Publishers must change the story around neurodiversity

Publishers must change the story around neurodiversity

“Those people don’t read books, let alone write them.”

These words were said to me as I sat in a meeting with some respected publishers. I had just explained that my work and research revolved around better representation for disabled and neurodivergent children. 

Neurodivergent refers to someone who is autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic or has ADHD or Tourette’s Syndrome, to name some examples. These conditions are all classified as disabilities.

“Those people." They spoke very freely. Not realising that I am one of “those people”.

I am a neurodivergent writer. And an avid reader. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been recommended a book about someone like me, that has been written by an author like me.

So I wrote my own.

My time in the publishing industry has been eye-opening. I dreamed of working with books because I wanted to be around other people who loved them, too. So it was hurtful, after revealing my diagnosis, to be told that I had a disease. To have two people confide in me that they would kill themselves if they were neurodivergent. To have someone ask if I would be willing to write about how I identified with Frankenstein’s Monster, something that is absolutely not true! When my diagnosis is revealed, people’s behaviour immediately changes. They speak more slowly, more deliberately, and opportunities start to disappear.

I can’t control what stories people tell themselves when they hear the word “disabled” or “neurodivergent”. But I can work to improve those stories.

Stories about disabled people are often penned by able-bodied and neurotypical authors. Regular tropes can be expected. The hero who would prefer death to being disabled. The autistic child whose diagnosis hits the family like a bomb. The magical cure that arrives just in time for a happy ending. I’ve seen them all, again and again. The messages were drummed into me as a reader. Your disability is bad and you want to be fixed. If the publishing industry were to hire more inclusively in terms of disability then these same stories might start to diversify and this harmful messaging might dissipate.

And Own Voices is the key to doing this.

The backlash to novels like American Dirt and My Brother’s Name is Jessica demonstrates that the thirst for Own Voices is not only palpable, but also that readers are ready to reject narratives that seem exploitative and inauthentic. 

Many publishers have received this message and are working hard to diversify their lists and present Own Voices titles. Dara McAnulty, an autistic nature writer, will release his eagerly-awaited début in May of this year. Lizzie Huxley-Jones, an autistic writer and editor, crowdfunded Stim: An Anthology (a collection of essays by autistic people) on Unbound. It smashed its target and will be published in April. My own début will be published by Knights Of in June, so 2020 is certainly shaping up to be a great year for neurodiversity in publishing.

The reaction people have when I reveal my work tells me that people in publishing still misunderstand and fear ND conditions. More than 5,000 disability hate crimes were reported to police in 2018/19, just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time work and a recent survey revealed only 41% of people interviewed would be happy for their children to go to school with learning disabled children. Last year, Britain lost its Measles-free status because of Anti-Vaxers (the people who send me hateful DMs without provocation) and their fear that vaccines give people autism.

We know books increase empathy and that storytelling is an excellent educational device, so if publishers invest in disabled writers and editors, this can be not only an ethical advancement in inclusion but also a proactive business venture.

A publisher approached me last year, asking if I would contribute 15,000 words to their ND anthology. The person approaching me was neurotypical and was being paid by the publishers to curate work from ND authors. As I was in the middle of edits with my novel, I asked about pay.

“Unpaid. But it’s great exposure.”

I told them politely that no ND writer can afford to work for free, especially when the publishers want 15,000 words revealing emotional pain and trauma. 

I was told that the neurotypical curator was the only one who would be paid and entitled to royalties, and that the work would be the reward. That this was normal.

Well. It should not be the norm. Publishers are hungry for ND voices, especially in the age of Greta Thunberg, and they should be prepared to pay fairly and equally for neurotypical writers.

I believe, as a writer, that people should be able to write about whatever they wish. That no subject should be off-limits. But if publishers want to capitalise on disabled stories, then disabled writers are ready and willing to provide quality content. Own Voices should be the rule, not the exception.

We don’t want handouts. We don’t want the same old story. We want to write our own.

Elle McNicoll is a neurodivergent writer whose debut children’s novel will be published by inclusive publishers, Knights Of, in June 2020.