Autistic Book Party, Episode 15: Kea’s Flight

(Pay no attention to the five-and-a-half-month hiatus between Book Party posts. We have had some technical brain difficulties but there is TOTALLY still a Book Party going on in here.)

Today’s Book: “Kea’s Flight” by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

The Plot: On a future, theocratic Earth, abortion is banned, but nobody wants disabled children – so the unwanted embryos are sent away to be raised in exile on spaceships. As the disabled children grow up, they band together to take control of their own fates.

Autistic Character(s): Karen Irene “Kea” Anderson, the book’s protagonist; Zachary “Draz” Drazil, her best friend and love interest; and a variety of other minor characters. Many characters are non-neurotypical in other ways as well.

So, after “This Alien Shore“, I was intensely curious to see what an autistic author’s vision of a non-neurotypical society would be. So I snapped up Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s book, which does exactly that.

One thing that’s clear right away: “Kea’s Flight” is a dystopia. The disabled children, or “rems”, on the Flying Dustbin – as Kea’s spaceship is informally named – are allowed very little in the way of autonomy or self-determination. Instead, they are cared for by robots and NT workers, who govern everything according to arbitrary, oversimplified, and totalitarian rules. Any questioning of the rules, pointing out inconsistencies in the rules, or reporting of the multiple harms done by their oversimplified nature is met with a condescending lecture at best, or with removal to an isolation room. No distinction is made between critical thought and active disobedience, and no disobedience is permitted.

To people who were raised with certain forms of disability interventions, this will all be very familiar. Indeed, parts of the book may be emotionally difficult to read.

Friedman, in “This Alien Shore”, assumes that non-neurotypical people somehow built a society to their liking, and hand-waves the details. In contrast, Hammerschmidt and Ricker dive right into the oppression and neglect that they know about, and extrapolate it into the future.

Fortunately, Kea is a plucky protagonist who grabs on to agency in any way she can. Early in the book, she devises a secret way of communicating with her friends. And as more friends and co-conspirators are added to Kea’s circle, they quickly find themselves embroiled in issues affecting the whole ship – including mysterious hackers, malfunctions, and eventually questions about the destiny of the Dustbin itself.

The non-neurotypical characters are well-drawn, with an appealing variety of talents, personalities, and challenges. It’s pleasant to watch them working together, complementing each other’s strengths, and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. (There’s also some reasonably good intersectional content; in particular, the characters turn out to be of a variety of sexual orientations, including asexuality.) Some of the NT characters come off as shallower, and I could have done without some of the scenes from the main villain’s point of view, but that’s rightly not where the book puts its focus. And while the plot occasionally wavers, it builds to a genuinely exciting finish.

There are also one or two interesting, neurodiversity-related flaws here – or at least, traits that come off as flaws at first glance.

First, there is the issue of didacticism. A number of reviewers on Amazon mention that the book seems to lecture the reader at times, or to be preachy. What’s really going on here is that Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s characters are eager to share information and opinions on whatever interests them – including autism, and the value of autistic people’s lives. For characters raised in a place like the Flying Dustbin, all such opinions are hard-won and exciting.

At first the frequent discussions of autism, language, and other topics feels like infodumping. Gradually, though, one learns that it’s really much more than that. Sharing information is not a “dump”, but a meaningful activity; it’s how the characters communicate, how they bond, even how they soothe themselves at tense moments. It makes perfect sense for a book full of autistic people to contain such information. So if any reader feels preached at or confused by digressions, I would strongly advise them to stick with the book anyway, and to see what they can learn.

The second, more serious issue is inconsistency with regards to – and I wish I had a better word for this – functioning levels. Hammerschmidt’s characters can all speak aloud (even though one of them frequently forgets certain words) and perform the activities of daily living without assistance. Kea notes several times  that not all the people on the Flying Dustbin can do these things – but she never quite takes the next step into introducing these more-impaired people as characters in any meaningful way, or exploring what their lives are like, or whether it would be worth inviting some of them into her circle of friends. According to the narration, some of the more-impaired people are still frozen as embryos, to be raised when the Dustbin reaches its destination – but others are already alive and exist in the same space as Kea, and are ignored.

Kea and her friends seem to only intermittently remember that these people exist. At one cringe-inducing moment, one of Kea’s friends describes her as “the most autistic geek of all the rems on this ship – besides Draz, and maybe some of the embryos that are still frozen”. Yet only a few paragraphs later, she says, “I’m not severe autism, just Asperger’s.” Huh?!

Later – at the end of the story, when Kea’s friends have taken over the ship – they discuss how to care for their more severely disabled shipmates. Some good ideas are raised – but the idea of ASKING those shipmates about their needs, or of involving them in the decision-making process at all, is somehow not one of them.

I wish I could say this was a small flaw. It is not. It is a very big flaw. If you’re trying to do disability rights, that needs to mean rights for ALL of us – not just the shiny Aspies. (And I say that as a pretty stereotypically shiny Aspie myself!) And in a setting like the Flying Dustbin – in which the whole point is that all sorts of developmentally disabled people are together, and that they’re together precisely because the NTs on Earth didn’t want them – that goes, like, quintuple.

(And then I start to wonder how the story would have gone if it had been written by Meda Kahn…)

(But, then, we can’t all be Meda.)

Still, when talking about herself and her own experiences, Kea’s observations are often poignant and insightful:

Their rationale for treating us like children was that we acted like children. Of course we did— what choice did we have? Were there any responsible, adult activities to do in this garbage can? Go to work and pay bills? Not applicable. Care for those younger than us? There weren’t any. Marriage and sex? Forbidden. We acted like children because we were treated like children. We acted like children because the role of children was the only role available to us.

And when it comes to putting all sorts of disabled people together and centering their everyday experience, Hammerschmidt and Ricker are the first SF authors I’ve come across who even tried. That’s valuable, and much of the way in which they do it is valuable, even if there is a big, problematic hole in the middle.

Furthermore, by the standards I usually use in reviewing these books, “Kea’s Flight” passes handily. There are autistic characters. They get stuff to do. They’re treated as real people, portrayed with nuance and sensitivity, not reduced to their differences or comically exaggerated. They get to be protagonists, they talk to each other, they form strong and devoted friendships, and in the end they work together to save the day. This is good and worthy stuff, and it’s good stuff that comes authentically out of real-life neurodivergent experience.

So, yeah, in spite of everything, I’m gonna say “go read it”.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Self-Portrait as Bilbo Baggins

The first issue of Liminality is so gorgeous, you guys. And it has a poem by me about hobbits. (As well as amazing work from Sofia Samatar, Adrienne J. Odasso, Lisa M. Bradley, Erik Amundsen, Gemma Files… Basically just drop what you’re doing and read this whole thing, okay, guys? It is delish. 😀 )

Autism News, 15/09/2014

The autism news this month is a doozy; there are several different unrelated Sad Things making the rounds. First, though, some miscellaneous non-sad news:

In the wake of Ferguson, a lot of people have been reflecting on interactions between disabled people and law enforcement – particularly for disabled people of colour.

Kelli Stapleton, an “autism parent” blogger who attempted a murder-suicide of her 14-year-old autistic daughter last year, recently pled guilty to first-degree child abuse. This has renewed the debate online about how to discuss this and similar cases.

Meanwhile, a new study reveals what disability advocates have been saying for years – that a lack of sex education puts disabled people at risk in multiple respects, including a heartbreakingly high rate of sexual victimization.

Other sad things:

That’s it for this post; now go have some chocolate, if you made it to the end, and cheer yourself up!!

Autism News, 15/08/2014

My last post about language was prompted by some of these interesting posts about language.

There was an article recently in New York Times Magazine about children who “recoered” from autism by reducing their visible signs of autism to a certain level after therapy. I’m not going to link to the article, but here’s Chavisory taking it down by explaining what life ends up being like for children who go this route.

Meanwhile, here’s some interesting “what it’s like to be autistic”-type posts:

Some intersectionality:

  • The Autism Women’s Network is Kickstarting an anthology on the topic of autism and race. This is awesome.
  • Speaking of autism and race: a while back I posted a link to an article about undercover cops in the US preying on developmentally disabled teens by pressuring them into agreeing to a fake drug deal, then arresting them. Turns out it’s even worse for developmentally disabled Muslim Americans; the FBI entraps them into agreeing to help with fake terrorism.
  • On a completely different note: Virginia Hughes on the sexual politics of autism. (Note: This article is pretty medical-model-y, and is exclusively about researchers rather than the viewpoints of autistic people. Proceed with caution. I’m linking mostly because I find it interesting to see what the researchers are arguing about these days, and because it might be useful for newbie/NT readers who have seen gender-related research claims and want context for them.)

And some pan-disability stuff:

  • Real Social Skills on what disability acceptance means
  • Everybody is talking about mental illness and depression now following Robin Williams’ death. I’m not going to post much on this topic since I’m certain it’s already been plastered all over everyone’s social media feed in great detail. However, if you’re interested in this topic, here is a much-needed post by Jo from Ether Drift Theory reminding us that it’s not only about depression.
  • Here is a Disability in Kidlit roundtable about what not to do when writing disabled characters.


  • Here is an ASAN toolkit for managing health care during the transition to adulthood.
  • Cynthia Kim on backstopping: a useful skill for our close friends and caregivers
  • A shout-out from Mel Baggs to atypical Aspies. (Oh man. I fit, like, six of these.)

A post about language, ableism, and words

[Content warning: some discussion of specific slurs and ableist statements]

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while now, but ironically, I haven’t had the words.

I care about language; it would be hard for a writer not to. For instance, I prefer identity-first language to person-first language, largely because I have considered the arguments for it and agree with them. When speaking about myself or about others with disabilities similar to mine, I try very hard to make use of this language.

I also don’t really care that much how other people refer to me.

Language is an act that occurs in context, and I care more about context and intent than I do about language. If I need help and you’re helping me, for example, in some way that involves referring to my neurotype in front of others, then I don’t really care if you call me an “autistic person”, an “Aspie”, a “person who has autism”, even the dreaded “high-functioning” – whatever. As long as it’s what works in the situation we’re in. If you say something really weird, I might gently bring it up with you later. But mostly, I care that you’re helping.

(Though, of course, claiming you’re “helping” does not give you a free pass. I care that you’re helping cluefully, effectively, and with my consent. But that’s another post.)

I’m also a fan of reclaiming slurs, although that’s neither here nor there.

Many people are more upset by person-first language, or by other language-related matters, than I am. That’s fine, and it’s a thing one should take into account when deciding how to talk. But I think on some level most of us are like this. We care how we, and others like us, are treated. Language is one part of that. It can be important but is not always the most important part, and I think very few of us really believe that it is.

Social justice people get accused of being the “PC language police”, but in my experience, the worst offenders when it comes to pointless PC language (more about the term “PC” below) are very privileged people who don’t actually care about any of this.

A friend of mine told me a story once about an American politician who stated publically that people who are “mentally retarded” should be happy to work for only pennies an hour. (Because yes, it is still legal to pay that little to certain classes of disabled people in certain classes of job.)

After public outcry ensued, the politician apologized, and explained that he had misspoken. He had meant to say that “intellectually disabled” people should be happy to work for only pennies an hour.

I don’t think anybody actually found this reassuring.

If you ever hear me use the term “politically correct” non-ironically, then this is likely what I mean. People in power who carefully sanitize their language without actually caring about context, or about the effects of their actions on the people they are talking about.

It’s possible to be very, very dehumanizing and emotionally abusive without ever using the “wrong” words or the “wrong” tone. It’s possible to dress dehumanization up in a nearly-unlimited number of kittens, rainbows, and reassurances. It’s possible to do it with exactly the terminology and speech style of the people you are dehumanizing. It still is what it is, and if we critique only the surface features of language, we’ll never fix it.

However, even though it is not one of the battles I choose for myself, critiquing the surface features of language can be important. I don’t want to shame anybody who does choose this battle, or to suggest that their concerns are not worth hearing.

And, while it’s easy to go on, say, Tumblr and find people who seem to be focusing on language to the exclusion of all else, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is rarely what’s actually going on. Sometimes people choose that battle for themselves because they recognize it as a battle someone has to fight, and one that they have the tools for; that doesn’t mean they believe there are no other worthy battles. Sometimes people are genuinely upset by certain terms or language forms and need to talk about it. Sometimes people talk about language in one place, and other issues in another place. Sometimes people want to make a deeper critique of someone’s attitudes, but have trouble doing so without pointing to specific words and saying “see, that.” All of these things, and others, are valid.

(Though there are some related problems that should be talked about. Such as “punching sideways”, in which a marginalized person tries to talk about their experience and is shouted down by other marginalized people – or, worse, “allies” – because they didn’t use the correct terms. I want to talk about this but I don’t have my thoughts in order about it and can’t right now.)

In the meantime – and I can only say this for myself, personally, never for other autistic people – as long as it’s clear in context that you actually do have my back, and are actually listening when I talk to you, then you can call me whatever seems reasonable to you. And when referring to yourself, you can use whatever language you damn well please. I don’t, and shouldn’t, mind.

That is all.

The Self-Rescuing Princess

I’ve somehow been totally dumb and missed this for the first several days it was out. But! My poem, “The Self-Rescuing Princess“, is up now at Lakeside Circus!

This is my second short piece appearing in Lakeside Circus. The first, in Issue One, was my micro-story “The Button”, and I have another poem coming up in Issue Three. I am now wondering if I can challenge myself to somehow appear in every single issue ever… 😀

Anyway, it’s an angry little survivor poem with princesses in it. So, if you’re into that, go check it out.

A podcast version of this poem, read by Carrie Cuinn, is in the works, but has yet to appear. I’ll try and link you guys to it when it’s available; it’s a monologue style of poem, and those are the MOST fun ones to read, so this ought to go well.

Barking Sycamores, Issue 1: A Review

So, I don’t like non-paying markets. This is probably not a surprise; I have a vested interest in being paid for what I write. Writing is work; and there is a time and place for volunteer work, particularly in an activist context. But when one is expected to work for free as part (or all) of one’s career, or told that working for free is the only option because of one’s marginalization, bad things happen.

I don’t like non-paying markets. And I don’t, as a rule, review non-speculative stuff.

So why the heck am I reviewing Barking Sycamores?

This is a zine which is dedicated to showcasing the work of neurodiverse poets (and artists), but doesn’t pay them. There’s a “donate” button, but the money goes to distribution, not contributors.

And I could rail about this being an unethical way to showcase poetry from an already-underrepresented group. Or I could roll my eyes and go do something else. Yet here I am, writing an actual review of Issue One. Possibly because this is exactly my thing; possibly because I don’t know of any other market, paying or not, with the same mission. Possibly just because my brain grabs on to things sometimes and doesn’t let go.


You might expect that, in a non-paying market, the work will vary in quality. It does. But there are many good pieces in here, and the issue as a whole is enjoyable to read. There is a strong sense of shared mood and theme: topics vary, but each poet conveys a sense of a slantwise sensory and cognitive approach to life. Each poet owns and validates their difference, even though many are painfully aware of surrounding forces that wish to erase them.

The best of these more-painful poems, dealing with the sheer weight of NT expectations, is Savannah Logsdon-Breakdone’s “Sleep“. Emily Page Ballou’s coordinated pair of poems, comparing her “real” self to the self adults wished her to be, is also intriguing, as is Barbara Ruth’s “At Sixty-Seven, Still Brain Damaged, Still Brilliant“.

Those readers looking for speculative fare might be satisfied by Sarah Akin’s magical-realist “To George“, or by a few of Christopher Wood Robbins’ poems; meanwhile, Lucas Sheelk’s “Dear Allistic, Love, Autistic” is not quite a poem, but is well worth reading as an intimate, true-to-life look at a type of relationship we don’t often get to see in what’s published about us.

There are several poets in these pages who are very interesting to me, and whom I’ll (eventually) be looking up for further work. If you’re interested, as I am, in both poetry and neurodiversity, then it’s all worth a look.

One wishes, however, that each of these worthy poets had been paid something for their efforts. I totally agree with trying to distribute neurodiverse poetry to a wider audience, in order to give new readers a sense of neurodivergent authors’ experiences and personhood. But if we really wish to honor the poets’ personhood, surely that should include paying them something for their published work, as other poets are paid – not simply using them as a convenient source of free words to use in furthering a cause.

So a few people did my likeability exercise back in June. Not many, and not nearly enough for any of these to be scientifically rigorous conclusions (lol), but I’m gonna summarize some stuff anyway, because I’m in a posting and summarizing mood!

It seems that people are pretty consistent in their preferences. Most folks seemed to have a set of traits that really endeared them to a character, and most or all of the people on their list would have most or all of those traits. However, the set of traits was completely different for each person, and was heavily based in their own values.

Likeability contained an element of moral approval for some people, but not others. Some people’s preferences changed slightly based on a character’s gender, but others didn’t change at all, and even for the former group, there was considerable overlap.

So it seems that likeability isn’t objective – there’s no one formula to make everybody like one character – but it’s also not completely arbitrary and meaningless. Instead, it’s a question of what appeals to an individual reader.

Oddly, I found that I had more of a double standard / change in preferences between genders than anybody else who dared to do the exercise. I also had more difficulty doing the exercise than I thought I would. Neither of these was what I expected!

If you’re curious, here are my answers:

Male Characters

This part was easy, and I just wrote down the first / biggest three that came to mind out of many runner-ups:

  1. Miles Vorkosigan
  2. [A player-turned-recurring-villain from a D&D game I used to play in – anybody who’s done an RPG with me or talked about large projects with me recently will probably know who I’m talking about.]
  3. Loki, as played by Tom Hiddleston

Shared traits, between these and nearly all of the runner-ups: Extremely clever, quick-thinking, charismatic, unconventional, a bit devious, and larger-than-life.

There seems to be no real moral component here, as I have heroes, villains, and morally-ambiguous antiheroes (O HAI, Vlad Taltos) crowding up this runner-up list with about equal aplomb.

Female Characters

This part was way, WAY harder than the male characters, and I have no idea why… As before, there was a sizeable runner-up list, but with the male list, the runner-ups were like “Oh yeah, I like him, too.” With this one, it was more like, “Could she go on the list? Should she go on the list? MAYBE ALMOST she goes on the list but I am not sure and not happy about this and I’m not sure why I’m unhappy or feel reluctant/awkward? I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THIS LIST. I thought I PREFERRED books/shows with female characters, what even IS this.”

Anyway, after a lot of confusion, the actual list ended up like this:

  1. Melinda May (from “Agents of SHIELD”)
  2. Adelle DeWitt (from “Dollhouse”)
  3. Granny Weatherwax (from the Discworld novels)

So clearly this is different from the other list? Hyper-competence is still an aspect, but it’s defined more broadly, and there’s also this aloof, closed-off, unfriendly quality which is suddenly all over the place.

(It also seems like the opposite of the male list, personality-wise, except it isn’t quite. It’s possible to have the aloofness and the showoffy unconventional-thinking-charisma at the same time – Benedict Cumberbatch’s character on “Sherlock” comes to mind – although it is not typical.)

(Also, speaking of “Agents of SHIELD”, I belatedly noticed that Skye fits all of my “male character” criteria at least to some degree, though not as flamboyantly as some and with a degree of inexperience. I quite like Skye; she’s on my female runner-up list. Despite the fact that half of the fandom apparently hates her? And I don’t know what’s up with that, either?)

Anyway, so apparently I just have WAY more internalized sexism than all of the rest of you for some reason. And I’ve had enough crushes on girls that I can’t even blame heterosexuality… I have no idea at all.

If this doesn’t scare you away, you can still do the exercise for yourself here.

Autism News, 7/10/2014

I’m readjusting my habits (again) and we may actually have a small and on-time news post for once. First, here are some posts about social skills and social coping:

  • The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism on how to avoid becoming hateful when people are cruel
  • Real Social Skills on the idea of NTs “instinctively knowing” social rules that autistic people don’t, and why this idea is not actually correct
  • Emily Brooks on learning to date while autistic

Some pan-disability stuff:


Sad things:

  • Lisa Daxer has some kinda-good news on a very sad topic, with a couple of people who murdered autistic teenagers being brought to justice.
  • A new law to help prevent organ transplant discrimination
  • Real Social Skills on a version of ABA that doesn’t use punishments, and why there are still problems with this version
  • A safety warning for people who post pictures of their autistic family members
  • I missed this when it was first posted, but lately this article by Stop Hurting Kids, and an accompanying myth-busting fact sheet about seclusion and restraint in schools, have been making the rounds again.

My spooky science-fantasy poem, “Evianna Talirr Builds a Portal on Commission”, is now available in Year 1 of the HWA Poetry Showcase, along with works by Geoffrey A. Landis, Ann K. Schwader, and many other famously spooky poets of spook. These were the Horror Writers Association’s favorite poems out of what was submitted to them in their contest back in April.

Ev, a sort of Lovecraftian mystic-scientist who both invents and destroys things, has been creeping around and showing up in different works of mine for some time now, but this is the first time one of them’s actually sold. So, I’m pleased.

More later. IRL stuff has been keeping me away from the blogosphere, but it’s slowly getting back under control.