Supporting neurodivergent writers

Supporting neurodivergent writers

As this article is partly about being a late-diagnosed neurodivergent writer, I’ll start with the caveat that neurodivergent people definitely don’t experience life in the same way so I can’t speak about the experiences of others, only my own.

For a long time I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what it was, so I alighted on various versions of ‘something wrong’ until I realised they didn’t quite work. Was the ‘wrongness’ because of my hip dysplasia, because I’m a lesbian, because I’m ugly or because I was brought up in a hotel? I sat cross-legged in front of the TV when Margaret Thatcher talked about ‘pretended families’ – perhaps the thing wrong with me was that I was pretend?

Having suspected I was dyslexic since my early 20s, I was finally diagnosed with dyslexia and (surprise!) dyspraxia in my early 40s. I am now on a waiting list for a diagnosis of what would have been called Asperger’s had I been diagnosed as a child, and is now referred to as ASD or ASC. I have also learned, through reading, that I have traits of ADHD, but not the H bit. Discovering this was mind blowing. To paraphrase the meditation teacher Tara Brach, I found myself asking the question: what if nothing is the matter? It was like finally realising there was nothing wrong with me.

But I’ve been wrangling with conflicting paradigms for most of my life and that leaves a trace; discovering through Samantha Craft’s work that I’m probably hyperlexic and dyslexic for instance. Think of it as being obsessed with reading and writing, not always doing those things as expected, but more than that, the difficulty and the love are intertwined.

Let me explain what this feels like. We watched "The Mitchells v. The Machines" recently. Slight spoiler coming up. Part of the plot involves the Mitchells’ pet dog, Monchi the pug. The futuristic robots can’t tell if he’s dog or a pig or a loaf of bread and the cognitive dissonance fries their brains. I can (sort of) make those robots stand for ‘society’ and I’m Monchi. How can I have dyslexia and a PhD? How can I have hip dysplasia if I climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius on a trip to Pompeii? How can I have Asperger’s when I empathise so much I can’t watch sport because it makes me so anxious when one side loses? (During the Euros I was like a dog on Fireworks Night.) But cognitive dissonance is productive: it’s what The Mitchells use to defeat the robots in "The Mitchells v. The Machines". Being able to see things differently is powerful. 

Here are ten things editors and agents can do to assist the neurodivergent writers they work with. I think this is especially important if you’ve said you want submissions from us:

1. Listen to neurodivergent writers. Go to talks and readings.

2. Ask us. Personally I’m not used to being asked so this would take me by surprise, which is why I’ve put it second.

3. Read books by neurodivergent writers. I’ve included some suggestions at the end of this post.

4. Be careful with love. I just got a new badge. It says ‘I take things literally’. If someone tells me they love my writing I either think they mean it, or because I know neurotypical people don’t always say what they mean and I find it hard to tell the difference; I’m suspicious, then confused. I had a story in an anthology recently. The editor wrote to tell me it was accepted, sent me the proofs, asked for my biog, and sent me the payment. There was no talk of love. It’s better this way.

5. Say it like it is. Not ‘How do you feel about changing this character’s name?’ but ‘I think you should change this character’s name because’. At an online event, in answer to the question ‘how much advance should I expect?’ an agent said ‘it might be £5,000, it might be £500,000.’ This is very confusing to someone who takes things literally. I still don’t know what it means.

6. Help me to prioritise. Ironically, over the years I’ve got much better planning and hitting deadlines because I realised I wasn’t good at organising myself, so I became obsessed with learning about sequencing, prioritising and decision-making. All the same, tell me which action you want me to perform first, rather than giving me a range of possibilities.

7. Learn about Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria. I would prefer to call it Rejection Sensitivity. Additude Magazine has a good definition. Knowing about it helps.  

8. Social events. I am speaking for myself here, but do I really have to go for a posh lunch? Would a coffee do? Don’t assume I’m an extrovert. (Or that I’m not). Ask. And air kissing, what’s that about? It feels like non-violent headbutting to me. Do you have to touch me? No. See number 4.

9. Beware stereotypes. I think writing was / is my ‘special interest’. There, I’ve said it, and I HATE the term ‘special interest.’ We’re not necessarily really good at, say, maths or drawing. We don’t necessarily hate socialising or making eye-contact.

10. Get ready to be impressed. Sort of contradicting number 9, but here are four things neurodivergent people might be super-good at (or might not be):

Telling it like it is.
Empathising.
Making unusual connections.
Hyper focus.

Finally, as promised, here are some books by neurodivergent writers that have come out in the last few years:

The Oscillations by Kate Fox (Nine Arches, 2021)
We’re Not Broken by Eric Garcia (Mariner Books, 2021)
Drama Queen by Sara Gibbs (Headline, 2021)
The Stone Age by Jen Hadfield (Picador 2021)
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida (Sceptre, 2021)
Odd Girl Out by Laura James (Bluebird, 2018)
Letters To My Weird Sisters by Joanne Limburg. (Atlantic, 2021)
The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May (Trapeze, 2018)
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights of, 2020)
Divergent Mind by Jenara Nerenberg (HarperOne, 2020)
A Different Sort of Normal by Abigail Balfe (Puffin 2021)
Love Me Not by Holly Smale (Harper Collins Children’s, 2021)

Louise Tondeur writes mainly fiction, poetry and nonfiction. She has published two novels and a short story collection and currently tutors on the Open University’s Creative Writing MA. She blogs at www.louisetondeur.co.uk.