess is highly imaginative and empathic despite her solitary existence. As a result, the story rings true. [YMMV]


A.C. Buchanan (writing as Anna Caro), “Built in a Day” (Luna Station Quarterly Issue 013, 2013)

[Autistic author.] This story involves a strange planet, a time loop, and a person whose past and future selves work together to build a city but cannot directly interact. The ending has the protagonist learning to end her isolation, and I am conflicted about this: part of me wants to say, “Why can’t one of us stay alone and be happy that way, for once?” But even I do not really want to be alone forever, and there is nothing ableist or condescending about the way Caro drives the story to its conclusion. I think my discomfort here is a sign that the author is engaging effectively with themes that are highly emotional for many autistic people, including myself. This makes it, in turn, an important story. [Recommended]


Meda Kahn, “That’s Entertainment” (Strange Horizons, November 2014)

[Autistic author.] A story about disability being used as exploitative entertainment and exploitative entertainment being used as activism. This one didn’t drop-kick me in the feels quite as hard as “Difference of Opinion”, but it’s very smart, very on-point and very sad. [Recommended]


Luna Lindsey, “Meltdown in Freezer Three” (The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, December 2014)

[Autistic author.] Like Macfarlane’s story, but to an even greater extent, “Meltdown” deals with the persistent animism experienced by some autistic people. Unfortunately the whole thing is a little too cartoony for my tastes, and the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. (Why are a pair of small children suddenly trying to violently destroy an ice cream truck? Who is supervising all of these children? And where does Corrine get off saying she “doesn’t believe in magic” when there are already tiny “faeliens” living in one of her ice cream freezers?) Still, Lindsey gets props for writing a protagonist who is more visibly developmentally disabled than most, and for an ending which validates Corinne’s atypical thinking style as few endings can. [YMMV+]

A tiny poem

Niteblade #30 is now out, and with it, my tiny poem “Abominable Snowman“. (Yes, the lines visible after that link are the whole poem – though with Niteblade that’s generally not the case.)

If you go here you can see Alexa Seidel, Niteblade’s poetry editor, saying some very kind things about the poem (and about my poem “The Mermaid at Sea World”, which was published in Niteblade earlier in the year).

Though I do have a small correction – “Abominable Snowman” isn’t a haiku. The number of syllables is wrong, and some other stuff (if you are a Japanese haiku traditionalist) is also wrong. It is merely a tiny three-line poem, but I am okay with that. πŸ™‚

Please do check out the rest of the issue as well.