DiversifYA: Caitlin S. Jennings

CaitlinToday, DiversifYA is happy to welcome Caitlin S. Jennings to the blog! Caitlin is a YA, NA, and Flash Fiction Writer, represented by Andrea Somberg at Harvey Klinger, Inc. Her writing has appeared (or is forthcoming) in multiple publications including The Alarmist, The Binnacle, Crunchable, Jersey Devil Press, and Northern Virginia Magazine. She’s also editorial manager for Science & Diplomacy. So basically, she does pretty much anything and everything with words 😉

Caitlin tweets here, blogs here, and you can find her website here!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Shy, except when I’m talking too much; dorky, except when I’m trying to play it cool; and creative, except when I have “blank page” nightmares.

2. What did it feel like growing up with an auditory processing disorder?

I think a lot of kids who are identified as having learning disabilities early in life feel grateful for it later in life. I had a fantastic second grade teacher who realized I was in no way living up to my potential. I got the help I needed and by high school I was doing so well I stopped receiving individualized assistance.

However, when you’re pulled out of your elementary school classes most afternoons to go to a special classroom, it feels weird. You feel weird. You feel like there is something wrong with you. Some people tell you there is something wrong with you. They tell you you are different.

That can be very isolating.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

I’ve adjusted to most aspects of it, but still have a tiny bit of trouble talking on the phone. I can do it, it’s just not that fun for me. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I pieced together this was likely related to my LD. Apparently, I subconsciously fill in a lot of visual cues (small adjustments in facial expressions, etc.) when someone is talking and, on the phone, I obviously lack those visual clues. I often have to ask people to repeat what they said or clarify things, which I’m sure is a little annoying. Basically, though, I just find it far less enjoyable than exchanging quirky lines in emails or sitting and chatting with someone as we bob heads and enunciate with our hands.

However, I’ve got some wonderful long distance friends who are completely worth catching up with via phone too, and, fortunately, they are patient with me. 🙂

As for perks, I like that I take in the world a little differently. I like that, because I may not have been as strong at verbally communicating, I splashed eagerly into reading and writing, and those have been wonderful outlets for me. I’ve grown to realize that being labeled as “dumb” in elementary school lit a fire in my otherwise scarcely competitive belly, and I worked harder in school, and strove for bigger goals, than I probably would have otherwise.

4. What do you wish people knew about having an auditory processing disorder?

What it’s like, so I’ll try to explain. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s similar to dyslexia, where you can have great vision, but the “problem” arises in how your brain processes things.

On that note, I had trouble wrapping my mind around what it must be like to be dyslexic (because I take such comfort in seeing things, as opposed to hearing them), until junior year of high school. One of my teachers who knew I was LD told me I might want to look into the different adjustments LD students can get when taking the SATs. Not knowing the nature of my LD, she said, for example, that the test could be read to me.

I remember feeling sick to my stomach at the thought. I actually enjoyed taking tests (I was a nerd) and liked streaming through the questions and ticking them off in the scantron as swiftly as I could. Like it was a game. But the idea of only being able to hear the questions, not see them, terrified me. Then I felt even worse realizing that written tests (i.e., the majority of tests) are that way for dyslexics. 🙁

On a lighter note, my family’s favorite story that they feel illuminates my unique way of seeing, or hearing, the world is when my mom and sister found my packing list in fifth grade for a trip to the lake. They first teased me because I misspelled noodles (those things you sit on in the water and pretend you’re riding your own personal lake horse.) I was not at all surprised I misspelled noodles because my spelling was atrocious (thanks to aforementioned learning disability), so I continued packing. Then, my mom looked at the list more closely and asked, “What are alphets?”

I said, you know, like when a pair of shorts goes really well with a shirt; I’m going to pack a few sets of alphets.

My sister and mom blinked a few times and then could not help giggling (in a warm and fuzzy way). “Caitlin, you mean outfits.”

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

There’s a lot of confusion over the connection between learning disabilities and intelligence. People think LD is synonymous with “dumb.” In fact, many kids with learning disabilities are “discovered” because they score very high on IQ tests but aren’t succeeding in the classroom.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

I think, like with any diversifying attribute, be careful not to make it the whole person. Certainly having a learning disability is going to affect someone, perhaps in a positive way by building character or additional motivation, or perhaps in a negative way if they are still struggling with misconceptions or their ability to find strategies to work around their disability. But, like any other person, they’ll also have a host of other attributes that make up who they are.

I have read books, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, where neurodiversity is an extremely prominent aspect of the book, and that’s great, but it’s rare to see characters with learning disabilities that aren’t all-encompassing. For these types of characters, it’s important to remember that their disability may not even be evident to most people. It may not even be evident to the character, but it would certainly affect them none-the-less.

In that vein, I love the scene in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl when Reagan and Cath are fighting over themselves, trying to explain to the other that Levi (who has trouble reading) is not dumb, until they realize they’re arguing the same point. And I’m very excited for Megan Erikson’s Make it Count about a character who discovers she has a learning disability in college. 

There’s definitely some room for exploration when it comes to LD characters.

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