Voices From the Spectrum #26: Jennifer Brozek on Creating Neurodiverse Characters
Jennifer Brozek is an award winning editor/author, and freelance writer. Jennifer is the author of the award winning YA Battletech novel, The Nellus Academy Incident, the Bram Stoker nominated YA novel, Never Let Me Sleep, and Shadowrun novella, Doc Wagon 19. She has also written for the AAA MMO Aion and the award winning videogame, Shadowrun Returns.
This week Jennifer shared her experience as an autistic writer and some of society’s misconceptions about autism.
How did you discover your autism diagnosis?
Jenn: I had just moved up to Washington and I was going to be part of a study for adults with autism as part of the control group. However, as soon as I took the first test and had a conversation with one of the doctors about many of my childhood issues and coping mechanisms—rocking, non-reactions when in trouble, stuttering, etc.—I was diagnosed as having high functioning autism. It was a surprise in one way, but not a surprise in many other ways.
You’ve said in a previous interview that mental illness is often depicted in polarizing ways (either as a superpower or something that turns people into psychopathic criminals). Why is it important to depict the in-between in your writing? What value does it add for readers?
Jenn: A lack of knowledge leads to fear and misunderstanding. When all you have are extreme, badly portrayed, examples of a mental illness, people don’t understand what it is actually like to have autism on any level. They make incorrect assumptions and believe the worst of the people suffering from this common mental illness. Horrible things happen—like mentally ill people being shot and killed by police because the officers have not been trained to recognize and interact with someone who suffers from autism. What uninformed people need is a touchstone. “Oh, he’s like Character X on that show.” To understand that shouting can shut us down completely… to the average person in authority looks like non-compliance or stubbornness when it is not.
Also, those of us who do have varying levels of autism need to have fictional heroes like us. It took too long for me to realize that I didn’t need to be saved; that I could save myself. I could be the hero, too.
What are some of the most important factors you attribute to your professional success as an author/editor?
Jenn: Persistence and cussed determination. I refused to give up. I write to a deadline—sometimes of my own making. I keep track of everything I do. I know what I will do daily for 1-2 weeks out and every single deadline for 9-12 months out. I write. I edit. I try new things. I fail. I try different things. I succeed. I get advice. I give advice. I teach. I learn. I share. And, above all, I keep on keeping on.
Tell us about the latest projects you are working on.
Jenn: I’ve just finished up a year’s worth of tie-in writing that included a Shadowrun novel called Makeda Red, a Valdemar short story, all of the background stories for a CCG-miniatures-board game called H.E.A.D. Hunters, and a couple of NDA projects that I can’t yet tell you about. I also had two omnibuses (the Karen Wilson Chronicles and the Melissa Allen series) and a new YA horror novel (The Last Days of Salton Academy) come out in 2016. In 2017, I’m scheduled to work on a brand new teen suspense/horror series. It will be good to get back to writing in my own worlds.
What ways can parents help improve society’s perception of autism? Is this important/necessary?
Jenn: I suspect that it is more individual than not, depending on how people act and react to the kids and parents. The biggest thing parents can do is understand how their kids act—and why—then to share that information with their neighbors, family, friends, church groups, etc… Don’t be shy. Think of it like informing people of a peanut allergy or the need for a kid to have an epipen because of being deathly allergic to bees. It is a real illness. There are specific symptoms your child exhibits, and there are ways to calm them—silence, a book, the need to not be touched, etc.—and those who will interact with that child need to know this. Consistency is extremely helpful for those of us with autism. The more people know and understand, the less they have to be afraid of.
What mistakes do autism advocates make?
Jenn: One size does not fit all. There is no one cure. Everyone is different. While autism has some overall characteristics, those who suffer from it have individual issues. Some people get frustrated with this fact. They want an easy answer and there isn’t one. Another mistake is not listening to the person with autism. We don’t always have the best communication methods. Impatience and assumptions are our worst enemies. Sometimes, we lose our words. Words are my life and I still have mental train wrecks that don’t allow me to convey what I’m trying to say. Getting impatient with me makes it worse. We can’t always give a coherent, concise answer to what is wrong or what we need. Advocates need to be aware of this.
You’ve said that you started out writing because you had stories to tell and that you continue to write because you have messages to give–both intentional and otherwise. What are some of the most powerful, driving messages you work to get out to the world?
Jenn: We all deserve to be here and we all deserve to see people like us in our fiction entertainment. I don’t have all the answers so I will do what I can. I will show the kid who has never had a character like them to root for that they, too, can be part of the story. I can lead by example. I can write in an everyday protagonist who has a mental illness or a physical deformity who lives an exciting life—because we do. We exist all over the world. We have always been here. We have a right to shine, too.