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May 14, 2024

Disability and creativity - a lived experience story

Can autistic people write fiction? This may seem like a ridiculous question. It certainly was to me when I first heard it.

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Can autistic people write fiction?


This may seem like a ridiculous question. It certainly was to me when I first heard it. It challenged the understanding I have of myself, because I’m a fiction writer and I’m autistic. I found myself wondering if I had been wrong all these years, if I’d deluded myself into thinking I can write as well as anybody else.


After my diagnosis four years ago, I discovered that some people make assumptions about disability and creativity. There are ideas about what we can and can’t do: if you can’t hold a brush then you can’t paint; if you’re a wheelchair user then you can’t dance; if you’re autistic then you can’t imagine what other people think. The common thread with these beliefs is that there’s a ‘right’ way to be creative. I want to challenge that belief.


Disabled writers are becoming more visible. More and more books are being published by autistic authors, particularly memoirs by women, and this is wonderful. But what about fiction? It’s a misconception that autistic people are unable to be imaginative, and such misconceptions can be hurtful. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of revealing myself as autistic to a writing teacher, and the teacher then making assumptions about my cognitive abilities. I’ve spent a lot of time doubting myself, wondering if I’m missing something. I ask myself questions such as, are all my characters autistic? Am I incapable of writing a character that isn’t?


I’ve taken a lot of writing classes and read many books on the craft. I have an undergraduate degree in literary studies and a graduate degree in creative writing. I’ve been given so much advice and so many rules to follow. For me, and no doubt for other autistic people, following rules gives me comfort. If I’m unsure of the rules, or if I get them wrong, it’s distressing. But so much creative writing advice is incompatible with the way I think.


For example, there’s a belief that you ought to suffer for your art, feel what your characters feel. Yet I feel nothing when I write. I enjoy it, I get satisfaction from it, but I never feel what my characters feel. Maybe that’s alack of empathy, maybe not. But does it matter? I don’t think so. Another example is ‘show, don’t tell.’ This has its place, but it can be taken to extremes. It’s a struggle for me to come up with ways to show a character’s emotions, rather than just writing, ‘She felt sad.’ Sometimes it’s okay to be succinct, to tell the story in a simple way. As an autistic person, I appreciate brevity.


Sometimes I question whether my writing is publishable. If readers want an emotional journey, can I provide that? In my own life, when I don’t understand something or have trouble processing a situation, my first reaction is often anger or irritation. But that doesn’t necessarily transfer to a ‘likeable’ main character. I also think about the challenges that disabled authors already face.What happens if you can’t verbally pitch to an editor in the traditional way? Or if you struggle to comprehend and follow the detailed instructions required to submit to publishers? What if you’re physically unable to attend workshops or conferences or festivals?


Luckily, things are changing. More publishers are openly seeking a diverse range of authors, and programs such as 'writeability', run by Writers Victoria, are giving disabled writers the chance to connect with each other. I do think that for more autistic authors to publish fiction, there needs to be an understanding that we will approach it differently, and that it may look different, too.


This year I made the decision be open about my autism, and my chronic mental and physical health conditions. This is who I am. These things affect every aspect of my life, including the way I write. If I approach writing in the ‘wrong’ way, then so be it. I’ve started to let go of the rules and the advice I’ve received and do what works for me.


Creativity is often pushed out of us, treated as something juvenile and frivolous, but it’s a fundamental part of being human. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t write, or draw, or paint, or dance, or whatever it is that makes you creatively happy. We just have to remind the world that we might do things a bit differently, but that doesn’t make us wrong.

Tess Corbel is a writer from Melbourne. You can find her on Instagram @tesscorbel.

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