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Holly Smale | 'Change happens one story at a time, reminding the world what autism is from the inside' – The Bookseller

Holly Smale, bestselling author of the Geek Girl series, discusses how autistic characters, and authors, should no longer be seen as ‘niche’
So many young people have connected with Harriet for the different way her mind works and how she sees and interacts with the world. They love her because she’s autistic, even if they didn’t know it. I’m open about my own diagnosis because Harriet’s popularity is another step towards changing the conversation around autism, helping to destigmatise it. Autistic girls need to have someone they know and adore on their team. Through Harriet, I want them to be seen as the valuable, loveable, individual people they are. Change happens one story at a time, reminding the world what autism is from the inside.
Sadly, it’s not just girls and women. Autism studies have typically revolved around white cis males, so if you’re a person of colour, non-binary, trans, female, you’re likely to be missed. The outdated stereotype is so ingrained—it’s hard to find a prominent fictional autistic character that isn’t a white male who loves physics! Fiction is essential not just to highlight the wide and beautiful diversity of autistic people, but in allowing those who don’t fit the “mould” to feel included too.
I don’t think I’ve read an adult character who feels truly like me yet. There’s usually a sense that my neurology has been co-opted as “quirkiness” and some kind of “hook” or punchline. Children’s literature seems to be making great strides, yet autistic adults need to see themselves accurately portrayed too. Our life journeys are often different but there’s little to reflect that in fiction. The more open the book world is to autistic voices of all ages, the faster genuine representation can happen. 
If I’m specific, I’ve found people can be receptive. Small changes make a huge difference and they’re not difficult to implement, whether it’s virtual meetings, email interviews, longer processing time or clearer communication. The hardest part can be knowing what to ask for. Also, finding the courage to ask without judgement, or at a cost to our careers. After years of being labelled “difficult”, autistic people don’t want to be seen as trouble.
Historically, I’ve struggled, as it relies heavily on skills I don’t have. Promotion tends to wipe me out. I’ve been lucky that my publishers have always been supportive, but I do feel more comfortable speaking up now, from requesting longer breaks between events, smaller groups, a detailed schedule in advance, or even just a particularly quiet hotel if I’m staying away from home. The difference has already been immense.
We need to stop seeing autistic authors, and characters, as “niche”. We have fascinating, hugely valuable stories with potential bestseller appeal. Budding autistic writers may need additional support and accommodations, but there’s no reason they can’t have long, hugely successful careers without burning out in the process. Just make sure not to limit or dismiss them before they get there.
What we generally have in common is an ability to give a story a distinctive, fresh spin. We have often spent our lives studying people, and many of us prefer written communication to verbal, so we are leaning into our primary skill-set. We’re also often amazing at hyper-focus, detail and “scripting”. There’s a reason so many successful authors—potentially Virginia Woolf, Isaac Asimov—are considered to have been autistic. Our natural strengths tie in perfectly with the attributes of a great writer, so give us the appropriate tools and sit back and watch us flourish!
Issue No 5943
Friday, September 24 2021
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