Reading Beyond Neurodivergent Sterotypes

From Publishers Weekly:

Ableism against neurodivergent authors is a widespread problem within the publishing industry. Neurodivergent people include those diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other neurological differences.

Popular, award-winning books with neurodivergent characters written by authors who don’t have lived experiences of neurodivergence permeate the publishing landscape. Some of the common and harmful stereotypes that appear in these books show neurodivergent kids as burdens to their families, or depict neurodivergent protagonists who “overcome” their disabilities. When neurodivergent authors present different, more nuanced experiences in their books, they’re asked to change them to be more like these award-winning books, or they’re rejected outright because of narratives that don’t fit publishers’ expectations of how neurodivergence should be represented.

I thought I was one of the lucky ones. A publisher approached me to write a children’s picture book based on my lived experiences with autism, which became my debut, Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism. But I was shocked when my agent, Naomi Davis at BookEnds, told me the same publisher sent a rejection letter with ableist comments about my new chapter book series highlighting neurodivergent experiences. It indicated that my proposed series was too focused on kids with issues and therefore wouldn’t reach a wide audience.

Kids with “issues.” The publisher referred to neurodivergent kids as kids with “issues”—as if neurodivergent children are defined by their weaknesses rather than their strengths. As if they shouldn’t be embraced for their different ways of experiencing the world. And as if they don’t have any interest or need to read a series like this.

At least one in five kids are neurodivergent, according to the CDC’s statistics. But in a 2019 study, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only 3.4% of children’s books have disabled main characters, and only a fraction of that includes neurodivergent main characters—nowhere near the 20% that should represent neurodivergent kids.

The rejection letter went on to say that the series wouldn’t reach a wide audience because that’s not what I wanted. The publisher claimed that it didn’t want to push me into creating a series that it wanted.

Despite my desire to reach a broad audience, and the multiple rounds of revision I had already done on this proposal over eight months, I was blamed for the publisher’s view that my story would not matter to people beyond the neurodivergent community. The publisher spoke over me, rather than hearing my voice.

My agent wrote a long response, objecting to the language in the rejection and pointing out how it implied that neurodivergent stories appeal only to neurodivergent readers. The publisher’s rejection language was ableist. It’s not what we expected from a publisher already publishing my book specifically about autism. It’s insulting to imply that a book that appeals to neurodivergent readers more than to neurotypical readers won’t have a wide enough audience. We were shocked, and we were furious.

The publisher’s response to my agent’s letter was a performative one-line statement “apology” that provided no insight into how it intended to repair our relationship, support my currently published book, or do better going forward. In fact, it seemed to place the burden of this conflict on my agent and me for being upset, rather than on its actions.

If an agented and published author like me faces ableism from a publisher, how is the publishing industry treating unagented aspiring authors? 

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG isn’t quite certain what he is supposed to say or not say regarding an article written by a neurodivergent author.

PG is certainly divergent in a number of ways, but doesn’t believe he is neurodivergent as he understands the term.

However, the author’s reported experience with a prospective publisher as described is not at all atypical of the way publishers treat all sorts of people – healthy, impaired, etc., etc.

Additionally, there is no great surprise if a manuscript from an agented and published author is rejected by a publisher for any reason or no reason. There are no versions of a season pass for a season of any length in the traditional publishing world.

Publishers as a group are also noted for their reluctance to work with an author who is “difficult” for any reason.

PG is not certain whether there are any degrees of “difficult” that apply in this behavior by publishers.

Whenever he’s read/heard about it, “difficult” seems to be a binary characteristic for an author. One is or one is not difficult. If one is a teeny bit difficult, perhaps such behavior is not enough to trigger the difficult trapdoor.

Additionally, an author may be in the good graces of a publisher one day and difficult the next. Overstep some invisible line, even if it wasn’t present yesterday, and you’re difficult.

Disagreeing with a decision made by a publisher as is depicted/implied in the OP is a behavior characteristic of more than one “difficult” author regardless of whether the author is absolutely correct and the publisher is absolutely wrong or not.

It’s not about right vs. wrong, it’s about not difficult vs. difficult.

Publishers may be difficult to any degree, but authors may not.

10 thoughts on “Reading Beyond Neurodivergent Sterotypes”

  1. I’m going to be a smart ass and say not anymore, not unless your desire to be published by a traditional press out weighs the sensible realization that this is no longer a necessary hurdle one has to cross.

    Of course, the very fact that they have an agent doomed them from the start.

  2. The POV of the OP is one of those “there ought to be…” appeals to authority. In my experience, the self-publishing crowd is a “f*ck authority” bunch, by and large. (“Mom, he’s picking on me again — make him stop” vs “No one likes a tattletale.”)

    It’s hard (near-impossible?) for people of the first character type to make the transition to the 2nd character type. It’s sort of like learning to walk after years of a considering crutches your rigid destiny. You have to be willing to try (which is the most important part), and you start out weak, but you CAN take charge of much more of your life if you change your attitude/mindset. No one starts out (or ends up) perfect — it’s the wrong goal to expect that a life with no hurdles to surmount is either possible or even desirable, much less owed to you.

    Given the choice, which is easier: changing everyone else’s opinion about your own self-perceived “difference”, or ignoring everyone else’s opinion? Hint: only one of these is actually within your power.

    I’ve always had a hard time understanding folks of the first character type. They’re like weak bullies (“I have a issue, and it’s YOUR responsibility to fix it”), and there’s nothing sadder than a weak bully.

    Makes me feel downright Nietzschian.

    • Heh. Heh.
      Nicely put.

      Alas, there is a strong plurality of folks who have been taught to expect others to take care of them. That demanding is better than doing. Passive compliance over self- reliance.

      My favorite quote of the century (so far) is: “Hope is sitting around doing nothing, waiting for somebody else to solve the problem.”

    • I like authority, but I can personally attest that obedient people can be pushed so far that they flip to rebels. My history with tradpub, looking back on it now, feels like a “how to” progression for creating a supervillain, lol. 🙂

      As I said in twitter (about government and other types of authority): If anything, those of us who are rule followers are worse than the defiant people, once we lose faith. Because we feel betrayed, and it becomes personal. It’s not ‘we hate systems!’, it’s ‘my system betrayed me. I was true to it, and it reneged.’

      I guess it’s the red pill for writers. -_-

      • I like supervillains. More complex and interesting than the neurotic teenager types.

        Looking forward to The Suicide Squad, next week.

  3. This is what I talked about in my last post about Dean and Kris, they have lumped so many different “conditions” into so few labels that 20% of kids are part of this group of “neurodivergent” people.

    She is doing very well for herself:

    Jen Malia is associate professor of English and creative writing coordinator at Norfolk State University and the author of the picture book Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism.

    Also, it turns out that her agent is also “neurodivergent”:

    Other neurodivergent writers may not be lucky enough to have agents who are neurodivergent, as my agent is

    It sounds like the agent tried to play the “you’re being mean” card with the publisher and it didn’t work, so now the “associate professor” is trying the “public shaming” card. We’ll see how that goes.

    At the Highway Department I worked with many different people. One was a “little person”. He was president of the “Little People of America” for New Mexico. When they were looking for people to work on the movie “Willow” they contacted him for names.

    As far as I know he never held it against me that I was six-foot tall. He retired as a Design Manager.

    I suspect that he dealt with more real social problems than the lady has. He is the nicest guy in the world, and was a joy to work with. I still run into him occasionally when I go to Sams Club.

  4. I knew, somewhere deep in my gut, that I wasn’t going to get Pride’s Children into any traditional publisher. I knew that I’d receive the ‘nice, but not for us’ letters (from the whole submission process of my previous still unpublished mystery novels). Publishers don’t really like novels with disabled main characters unless they’re ‘inspiration porn.’ Or the disabled character tidies herself away so the neurotypicals and normals aren’t bothered.

    I didn’t have the stomach for it – so I taught myself how to self-publish, struggled with every aspect of it, learned, and executed. Glad I didn’t waste any time waiting by the mailbox.

  5. But in a 2019 study, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only 3.4% of children’s books have disabled main characters, and only a fraction of that includes neurodivergent main characters—nowhere near the 20% that should represent neurodivergent kids.

    Seems like an awful large set aside. What percentage of kids are lactose intolerant?

Comments are closed.