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Reading Beyond Neurodivergent Stereotypes
By Jen Malia | Jul 23, 2021
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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.
Jen Malia
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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? Are agencies and publishers doing the work to learn how to engage with neurodivergent authors appropriately? Are they pursuing sensitivity training that educates them about ableism and the importance of neurodiversity? Are they hiring and promoting neurodivergent employees?
Other neurodivergent writers may not be lucky enough to have agents who are neurodivergent, as my agent is—agents who will go to bat without hesitation when their clients get ableist rejections, even though doing so might impact their own careers. Without my agent’s support, I might not have had the courage to talk publicly about the ableist treatment from my publisher.
As I approach my next projects, which include this chapter book series, more picture books, and an adult nonfiction book about parenting neurodivergent kids, I’m hopeful that other publishers will be excited to work with me to champion books about neurodiversity. Neurodivergent stories need to be told, and I’m determined to be one of the authors to tell them.
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.
A version of this article appeared in the 07/26/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Reading Beyond Stereotypes
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