“You talk too much.”
“You’re too quiet.”
“Look me in the eyes when you speak to me.”
“You don’t look like you’re paying attention.”
“Hurry up and finish what you’re trying to say. I’m waiting.”
“If you can’t say it out loud, then you don’t really mean it.”
“A conversation in writing isn’t a real conversation.”
Some of my earliest memories involve failing at social norms, especially around words, conversation, and communication. I couldn’t stop finding words and talking about an area of interest (even when other people’s eyes rolled so far back in their heads it had to be painful), but when it came to regular chatting, I couldn’t get the rhythm.
I still struggle with this.
I tend to look off to the left when I speak to people. If I make too much eye contact, it’s hard to remember what I’m trying to say. When other people speak to me at length, I feel a lot of discomfort because I’m not sure when I’m supposed to speak back, and I often look like I’m off in space just from the effort of listening to each word and making sure I don’t miss anything, or misunderstand.
In my role as a therapist, it’s a lot easier, since the rules are more clear, and it’s more important that the other person do all the talking they need to do. In my role as a regular human out in the world—words are hard. I often accidentally interrupt or talk over people because I can’t tell when they’ve paused and it’s my turn. I’m often too direct, too blunt, too insistent, and other “too” words, at least in the opinion of people trying to interact with me.
When I began to write, around age 8-9, I discovered an entirely new world of communication, one where I could control the pauses and make all the eye contact I needed to make, where I could find the right words so easily, and be absolutely certain people understood what I meant. Even when I felt overwhelmed by emotion, I could speak without getting clogged up, and the words flowed onto paper. Naturally, I started trying to have important conversations with friends and family in writing, only to hear some of the quotes listed above.
For a time, I believed these things, and I felt “less than” because I was better on paper than in person. For even more time, I did not include any of my own characteristics or struggles in my characters’ challenges. More than a dozen published novels—but none in my own voice, and none including the struggles I faced at those ages.
And then OwnVoices began to happen, and the more I read about other authors brave enough to write characters based in their own neurodivergent realities, the more I felt like I could do it, too. I hoped kids who faced similar challenges could find themselves on my pages—and with every sentence and paragraph and new character and story, this happens. Now it feels right and normal to let my characters fight with words and talking, and learn that there are so, so, so many ways to communicate. And all of them are valid!
So, pssst---please help everyone understand that written words are just as good as spoken words. Spoken words are just as good as written words. If people need to talk in pictures or read in pictures—then picture it up! If painting or music or movement or mono-focus is their vibe, let them communicate that way. If a person stims when they talk, let them stim! If they’re not really into talking, being quiet is fine, too. Eye contact is overrated and more about control and other people’s comfort. And while I’m at it, listening to books is just as valid as reading with eyes or fingertips. Graphic novels are novels.
THERE IS ALWAYS MORE THAN ONE WAY, MORE THAN ONE FORMAT. Find new options, and glory in every one of them. Mix them together and mix them up and keep right on going to new levels of acceptance and communication.
This is what OwnVoices means to me, finding the courage to say words are hard, to assert that any and all forms of communication are equal and should be accepted and celebrated—then living it—and most, most definitely, writing it. I hope every person who reads my books finds a piece of themselves in the stories, and that the representation helps them tap their own power, and be all the more beautifully and individually themselves.
Susan Vaught (www.susanvaught.com) is the two-time Edgar Award–winning author of Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy and Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse. Things Too Huge to Fix by Saying Sorry received three starred reviews and an Edgar Nomination, and Super Max and the Mystery of Thornwood’s Revenge was called “an excellent addition to middle grade shelves” by School Library Journal. Her debut picture book, Together We Grow, received four starred reviews and was called a “picture book worth owning and cherishing” by Kirkus Reviews, and she is currently working on two new picture books and a new middle grade mystery. She works as a neuropsychologist at a state psychiatric facility and lives on a farm with her wife and son in rural western Kentucky.
[Editor's Note: For further reading on OwnVoices, here are some links we'd recommend:]