DiversifYA: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

LynOne of the fantastic things about DiversifYA is that it doesn’t just give us such a wildly varied perspective of the world, sometimes interviews also introduce me to books that have completely slipped under my radar. ROGUE, by today’s guest Lyn Miller-Lachmann (twitter), is such a book. I can’t wait to read it, and if it’s anything like Lyn’s interview, it will be absolutely amazing. So give it up for Lyn! 😀

1. How do you identify yourself?

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, as an adult, but I always knew I was different. As a child and teenager, I had trouble making and keeping friends, understanding the rules of social situations, and distinguishing whether someone was lying or being sarcastic. I also cried at the slightest provocation and had meltdowns when the frustrations mounted. At the same time, I had near-perfect grades, a huge vocabulary, and an amazing memory for facts.

2. What did it feel like growing up with Asperger’s?

I had a very difficult childhood and adolescence. I wanted friends, and I usually pounced on the new kids at my school, hoping they’d become my friends, but they soon drifted away like all the ones before them. Because I reacted to taunts, my classmates often teased me for sport—watching me cry or melt down became their entertainment. Otherwise, I was rather isolated and spent a lot of time reading. As a result, I came to read very advanced books at a young age, though I didn’t always understand the books I read on an emotional level.

Because I always found myself on the outside looking into a world I labored to understand, I began to make up friends and put them into stories. This gave me control. For instance, in first grade, I invented an entire classroom of twenty-four kids, gave them names, and decided which ones were good students, which ones got into trouble all the time, what they liked to play with, and who was friends with whom. The following year, my mother gave me a typewriter. I began to put my stories on paper and never stopped.

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

My biggest challenges still have to do with social interactions. I am uncomfortable in crowds and in professional settings, and I don’t connect well in terms of networking. Now that authors have to handle so much of the promotion themselves, I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, since I’m the kind of person who couldn’t sell lemonade in a desert (and I have a long record of being fired from sales positions to prove it). I wish this weren’t so, because people with neurological differences have much to contribute and valuable perspectives to share. For instance, as someone on the autism spectrum, I have given my protagonist in Rogue, Kiara, an authentic voice and a very real yearning to find her place in the world. I have struggled to find this place my entire life.

That said, there are some real perks to having Asperger’s. I’m very good at pulling together a lot of disparate information, thoughts, and themes, which I believe gives my writing originality and a certain richness. I enjoy doing research in my areas of special interest, something that served me well in the 22 years it took me to write and publish my award winning YA novel Gringolandia, about a refugee from Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship trying to connect with his father, a torture survivor. I’m very good at learning languages, and before publishing my YA novels, Gringolandia and Rogue, I compiled several important multicultural bibliographies for educators and librarians and served as the editor-in-chief of the professional journal MultiCultural Review. I consider myself a student of diverse cultures because to me every culture is a different culture. I have to study, learn, and practice social rules, and doing so gives me the opportunity to compare and contrast these rules among cultures.

4. What do you wish people knew about having Asperger’s?

That having Asperger’s is not a deficit, but a difference. It involves a different way of thinking about the world. I’ve struggled with the need to adapt to the way neurotypical people think and behave, but I wish others would recognize our strengths and what we have to offer. In Rogue, Kiara sees herself as a mutant like the X-Men—though cast out of society, the X-Men have special powers that can save society, and they hope that by using their special powers for good, they will be accepted for who they are.

Today, the vast majority of people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed (unemployment and dependency are the central themes of Beverly Brenna’s powerful Wild Orchid trilogy for YA and NA readers), and teens on the spectrum are four times more likely to be suspended from school (as Kiara is) or end up in the school-to-prison pipeline. There is a lot of talent going to waste here, folks.

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

There’s a saying, “When you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism.” Autism manifests itself differently in every person, and special interests are as varied as the people who have them. After a spate of books that featured characters obsessed with trains, I found refreshing Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, with its protagonist who explores world religions and uses what he learns to make a critical moral choice.

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

Be aware of your baggage. That includes your reasons for writing diverse characters, whether you’re a cultural insider, you have a family or close personal connection (such as the parent of a child with autism or someone married to a person from another culture), or you have no personal connection to the culture at all. I have written as both an insider in Rogue and an outsider in Gringolandia, and I feel that both perspectives have strengths and limitations. Much has been made of the limitations of outsiders and mistakes they have made, but it’s sometimes hard for an insider to see how others may perceive someone like him or her, and there are temptations not to hang out the dirty laundry. I debated sanitizing some of Kiara’s behavior, lest her tendency to use fists and hard objects when words fail her and the slights small and large pile up gets all of us labeled anti-social, emotionally disturbed, and violence prone. It’s important for writers to be honest and readers to recognize that there isn’t one single perspective but stories that both insiders and outsiders (at least ones who have done their homework) can tell.

5 Responses to DiversifYA: Lyn Miller-Lachmann

  1. You sound like an awesome person and I can’t wait to read your books! Btw, thanks for the advice!

  2. I remember seeing your name and picture in The Jewish World newspaper of Albany when I used to work there! I think I might’ve even written or helped with writing one of the articles we ran about you and your books. Kudos to you for coming out of the closet about having Asperger’s as an adult. It seems easier to just continue letting people think you’re just shy, eccentric, odd, etc., instead of letting them know the real reason for certain behaviors. I’ve barely told anyone in my family or circle of friends since getting diagnosed in July 2009, at age 29. I figure I worked really hard to blend in and pass for normal, and don’t want a return to being “that weird kid” like I was for most of elementary school.

    I kind of always knew, even before I knew, and getting diagnosed as an adult was more for my peace of mind than solving a continued puzzle. I guess there were both pros and cons to having grown up before this condition had a name.

  3. So interesting, Lyn. Thanks for sharing this! I’ve been thinking about the lines between difference and disability a lot lately, so this was poignant to me.

  4. Hi, Carrie-Anne! You all published a very nice article for Gringolandia when it appeared several years ago.

    I didn’t tell anyone about having Asperger’s for a long time either, except my husband because he knew of the job difficulties that led to my diagnosis. Writing a novel with a protagonist on the spectrum pretty much required my coming out in a very public way. While I was comfortable doing so at the time I signed the contract with my publisher, I’m concerned that it will also restrict my future employment possibilities in case the writing gig doesn’t work out. That’s why I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported my writing, because I have two other YA novels ready for submission and a middle grade novel I’m working on now and I’d like to be able to continue doing this.

    I agree with you on the pros and cons of growing up before Asperger’s had a name. Nowadays, having the label does offer some protection against bullying and some access to appropriate counseling and social skills training. At the same time, trying to make it in the real world without help has offered me learning experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and my time in the School of Hard Knocks has certainly given me material for my writing.