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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Chrysoula Tzavelas on Neurodiversity in Fiction

SpecialNeedsInStangeWorlds[1]As an Air Force kid, Chrysoula went to twelve schools in twelve years and spent a lot of time wondering what made people tick. Books, it turned out, helped with that question. These days she lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family, which includes many small and demanding creatures who fight over her attention. Her first book, urban fantasy Matchbox Girls, was published in 2012 by the small press Candlemark & Gleam, followed annually by two more books in the same Senyaza Series, all of which explore the impact of the supernatural on those who are— or who want to be— ordinary. Her next book, Citadel of the Sky, is the first of a new series about the descendants of a Chosen One and the legacy of power and mental illness they’ve inherited. It’s also about Dark Lords and kicking butt in nice dresses. It’s funding on Kickstarter right now.

Neurodiversity in Fiction

by Chrysoula Tzavelas

citadelWhen I first started work on Citadel of the Sky, I didn’t even know the word ‘neurodiversity.’ All I wanted to do was write about the characters who are so often reduced to problems and jokes, those character who are inserted as obstacles that more heroic sorts have to solve or navigate around. I wanted to find out what was involved with taking stock characters like that and making them into into heroes in their own right: The shallow privileged girl. The obsessive scientist. The paranoid guardian. People with depression, PTSD, dementia, avoidant personality, extreme intimacy problems, phobias. Autism.

A lot has happened since I first started that book. I had a son with autism. I learned about neurodiversity and accomodations. I started looking hard at myself and my own history with ADHD, among other things. It’s amazing how a change in perspective opens your eyes—and that happened not just with myself, but my fiction. And, in turn, looking at my story changed how I looked at the world.

In Citadel of the Sky, there’s a whole Royal Family full of people with a variety of mental disorders and atypicalities. They drew the short straw when it came to genetics, and it’s been going on for a long time. Now, in the real world when a royal family is prone to trouble, they tend not to last. There’s always somebody who can do the same job without putting as much of a burden on their court. But in Ceria, there are Reasons to keep the Royal Family around, despite their eccentricities. And those Reasons demand that the Royal Family not just be present, but functional (at least some of the time).

So. When I was creating this troubled family, not only did I have to think hard, but so did the people in my setting. The administrators and staff of this Royal family had to learn how to take those jokes and problems and help them excel as creative, competent people despite the traits that would normally make them mere obstacles.

Welcome to the idea of accommodation and the idea of making space for those who don’t easily fit in.

The administrators and aides who help the Royal Family stay functional are known as the Regency, and the very first rule they follow is to resist the desire to try to make the Royal Family conform to social norms. They do not try to fix them, only help them be competent and stay safe. One of the Royal cousins is autistic; she does not talk and she loves music. They do not try to make her talk. They help her make music. They would not expect correct spelling from a dyslexic. They do not expect those with overactive, wandering minds to focus on command. And for those with more intrinsically traumatic disorders, they try to minimize the possible harm while maintaining what makes them feel safe.

(It is very important not to make the Royal Family feel unsafe.)

In Ceria, the Regency has become adept at analyzing both the strengths and weaknesses of the Royal Family. They support the strengths just as they compensate for the weaknesses. And they assign companions to help. Each Royal has their Regent: a true friend who knows them and loves them, who is absolutely trustworthy, and who can help them navigate through choppy waters when skies get dark. (This could have been magic, and a perfectly reliable system. It’s fantasy, after all. But it’s not. Instead they use conditioning and training and children, with all the risks and ethical issues that brings along.)

And yeah, this is a bit of an idealized world. I realized that when I looked at it with some new perspective. But wouldn’t it be great if the real world operated the same way? If everybody who didn’t swim in the mainstream was given the support they needed to excel and feel safe? If the mainstream simply accepted that these other people existed and valued them as they were? What a lovely dream!

However, even in Ceria, the dispensation and tolerance granted to the Royal Family is only echoed faintly in other levels of society. It is not a perfect place and there are those who want to improve it. But still, looking at the microcosm of the Royal Palace felt like insight into how our world could also be. It’s a strange place, full of strange people. But they create beauty, and wonders, and solutions. It’s something to strive for and something very worth striving for.

(And then there’s the story itself, which is about what happens when those accommodations are stripped away….)

“Great-Uncle Jant’s Regent died of old age, and cousin Cathay’s Regent was thrown from his horse, and Uncle Yithiere’s Regent had a heart attack, but it was all just bad luck until the King’s Regent died. It took more than bad luck to tear somebody’s arm off. It took a fiend, or a team of horses, or somebody really spiteful.”

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Chrysoula Tzavelas on Neurodiversity in Fiction

  1. Such an amazing concept with the Royal Family and its regents. I’m anxious to read this one.

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