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Josh Palange + Jennifer Slagus: What’s at Stake? (autism, representation)




Editor 1: I’m always on the lookout for projects with neurodiverse representation, but ultimately I don’t feel quite strong enough to move forward.

Josh: Okay, I get that.


Editor 2: I love the neurodiverse representation…I didn’t connect with the plot enough to feel that it’s the right fit for our list.


Josh: Hmm, the plot. Right, okay, I can work on that.


Editor 3: I was intrigued by the premise…and appreciated the neurodiversity representation (the highlight for all of us), we ultimately struggled with the stakes of the story.

Josh: The stakes of the story? Of course you don’t get it, you’re not autistic.


But I am. And I get why you don’t get it.

These are only three pieces of feedback I have received on my debut middle grade graphic novel (which still hasn’t debuted; blame Covid, blame the high costs to publish graphic novels, or blame the gatekeepers). As a new author I know I’ll get plenty more feedback and rejection. I get that’s how this works.


And I’m okay with editors critiquing the plot or some other point in the book, that’s understandable. I can better the story.


Critique my craft; say it needs to be tightened up or the dialogue needs work. That’s valid. That will only better my writing.


But I can’t better my autism.


I can’t ask the editor what flavor of autism do you want? I’ll tell the chef to include that in the next revision. Because, chances are, editors have a limited palate. In some cases, that’s understandable, they like what they like. And they don’t know what they could like, because they’ve never tried it.


Much like a safe food, editors happen to rely on stereotypes: the little Sheldons, little Good Doctors, or little Rain Men in the stories they publish. But there’s a buffet of autistic “flavors,” a whole spectrum of tastes, out there that they’re missing.


As someone who’s been autistic all my life, I borrow from my experience when I write, like all authors do. Whether that manifests in a character that counts strokes when they brush their teeth, or thinks about a tag in their shirt all day, or suspects that a change in the lunch menu routine means a robot chef must have taken over the school cafeteria…


Those are ALL real and valid stakes. Maybe some more than others, but regardless, these conflicts are real. For an autistic character (and for autistic readers), the stakes that editors don’t seem to understand, can be a huge deal.


And without my partner, Jennifer, researching neurodivergent children’s literature, I wouldn’t know that this misunderstanding is part of a bigger issue. I would just think my writing (and, by extension, me) is bad.

____


Jennifer: Josh is right. As a neurodivergent researcher, I have seen that Josh’s experience isn’t unique. The bigger issue is that editors and publishers only support the books they think are widely palatable and marketable.


Despite literary gatekeepers saying they don’t only support “proven authors,” they continue to historically exclude debut, marginalized voices -- despite the fact that the “unproven” authors are likely sharing stories with depth and richness informed by their lived experiences.


Last summer children’s author and university professor Jen Malia shared her experience with publishers preferring stereotypes. Essentially, she argued that publishers were only interested in her writing if it featured tokenized “flavors” of autism.


And autistic author Lynn Miller-Lachmann has discussed this at length as well, noting that stereotyped, canonical books have carved out what publishers think all neurodivergent stories should be. All other options (even if they’re more realistic) are overlooked.


Many other marginalized and neurodivergent authors have echoed the same.


Part of this exclusion comes from there being hardly any openly neurodivergent or disabled gatekeepers in the industry. Yet at least one neurodivergent kid is learning in virtually every classroom in the country. This makes for a massive disconnect between gatekeeper tastes and audience needs.

So, what do we do about it? And why keep writing when at every turn it feels like someone else is speaking for us?


The simple, and probably unsatisfying, answer is…because it matters. All kids, not just neurodivergent ones, need access to reading about the many varieties of neurodivergent experience.


Josh and I both spent our whole lives, until our mid-20s, not knowing why things felt a little off, or why everything seemed harder for us than it did for our friends, or why we struggled to make (and keep) those few friends.


Maybe those years of off-ness could have felt a little less lonely if we were able to snuggle up and read about someone who looks just like us. Maybe they wouldn’t be the butt of every joke. Maybe they’d just be a kid; a weird and wonderful kid. Just like we were.


If we saw neurodivergence portrayed in children’s literature as a part of “normal,” functional life, maybe we could have found our communities, and ourselves, a lot earlier too.


That’s why, despite the seemingly endless sea of editors who don’t quite get us and who gravitate toward easy-but-harmful, stereotypical stories, we need to keep writing our real lives into our prose.


Because we get those kids. They look a lot like us, because we’re weird and wonderful too.



 



Josh Palange (he/him) is a writer and former English educator. He works from home under the direct supervision of his meticulous, and oftentimes demanding, furry pet overlords, where he writes funny and nerdy stories about kids that often remind him of himself. Josh holds a B.A. in English Creative Writing and Communications from the University of South Florida. He is represented by Maria Vicente of P.S. Literary Agency. Check out Josh’s latest work at jdpalange.com.





Jennifer Slagus (they/she) is a multiply neurodivergent doctoral student in Social, Cultural, and Political Contexts of Education at Brock University (Canada). Jennifer holds a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Library & Information Science from the University of South Florida and completed New York University’s Publishing Institute. Their research focuses on neurodivergent representation in 21st century middle grade books. Jennifer lives in Buffalo, NY with Josh, three regal cats, and a vexing chowsky.